LAKES REU Students Explore Health of Red Cedar Watershed

By Abbey Goers, UW-Stout

Eleven students from universities across the nation conducted research this summer to understand and improve the health of the Red Cedar watershed, which is affected by eutrophication – phosphorus and nitrogen pollution, causing blue-green algae blooms and dissolved oxygen levels.

LAKES students (from right) Abby Cullen, Sahi Chundu, Cody Lundquist and Nallely Lepiz-Madrigal learn about soil health / Chris Ferguson, LAKES co-director

UW-Stout professors led the LAKES REU students in their research across anthropology, psychology, biology and engineering disciplines. The LAKES students and mentors presented their research to community members during an open house in August.

LAKES student Abby Cullen is an environmental science senior at UW-Stout and Menomonie community member.

“The issues facing Lake Menomin have caught my attention and curiosity. I am mainly interested in the effects agriculture, from conventional to regenerative, has on land, water and wildlife,” Cullen said. “I am particularly interested in entomology and pollinator ecology, both in manmade landscapes and natural landscapes.”

She has studied why farmers do or do not implement certain management practices, such as no-till and cover crops, and sifted through data to explore land management practices and how they affect soil and nutrient runoff.

“My research experience has been very eye-opening. Working with qualitative data is very different from quantitative data, and it has been a great, new experience for me,” Cullen said.

The Red Cedar watershed is nearly 1,900 square miles and includes parts of Barron, Burnett, Chippewa, Dunn, Pierce, Polk, Rusk, Sawyer, St. Croix and Washburn counties. It features approximately 40,000 acres of open water and approximately 4,900 miles of rivers and streams.

LAKES REU and UW-Madison student Laura Flucke visits a Menomonie area farm / Laura Flucke

UW-Madison environmental science senior Laura Flucke agrees and enjoys collaborating with students across various fields.

“LAKES allows me to gain interdisciplinary problem-solving skills that will improve the way I understand and address problems in the future. I have received valuable insight into how scientific research is conducted, as well as improved analytical skills, which I can use regardless of career,” Flucke said.

Flucke, of Overland Park, Kan., is also studying cartography and geographic information systems. Her interests are centered around water quality and freshwater ecosystems, particularly relating to nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms, she said.

Her LAKES research focuses on the nutrient runoff from croplands that impacts the quality of the watershed.

“Using GIS, I have identified croplands that are more prone to nutrient runoff, due to variables such as slope of the land. Conversion of these croplands to pasture could reduce nutrient runoff in areas that would make the greatest impact,” Flucke said.

Cullen hopes that open house attendees will understand the complexities of eutrophication and the large-scale, community effort it will take to remediate nutrient pollution in Lake Menomin.

While she sees flaws in the current agricultural system, from an ecological and human perspective, she believes the general public often blames agriculture alone.

“Although it plays a part, there are many factors that affect eutrophication, including the geomorphic features of the watershed, lawn fertilization and leaking septic tanks,” Cullen said. “There is no simple solution. If we want to see real change in the agricultural system today, there needs to be increased assistance and funding for farmers across the board. There are changes that can be made that benefit farmers, the land and the watershed.”

Senior Lecturer Arthur Kneeland (center, back) with LAKES students (from left) Evelyn Dyer, Sahi Chundu, Nallely Lepiz-Madrigal and Abby Cullen. / Tina Lee, LAKES co-director

Cullen will graduate in December and is applying to graduate school and exploring job options. She plans to earn her graduate degree in entomology and study pollinator ecology. She feels that the undergraduate research experience is valuable for her future endeavors.

LAKES REU 2022 students are from universities across nine states. The program was founded at UW-Stout in 2014. It is funded by the National Science Foundation and by a recent $29,382 grant from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin to provide hands-on training to undergraduates.

Applications for Research Semester Abroad in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico Due Aug. 26

Want to explore one of the most unique aquatic ecosystems in the world? Join the School of Freshwater Sciences’ International Research Experience for Students this fall. The program provides an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students at any higher education institution to enroll in a field research experience in the Southern Yucatán Peninsula at the Laguna Bacalar International Research Station on the campus of CREN Normal College in Bacalar Mexico. Credit and non-credit options available.

Acceptance will be on a rolling basis until filled with final notifications no later than August 26, 2022.

More about the program and application process. 

This experience is provided by the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee through the support of the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program.

Multidisciplinary Water Exploration in Western Wisconsin

Watch the video created by the UW-Eau Claire communication team.

Nine undergraduates from UW-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls spent an intensive two weeks in June exploring and conducting research in rivers, watershed and creeks through enrollment in a new Western Wisconsin Advanced Freshwater Science field course.

Funded by the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, the hands-on field course is a collaboration among UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls, UW-Stout and UW Oshkosh that brought together instructors with expertise in geology, biology, environmental science, geography and agricultural science to provide a unique opportunity for students majoring in degrees related to freshwater science. The students involved included biology, ecology, environmental geography and environmental science majors.

The goal was to create a field experience involving skills and tools used across a variety of freshwater science disciplines. Maggie Guetschow, environmental geography major at UW-Eau Claire, appreciated the multidisciplinary approach.

“You’re going to have to have collaboration between fields in order to solve these really complex issues that we’re looking at with our environment,” she says. “It’s very important and incredible to have a course like this that you can have so many people with so many different pieces of expertise that they’re able to give us and give us background in their different areas of study.”

Sarah Vitale, an assistant professor at UW-Eau Claire and the lead instructor, says this type of course didn’t previously exist within a traditional degree curriculum.

“There are always limitations to what an individual department or institution can offer, and the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin is breaking those barriers, allowing us to build something beneficial for students and faculty in the UW system,” Vitale says.

Vitale says the instructors were impressed with the level of student engagement and positive attitudes — even when it was pouring rain and cold. Students participated in a diverse number of field experiences during the eight-day course, including:

  • bacteria sampling and culture analysis in Lake Menomin
  • exploring urban Galloway Creek restoration site
  • touring land use practices in the Red Cedar Watershed
  • water quality sampling and biotic index analysis in Gilbert Creek
  • hydrogeologic field assessment in the South Fork Kinnickinnic River
  • an up-close tour of the River Falls Agriculture practices
  • building and installing lysimeters
  • water quality assessment and fish counts in Pine Lake, the Little Niagra Creek and Beaver Creek
  • exploring phytoremediation practices at WRR Environmental

Not only did students benefit from the range of experiences and the multidisciplinary approach, but they gained perspective about their future career options.

“It really helps me get a feel for what kinds of opportunities I can have when I graduate, and also it helps me figure out what I like to do and what I don’t like to do,” says Sydney Schermerhorn, an ecology and environmental biology major at UW-Eau Claire. “That’s also really helpful in finding a career path that I want to go into.”

High Schoolers Explore Research and Careers at Freshwater Camp

As the school year cooled down, Freshwater Camp at UW-Parkside and UW-Whitewater was heating up. High school juniors and seniors from Wisconsin and northern Illinois took part in a week-long exploration of freshwater careers while enjoying recreational opportunities that Wisconsin’s waterways provide.

“Freshwater Camp provided the opportunity for students to visit a variety of freshwater habitats, gain hands-on experience paddling, use a variety of equipment to sample aquatic macroinvertebrates, fish and water quality parameters, and to meet with professionals who work in water-related careers,” says Elisabeth Harrahy, an associate professor at UW-Whitewater who designed the course with Jessica Orlofske, an associate professor at UW-Parkside.

Many students in southeastern Wisconsin high schools, particularly those from underserved communities, aren’t aware of the vast array of options available to them to study and to obtain a career in a water-related field. One of the camp’s goals was to raise awareness and provide access to students who may not have the means to participate in this kind of experience. Funding from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin gave 18 high school students the opportunity to attend the camp and provided free dormitory housing, meals and transportation throughout their stay.

After dropping off their gear in the UW-Parkside dorms Monday morning, the students headed for the Root River Environmental Education Community Center for kayaking and water testing. After lunch, the campers learned about water quality testing before heading back to campus.

“This was my first time kayaking and I really enjoyed that. I am excited to be able to learn in an outdoors environment,” says Adam Turner, a student from Whitefish Bay High School, who echoed the sentiments of many of his fellow campers.

While some of the students came to the camp for a bit of fun, other campers like Hayley Tench from Harborside Academy in Kenosha attended the camp with specific reasons in mind.

Freshwater Camp student Hayley Tench finds a crayfish in Bluff Creek. (UW-Whitewater photos/Craig Schreiner)

“I wanted to come to Freshwater Camp because I want to go into environmental conservation, and I believe a background in wildlife and fisheries would be a good thing to have and I thought it would be a fun thing to do for the summer,” she says. Hayley’s future plans fit perfectly with the objectives of the free camp.

Day two included fish and invertebrate sampling on the Pike River in the morning, which was of particular interest to Numa Khan, a recent graduate of Warren Township High School.

“I attended the camp because I thought it would be fun and I already took an environmental science course and enjoyed it, so I wanted to continue learning about it. I am most excited to learn more about fish and invertebrates,” she says. For Hayley, it was learning about electrofishing that is used to capture fish for sampling and doing counts.

In the afternoon, it was off to the lab to learn about macroinvertebrates with camp directors Orlofske and Harrahy. Students also learned about water chemistry.

“Throughout the camp, students became comfortable working in waders, learned to identify several types of aquatic invertebrates used for routine regulatory monitoring; performed basic water analysis; and discussed the importance of experimental controls, randomization and protocol standardization,” Orlofske says. “Many of these skills apply to all areas and fields of science, but are especially important for studies of our freshwater ecosystems.”

On Wednesday, the campers toured Samuel Myers Park and North Beach Park in Racine before heading to UW-Whitewater for the second half of the camp.

High school students Maya Dawson, left, Joel Christensen and Zoe Mauk work on a water flea toxicity experiment. (UW-Whitewater photos/Craig Schreiner)
High school students Maya Dawson, left, Joel Christensen and Zoe Mauk work on a water flea toxicity experiment. (UW-Whitewater photos/Craig Schreiner)

Thursday morning found the Freshwater Camp students setting up an aquatic toxicity test to determine the effects of caffeine on survival of water fleas. They then visited Whitewater Lake in the Kettle Moraine State Forest where they discussed the importance of shoreland restoration, collected phytoplankton and zooplankton samples using Kemmerer samplers and plankton nets, and measured water quality parameters using test strips, meters and a Secchi disk.

In the afternoon, they visited Bluff Creek State Natural Area where they collected aquatic macroinvertebrates using nets and a Hess sampler, measured current velocity and various water quality parameters, and learned how to apply the Citizen Monitoring Biotic Index to assess the health of the stream. After dinner, they played video games, air hockey and table tennis or bowled at Warhawk Alley in the UW-Whitewater Student Center.

On Friday, the students visited Beulah Bog State Natural Area where they hiked into the bog, learned about this unique type of wetland, and observed three different types of carnivorous plants. In the afternoon, they spent some time in the laboratory breaking down their toxicity test and examining their plankton and macroinvertebrate samples before heading home.

“We hope to have opened these students’ eyes to the importance of protecting our many water resources, the possibility of pursuing a career in a water-related field and what the UW system campuses have to offer in these areas,” Harrahy says. “Above all, we hope the students had a great time and enjoyed interacting with each other.”

This article was co-written by Laura Mason, UW-Parkside, and Heidi Jeter, Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin.

Wild Rice, Watershed Restoration and Hands-on High School Learning 

As a first-year science teacher at Aldo Leopold Community School in Green Bay, Wis., Mark Valentine was looking for experts to help him teach lessons about our environment and ecosystems. He found the perfect way to fulfill this goal: growing wild rice in the classroom. 

Valentine was one of 17 teachers and more than 400 students from 14 schools who participated in the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay’s Wild Rice in the Classroom program during the 2021-2022 school year. The program engages local teachers and K-12 students in conservation efforts that enhance native wetland plant communities in the Bay of Green Bay coastal wetlands and beyond.

Students from Aldo Leopold Community School were eager to plant the rice they grew in their classrooms.

Teachers are given all the materials — lights, buckets, growing medium and wild rice seed — to successfully grow the rice. They also learn about the historical, cultural and ecological importance of Manoomin (wild rice in Ojibwe).   

“The students and I learned so much about the importance of wild rice for indigenous people and the ecosystem where it grows,” Valentine says. “It felt extra special to be a part of the process of helping to restore this plant to the watershed.” 

In May 2022, UW-Green Bay staff and students hosted a series of field trips to L.H. Barkhausen Waterfowl Preserve in Suamico, Wis., where teachers and more than 100 students transplanted their plants as part of a wetland restoration effort. In addition, students learned about freshwater turtles and met a painted turtle education ambassador, participated in a nature walk, and engaged in an interactive activity with Atlas Science Center staff to simulate the environmental and economic impacts of invasive species. 

“Students were able to actively participate in the growing and planting of a native species to combat a non-native. This activity gave them a sense of ownership of their environment and what they did does matter,” says Lynn Ponto, a teacher at Weyauwega-Fremont High School Science in Weyauwega, Wis. “Being able to plant under the guidance of professionals allowed them to feel the importance of protecting the diversity in our environment.” 

Students also learned about diverse water science career experiences. Valentine says listening to UW-Green Bay students share their stories about pursuing degrees and careers in the natural resources inspired his students.  

“Many of my science students dream of following similar paths in the future!” he says. 

The field trips were supported by UW-Green Bay’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology, Atlas Science Center, Brown County Parks, and Ducks Unlimited, with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program and NEW Water.  

This year, the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin provided funding to UW-Green Bay to expand the program and further develop an educator network that will link water-related research activities in the region; help teachers share curriculum, best practices, data and resources; and fuel continued engagement in water science and student career development. 

These kinds of collaborations are important to Dave Landers, a sixth-grade science teacher at Pulaski Community Middle School in Pulaski, Wis., and Kelly Koller, technology integration specialist at Bay View Middle School in Green Bay. They facilitate an after-school program called Great Lakes Explorers, which connects students to the Great Lakes watershed. The wild rice program was a fantastic activity for the group.

Students learned about wild rice and ecosystems in various ways throughout the school year. Photo courtesy Dave Landers.

“Students really enjoyed planting our wild rice at Barkhausen, learning more about the cultural and scientific significance of wild rice in our area and doing other ecosystem-related activities,” Koller says.   

 Landers says place-based experiences engage and empower students to better understand the ecosystem, gain a cultural perspective and then take action within their local watersheds. It could also prompt them to explore water-related careers. 

“One of the highlights was surely putting on the rubber boots and getting their hands wet and feet dirty as they seeded and later planted the wild rice,” he says. “This experience is a great example of using the outdoor learning classroom to foster and engage students’ natural curiosity and wonder.”   


UW Students Dive Into Hands-on Research in Bacalar, Mexico

Laguna Bacalar, Mexico’s second largest natural lake, is one of the most unique freshwater lakes on Earth. Part of an important ecological corridor, ranging from tropical forest to the Caribbean Sea, it is also threatened by economic development.

Last spring, six students from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and one from the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater found out what it was like to study this one-of-a-kind ecosystem. They participated in a freshwater field experience established by the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences with support from the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Students (IRES) Program. (For information on the fall 2022 semester experience, click here).

Rachel Clark, an undergraduate from UW-Milwaukee, shares her hydrology mapping research with students at the Normal School.

The students — undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in diverse degree programs — spent six weeks conducting collaborative field research in Bacalar. Research topics ranged from mangrove forest biometrics to water quality mapping map to submerged vegetation analysis and more. Their research was overseen by scientists from ECOSUR, a public scientific research center focused on sustainable development in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

“I felt so incredibly lucky to have this experience and collaborate with such knowledgeable and experienced faculty and local agency leaders,” says Rachel Clark, an undergraduate student in the Environmental Engineering program at UWM. “I was able to practice my Spanish and be in a wonderful culture in an incredibly unique ecosystem.”

Faculty from UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences have been conducting research in Bacalar for years and had developed connections with the CREN Normal College, a teaching college in Bacalar. The NSF support allowed them to establish the Laguna Bacalar International Research Station and what will be an ongoing semester abroad experience for students enrolled at higher education institutions in Wisconsin and beyond.

“We now have a nice classroom and lab space at the Normal College,” says Jerry Kaster, professor emeritus at the School of Freshwater Sciences and the principal investigator on the NSF grant.

Last March, Kaster, fellow emeritus professors Val Klump and Tim Grundl, and Marissa Jablonski, executive director for the Freshwater Collaborative, traveled to Bacalar to sign the official documents for the program, set up the lab and introduce the UW students to scientists and mentors in Bacalar.

“Conducting research in a unique ecosystem, like Bacalar, is an amazing hands-on learning experience for students,” Jablonski says. “We look forward to promoting this program to UW students through the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin.”

Amaranta Ramos Sánchez, an English teacher at the Normal School, was instrumental in organizing interactions between the UW students who were conducting field research and students from the Normal School who are training to become teachers.

The UW students learned how to better explain their research, and the Normal School students were able to practice their English language knowledge. At the end of the semester, students were paired up to create final presentations for each research project.

“The event was a big success, and all the students felt satisfied and proud of their performance and achievements. The linguistic and cultural exchange between the students proved to be a unique experience,” says Ramos Sanchez, who hopes to brainstorm additional ways to integrate the students during the semester.

For Maddie Burclaw, a marine biology major at UW-Whitewater who is considering future conservation work with the Peace Corps or the United Nations, the scope of the academic and cultural exchange was invaluable.

UW-Whitewater Maddie Burclaw appreciated the cultural exchange with students in Mexico.

“I’ve learned skills such as how to use different types of lab equipment, how to communicate on a cross-cultural level, and how to use my skills as a scientist and a humanist in order to brainstorm action plans for sustainable development,” she says.

With the program up and running, students will be able to participate in this study abroad exchange each fall semester. Applications for fall 2022 are being accepted June 1 to August 26. For information on the fall 2022 semester experience, click here.

Students Add Muscle to WDNR’s Mussel Monitoring Program

The ability to design and implement a species population survey is an essential skill for a water scientist — as is knowing how to analyze and present the findings to diverse audiences.

Through a grant from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, 10 undergraduates at UW-Platteville learned these valuable skills — and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) gained valuable information about native freshwater mussel populations in southwestern Wisconsin. The research could also provide valuable insight into agricultural water management, one of the 10 Grand Water Challenges identified by the Freshwater Collaborative and the Wisconsin State Legislature.

“The presence or absence of mussel diversity, when paired with our water chemistry and physical habitat sampling, will certainly provide insight on the success of local agriculture water management and water quality safety initiatives,” says Dr. Rebecca Doyle-Morin, principal investigator on the project.

Students evaluated multiple river systems, including the Platte, Grant, Rountree Branch, Pecatonica and Bonner Branch, along with a series of trout streams in northern Grant. They looked for mussels and completed habitat and biotic surveys for each. The even discovered an unknown population of mussels in the restored Sunfish Lake in Hazel Green and assessed that population and its seasonal habitat and biotic community.

The field work was guided by numerous water professionals. Staff from the WDNR helped students design and execute mussel surveys. Dr. Kris Wright, a river ecologist and instructor at UW-Platteville, showed students how to assess fish populations and habitats. In the lab, students identified and quantified aquatic organisms, conducted extensive data analysis and learned how to effectively clean and preserve mussel shells for outreach and educational purposes.

“This research helps fill information gaps within watersheds that contain state and federally protected mussel species,” says Jesse Weinzinger, a conservation biologist for the WDNR’s Wisconsin Mussel Monitoring Program who worked with the students. “These places supporting mussels and their habitat can provide important information and maximize opportunities for successful conservation.”

Students also worked with the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, to set up monitoring silos for mussel habitat relocation. They engaged with the public at the Upper Sugar River Mussel Monitoring Workshop and spoke at a virtual workshop during Wisconsin Water Week. Students also presented their research at various seminars, including Research in the Rotunda at the State Capitol.

UW-Platteville students presented their research at Research in the Rotunda in

“It was really cool to learn about the different techniques; taking measurements from kayaks was definitely interesting. I learned a lot of skills that will help in the future,” says Jeremy Kohler, one of the students who presented at Research in the Rotunda in March.

All three of the undergraduates who participated in the first year of the project have graduated and begun jobs related to their majors. Kohler, who is a junior at UW-Platteville and participated in the second year of the project, plans to complete an internship working with fisheries before graduation.

Student training on this project won’t end with this grant — Doyle-Morin and Wright recently received a new grant from the Freshwater Collaborative to continue the work with additional students this summer.

“This research has and is providing students with the research experiences they need to be competitive and prepared for entering the workforce directly following graduation from UW-Platteville,” Doyle-Morin says.

Students on this project shared their experience in a video posted on the UW-Platteville Biology Department Facebook page

Student Research Leads to Love of Fish and a Job

Working on a freshwater research project changed Faune Fisher’s career path. The Environmental Science major at UW-Whitewater was planning to work in environmental advocacy. After conducting research under the mentorship of Associate Professor Elisabeth Harrahy, Fisher caught the research bug.

“Now I want to be on the science side doing the work,” says Fisher, who will graduate in May 2022 and begin a job as a quality manager at Epic Systems in Verona, Wis.

Getting into the field gave Faune Fisher an opportunity to study the science side of environmental issues.

Her research in Harrahy’s lab looked at whether two commonly used insecticides affect aquatic invertebrates and built upon the findings of two previous undergraduates who were funded by the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin.

Neonicotinoid insecticides have been detected in streams, and aquatic invertebrates may be at risk from exposure. Although some studies have examined the impacts of individual insecticides, little research has been conducted on the effects of exposure to a mixture of insecticides, which is what often happens in real-world settings.

Fisher studied acute and chronic toxicity of a mixture of two neonicotinoids, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, on water fleas and amphipods, which are critical to aquatic ecosystems. The insecticide mixture didn’t seem to affect survival or reproduction in the water fleas; however, it did decrease survival of amphipods. Interestingly, most amphipods died after the standard four-day exposure/observation period, which indicates additional research is warranted to study possible delayed effects. The researchers also recommend conducting future toxicity tests that include environmentally realistic concentrations.

Fisher presented her findings at Research in the Rotunda and the UW System Symposium for Undergraduate Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity. The project enabled her to gain valuable hands-on skills in the field and in the lab.

“My favorite part of the project was going into the streams. I learned I really like fish!” she says.

After she gains experience in the workforce, she plans to attend graduate school, likely for a master’s degree in soil science where she intends to combine research in freshwater and soil.

High Schoolers Jump Into Freshwater Science

What’s the best way to get high school students interested in water sciences? Get their feet wet, literally. That’s just what 14 students did last summer when they participated in the Freshwater Science Summer Field Experience, funded by a grant through the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin.

Spearheaded by Dr. J. Brian Mahoney, geology professor at UW-Eau Claire, the summer short course involved experiences led by faculty from UW-Eau Claire, UW Oshkosh, UW-River Falls and UW-Stout. Funding from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin allowed students to participate at no cost. They also had the option to pay tuition to earn two college credits at one of the participating institutions.

Biology professor Dave Lonzarich electrofishing to catalog fish in Little Niagra Creek. Students (L:R) Owen Wiggen, Gabe Girard, Willow Anderson, Quienten Anger
Biology professor Dave Lonzarich electrofishing to catalog fish in Little Niagra Creek. Students (L:R) Owen Wiggen, Gabe Girard, Willow Anderson, Quienten Anger

Over the course of six days, students kayaked on Halfmoon Lake to explore the fish and wetlands; studied the hydrogeology and biology of the rivers running through UW-Eau Claire’s campus; visited the Minnesota Zoo to look at invasive species with faculty from UW-River Falls; traveled to Door County to research Great Lakes beaches and contamination and run lab tests with UW Oshkosh faculty; and investigated algal blooms and stream flows in Menomonie with UW-Stout faculty.

“We tried to introduce the students to as many different aspects of freshwater science as we could,” Mahoney says. “We kind of fire-hosed these kids, and they soaked it up. They loved it.”

For Emma Johnson, a senior at Memorial High School in Eau Claire, the program opened her eyes to the career possibilities she can pursue with her post-secondary education. Johnson is considering a degree in environmental science and learned about the program through her high school science teacher. She was immediately interested.

Emma Johnson and Maddy Knauff measure groundwater properties a UW Eau Claire well field.
Emma Johnson and Maddy Knauff measure groundwater properties at a UW Eau Claire well field.

“It seemed like a really great opportunity to learn a lot about something that’s so valuable to us, especially in Wisconsin,” she says. “Water is such an important resource that we are always going to need to maintain. There’s always going to be jobs in that area.”

Her favorite experience was going to Door County to research microplastics in Lake Michigan. She appreciated that she was able to conduct the same kind of research and testing that a college student would — and that it was applicable.

“It was applying general ideas to the real world. That’s what environmental sciences is about,” she says. “I had a lot of new opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to have experienced without taking this course.”

A bonus was that participating in the program gave Johnson insight into what life as a college student would be like.

“This gave me an idea of how to communicate with professors and ask them questions,” Johnson says. “It wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be. The professors were there to help you. I was very free to learn.”

Mahoney has wanted to create a program to help recruit high school students to UW-Eau Claire and connect to nearby universities. The summer course provided students the opportunity to visit four UW campuses and learn from 11 faculty members and two undergraduate mentors. The feedback was beyond expectations, and the group hopes to continue the course, with a different institution taking the lead each year.

“This kind of collaboration is exactly what we’ve been talking about with the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin,” Mahoney says. “We’re hoping this will be a model for other institutions to do similar collaborative efforts.”

Mentorship and Insecticide Insight

Austin Draper never considered a career in freshwater science. Although he was an extremely curious kid — and asked a lot of questions about nature, particularly fish — he struggled academically in high school. After graduation, he attended community college to explore his interests.  

When he transferred to UW-Whitewater as a junior, he chose Biology with an emphasis in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, but he still couldn’t quite envision his career plan. A faculty member recognized Draper’s passion for science and encouraged him to apply for a research position in Associate Professor Elisabeth Harrahy’s lab.

Elisabeth Harrahy and Austin Draper in the field.

Draper is now earning a master’s degree in Coastal Sciences from the University of Southern Mississippi where he is studying the highly threatened Gulf sturgeon. His future plans include earning a PhD and teaching science at a university. 

“Getting into the lab helped me understand how to do science — what the process is for getting funding, preparing water samples, doing the tests and analysis, getting involved in the backend of the statistics,” he says. “The biggest benefit, though, was working with someone like Dr. Harrahy. She was a great mentor and she really helped me develop myself.” 

His position in Harrahy’s lab was funded by a grant from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin (FCW) to study neonicotinoid insecticides, which are commonly used in agriculture in Wisconsin. Because these insecticides are often applied to seeds rather than sprayed broadly on crops, they initially weren’t considered a potential water contaminant. However, recent studies by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) have detected neonicotinoids in groundwater and stream water, particularly in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin. These insecticides have also been shown to kill honeybees and other pollinators.  

Harrahy and collaborator Tisha King-Heiden, a biology professor at UW-La Crosse, had received a grant from the DATCP to study neonicotinoid insecticides. Harrahy was studying the effects of thiamethoxam and imidacloprid (two of the neonicotinoids) on aquatic invertebrates, while King-Heiden was evaluating their toxicity in fish.  

“The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is responsible for registering pesticide use in the state and they are really concerned about these insecticides,” Harrahy says.  

She adds that both projects address two of Wisconsin’s Grand Water Challenges: agricultural water management, and water quality safety and emerging contaminants. The grants from the Freshwater Collaborative allowed the two researchers to each hire an undergraduate to work in their labs during the summer. 

“Undergraduates want to do research and get experience, but they also need to make money during the summer,” Harrahy says. “The beauty of these grants geared toward undergrads is they can work full-time in the lab. They don’t have to work a non-science job. And it gives them experience to know what they want to do early on.”   

Draper, who graduated in December 2020, worked in the lab for two summers and volunteered during the school year. He worked closely with another student who was supported by a UW-Whitewater Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship grant. They met virtually with students in King-Heiden’s lab so they could share their work.  

In addition, students in both labs participated in a virtual meeting with Mike Miller, a fisheries biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), who talked about current concerns related to neonicotinoids in streams and challenges in assessing their effects in the field. Miller also talked to the students about his career path and what it is like to work for the Wisconsin DNR.   

After Draper graduated, Harrahy hired Faune Fisher, an Environmental Science major who will present her piece of the research at Research in the Rotunda next spring. Although COVID hampered sample collection and testing, the students gained skills that will translate to working in any lab, learned how to present their research and explored career paths. 

Faune Fisher at Bluff Creek.

The project showed that both thiamethoxam and imidacloprid can be acutely toxic to amphipods and water fleas at high concentrations (higher than currently being detected in Wisconsin waters), and that chronic exposure can lead to reductions in growth of amphipods and reductions in reproduction of water fleas.  

Results of the study were shared at the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Water Resources Association annual meeting and will be summarized in a final report to DATCP. The data will help governmental agencies and industries better understand the risks of neonicotinoid pesticides and inform the development of surface water quality criteria.   

“Having these kinds of grants is really valuable for everyone involved,” Harrahy says.