A Collaborative Summer at ERIC

When Amanda Stickney learned about chemistry in sixth grade, her love of math and science clicked.  

Amanda Stickney analyzes samples at the ERIC lab.
Amanda Stickney analyzes samples at the ERIC lab.

“In high school, I went to a semester boarding school that focused on environmental science and stewardship,” says the recent graduate of UW-Stevens Point’s chemistry program. “That’s when I knew I wanted to do something with environmental chemistry.”

Last summer, Stickney had a unique opportunity to expand her laboratory skills at UW-Oshkosh’s Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC), the UW System’s most comprehensive research and testing center. Each year ERIC hires about 40 students for its various programs. Historically, most of them have been undergraduates from UW-Oshkosh.  

A grant from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin (FCW) helped give students from other UW campuses, including UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Stout, UW-Superior, UW-Parkside and UW-Whitewater, the opportunity to train at one of ERIC’s three locations — Oshkosh, Manitowoc or Door County. The FCW grant funded four positions, and an additional three-and-half positions were funded through matching grants.  

“We provide opportunities for students to learn the techniques, the workflow and the environment of this type of laboratory,” says Greg Kleinheinz, Viessmann Chair of Sustainable Technology and professor of environmental engineering technology at UW-Oshkosh. “One of the goals of our Freshwater Collaborative project was to make inroads with other campuses and bring students from the different campuses together.”  

Students spent a week in the ERIC lab training and learning analytical techniques. Because of her major, Stickney worked in the lab all summer, learning how to run the equipment, analyze samples and follow standard operating procedures.  

“If I want to work in a lab, I wanted to really learn chemical safety,” she says. “Not everyone can follow an SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] for how to run a test or make a chemical.” 

Being a chemistry major, Stickney also appreciated the opportunity to learn more about biology and microbiology. That knowledge will help her succeed at Ohio State University, where she began the master’s in environmental science program this fall. 

Britta Larson (top photo), a biology and chemistry major at UW-Superior, was one of four students who did field work in Door County. They tested beaches for coliforms, E. coli, microcystin and microplastics; looked at parameters that could influence bacteria levels at the beaches; assisted in method development for finding and analyzing the microplastics; and analyzed the safety of drinking water. 

Jason Trzebiatowski form UW-Eau Claire

“This program was very field heavy, and it taught me that conditions are variable and to be prepared to problem solve. This also helped me to notice what type of career I would like,” says Larson, who plans to go to graduate school for water resource management or natural resource management. 

Both Larson and her teammate Jason Trzebiatowski, a biology major and pre-professional medicine minor from UW-Eau Claire, say one of the highlights was learning how to run and manage a field laboratory.  

For Peyton Maki, a senior environmental science major at UW Stout, the hands-on experience provided insight into his career path. His current post-graduation plan is two years in the Peace Corps, where he hopes to practice the skills he learned over the summer, followed by graduate school.

Peyton Maki from UW-Stout

By participating in this internship, I think I have largely increased my skill for both field and lab work, as well as learning my passion for the work I have done this summer,” he says. “It has let me get a better understanding of some of the tasks I will need to solve and work in for a future job.” 

Kleinheinz says the program has exceeded expectations — and response to the FCW-funded positions was so strong that UW-Oshkosh hired 20 additional students for a different program that studies invasive aquatic species in Vilas County. 

Beyond the student experiences, the ERIC program is fulfilling another goal of the Freshwater Collaborative: connecting UW System faculty. Kleinheinz says when they reached out to UW Stout to discuss the ERIC program, the conversations snowballed into additional collaboration to develop common coursework and certificates. And this past summer, faculty from UW-Eau Claire brought a field class, also funded by the FCW, to visit the ERIC students and study water resources in Door County. 

“The students are an easy way to make introductions between the faculty,” Kleinheinz says. “Faculty are busy, but when they see how an opportunity directly benefits their students, they start to see how they can do other collaborative things. That starts to build those faculty connections, and that will grow into future students research opportunities.” 

First UW-Green Bay Water Science Undergraduate Heads to Graduate School at UWM

Tyler Kunze never anticipated a career as a water scientist. Yet in May, he became the first student to earn a bachelor’s degree in water science from UW-Green Bay. He’s now a graduate student in UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences (SFS).  

“It’s been a long and winding road getting here,” says Kunze, who grew up on a dairy farm an hour’s drive from the nearest body of water. “I never would have thought graduating high school that I would be in this position today.” 

Kunze’s path exemplifies how opportunities to conduct undergraduate research and to build a professional network can lead to more water scientists — the primary goal of the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin.  

On the family farm, Kunze developed a strong appreciation for the natural environment. He also really liked math and chemistry. A bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences sounded like a perfect way to combine his interests. He chose UW-Green Bay’s program based on its reputation and ideal setting for studying the outdoors.  

While at UW-Green Bay, he particularly enjoyed his classes in hydrodynamics. Toward the end of his sophomore year, Kunze took a course with Christopher Houghton, an assistant scientist and graduate of UWM’s School of Freshwater Science, who suggested graduate school. The idea began to take hold after Kunze interned with New Water in Green Bay, where he met people who managed the watershed.  

“The gears were turning in my head that grad school was a possibility,” he says. “When I started my undergrad research, it jumpstarted my passion for conducting research and discovering new things about different processes in the science field.” 

That research involved working with his adviser Dr. John Luczaj to determine whether Lake Michigan water was leaking into the aquifers in Door County. Kunze spent the summer before his senior year knocking on people’s doors to collect water samples from their wells. Although, they didn’t find water from Lake Michigan, they used the samples to create the first isoscape — a geologic map of isotope distribution — for northeast Wisconsin groundwater. Kunze analyzed the data and presented it at the 2021 American Water Resources Association Conference.  

“It gave me a head start on what I’d be doing at the School of Freshwater Sciences. Professor Luczaj really prepared me for it,” Kunze says. 

Luczaj also encouraged Kunze to add the water science degree when UW-Green Bay launched the program in 2019. Kunze was on track to graduate early and decided earning the double degree would prepare him for graduate school.  

In September, he began his master’s in freshwater sciences at UWM, and he was able to begin working with his advisor and UWM professor Harvey Bootsma in June. Kunze spent the summer studying invasive mussels at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with Bootsma; Ben Turschak, an SFS alumnus who is now a fisheries research biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources; and scientists from the National Parks Services.  

“What I’m most looking forward to at the SFS is meeting these amazing scientists and learning from them,” Kunze says. “It also will be really fun to do my own research, to figure out a problem and to try to find a solution that can help people.” 

Kunze isn’t sure where his future in water will take him: water chemistry, water quality, invasive species mitigation, maybe a PhD? For now, he’s leaving his options open.  

“If you would have asked me even two years ago if I was going to get my master’s degree, I probably would have had some doubts,” he says. “I don’t want to put myself in a box. I want to see the different opportunities and see where I fit.” 

One thing is certain: Wisconsin has itself another freshwater scientist. 

Communications Hub Supports Water Policy Network

Strong water policy based on rigorous research results in clean water people use for swimming, boating, fishing, growing food and manufacturing. Water is tied to all aspects of our lives, but scientists and their research, which could help inform water policy, are not always connected to those who make water policy for Wisconsin.  

With a grant from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, the Center for Water Policy is creating a communications hub that will support a network of water policy faculty, researchers and students across the UW System.  

The Center will convene the newly formed UW Water Policy Network. Members can build relationships that will lead to idea sharing, collaborating on research proposals and developing water policy curricula for use across the UW System. 

The network is led by a core team that includes Melissa Scanlan, director of the Center for Water Policy and professor in the School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee; Zach Raff, assistant professor in economics at UW-Stout; and Laura Suppes, associate professor in public health and environmental studies at UW-Eau Claire.  

The communication hub will serve as a one-stop shop for other faculty and students, government agencies, the private sector, NGOs, media, and other stakeholders, who wish to identify water policy collaborators and experts. 

“The communication hub could help members find a guest speaker for a class, connect researchers with complementary skill sets, or help students find UW System faculty and researchers working on water-related issues across the state,” Suppes says. 

Elevating the visibility of the policy component to the freshwater field of study could also help attract undergraduate students and help them see how their research connects to solving real-world issues. 

“The UW Water Policy Network can be a resource for undergraduate and graduate students to build their understanding of how their freshwater studies and water science research can inform decision making and policies to protect and conserve our waterways,” Scanlan says.  

Raff, who is also a member of the FCW steering committee, adds that the network will identify students and researchers who can collaborate on projects across the state.  

“With the FCW, a large part of students’ experiences will be collaboration throughout the state. As part of the network, faculty can communicate about water policy-related projects and courses at UW schools that can benefit students from other schools who otherwise would not have been aware of the opportunity,” he says. 

The FCW grant also provides some support toward a water policy specialist, who is a recent law school graduate and can provide legal and policy research to UW System faculty who are applying for research grants that require a policy component. 

One of the hopes is that UW System investigators will be able to identify water policy issues linked to the 10 Grand Challenges the FCW has identified. They can then create research teams to analyze these issues, coordinate their research, and develop curriculum across disciplines and institutional boundaries.  

The Economics of Water

Zach Raff, assistant professor of economics at UW-Stout, has spent his career looking at how policies stemming from the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act can be both economically sound and environmentally friendly.

This year, he received a Lone Mountain Fellowship from the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a conservation and research institute dedicated to free market environmentalism. As part of the fellowship, he spent two weeks in residence at the PERC offices in Bozeman, Mont., networking with other economists and lawyers who work on environmental policy and getting feedback on his research paper, which examines water quality trading in Wisconsin.

Raff has been working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to examine the state’s water quality trading programs for phosphorus, which causes harmful algal blooms at high levels.

In 2010, Wisconsin instituted the strictest total phosphorus emission standards in the country. Wastewater treatment plants had to make expensive technology upgrades or participate in water quality trading programs to meet the reduced overall levels in their local watersheds.

Raff provides this example: A wastewater treatment plant could install a $10 million upgrade, or it could pay a local farmer to plant cover crops or retire some of its cattle. Both options could reduce the overall pollution in the local water source, but the costs are vastly different.

Would lower costs to the utility also benefit consumers? Raff wanted to test this theory.

“There have been very few analyses of programs like this in the country, so this is a rare opportunity to examine the benefits and costs,” Raff says.

His analysis shows that consumers who get their water from a utility company that participates in a trading program paid 6 to 8 percent less than those receiving water from a utility that had replaced its system. From an economic point, the programs are successful — but what about the environmental impact?

“Theoretically we get the same reduced phosphorus level but in a different way,” Raff says. “The next step in my research is to examine the water quality impact.”

He plans to work with the WDNR to determine which water quality trading programs offer the highest environmental benefits at the lowest cost to consumers. Raff’s research, though not funded through the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, ties in nicely with one of the top two grand water challenges the Collaborative has identified.

“Agriculture water management is a huge challenge for Wisconsin and throughout the country,” says Marissa Jablonski, executive director for the FCW. “As a Collaborative, we need to look closely at this issue, and Zach’s research will provide insight into how we can work with farmers and utilities to improve Wisconsin’s water.”

Something Fishy About Pesticides

“Neonics.” It’s a cute-sounding nickname for chemicals that are anything but adorable. Neonicotinoids have been used in commercial agriculture for more than two decades as potent insecticides. As their use has spread, so have some unintended consequences.

“The pesticides are supposed to target insects, and cause their muscles not to work properly,” says Tisha King-Heiden, a reproductive physiologist and toxicologist at UW-La Crosse. “Our bees, which are non-target organisms, are being impacted.”

While media attention has often focused on the harm neonics can do to honeybees and other pollinators, the problem doesn’t end there.

“Everyone kind of focused on bees, but these pesticides are pretty water-soluble,” King-Heiden says. “They get sprayed on seeds, and end up in runoff, and they’ve been found in drinking water, and in our streams.”

With support from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, King-Heiden, her students, and colleagues at UW-Whitewater and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are investigating whether two widely used neonics may be causing subtle behavioral changes in fish.

Such altered behavior can have significant impact. For example, an affected fish may move more slowly, and be unable to evade a predator. Over time, these changes can destabilize entire food webs.

The project is new territory for King-Heiden, who usually looks at how environmental contaminants influence the development of an organism’s reproductive system. However, in the same spirit of silo-busting that created the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, King-Heiden and environmental toxicologist Elisabeth Harrahy of UW-Whitewater decided to pursue the neonics project together.

Says King-Heiden: “We’ve never collaborated before. We started talking about it and I said, ‘let’s go for it.’”

The research also provides a valuable hands-on learning opportunity for both graduate and undergraduate students.

While the project is still in the early stages, there are already echoes of an earlier, now infamous pesticide.

“This work is kind of mirroring the story of DDT,” says King-Heiden. “We developed the pesticides, they’re widely used, and now we’re finding unintended consequences.”

She adds: “Those non-target effects have a big impact on the environment, including the decimation of entire small ecosystems. Humans sometimes forget we’re part of the environment. And the ecosystem is part of our economy, too.”

Fantastic Filters and Where to Find Them

“It’s pretty much a Brita filter,” says University of Wisconsin-Green Bay assistant professor Michael Holly. Make that a very big Brita filter: “We’re trying to clean up the water in northeastern Wisconsin.”

The material Holly hopes to identify one day, like the familiar consumer product he likens it to, could improve water quality for entire ecosystems and the communities around them. Assisted by colleagues at UW-Madison, Holly and his team of undergraduate students are looking for a filter to remove excess phosphorus in agricultural runoff before it fouls local waterways.

And not just any filter will do. His ultimate goal is to find material that’s economical, locally available, reusable and also easy for a farmer to install and maintain as an edge-of-field treatment.

It’s a tall order, and Holly says his team is just getting started.

“In trying to reach the ‘lightbulb’ stage, we’re still looking for the filaments,” he quips. “What material works, what won’t? Will the material leach? How do we regenerate the material (to use again?)”

With a trio of undergraduates, Holly has conducted early tests on materials such as zeolite — mineral compounds sometimes found in air purifiers — and charcoal made from community garden plant waste.

He credits the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin’s support for getting the project rolling, with preliminary results expected in 2021.

“The Freshwater Collaborative provides support for projects that might not get funded by larger sources,” says Holly. “It also provides opportunities for students.”

He hopes the current exploratory project will lead to larger proposals and opportunities for more than a dozen students to learn high-quality R&D testing methods, preparing them for a wide range of work in industry, academia and other fields.

A Double Dose of Hands-On Learning

On the banks of the Fox River, just a short stroll from Lake Winnebago, a nondescript building houses one of the state’s most important research and training hubs for environmental health and safety.

Since opening in 2008, the Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) has partnered with county health departments, local communities and individual members of the public on a range of projects, including monitoring the safety of well water and recreational beaches. Graduate and undergraduate students training at the facility learn the same rigorous, standardized testing procedures used at high-profile national labs.

“In most water fields, you really have to be comfortable with both lab and field work,” says ERIC Director Greg Kleinheinz, a UW-Oshkosh environmental engineer and microbiologist. “One of the unique things our students get is that combination of hands-on work.”

Now, thanks to support from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, ERIC will roll out a new training opportunity for undergraduate students across the state. Beginning with four students in early 2021, the program will offer both online and hands-on lab training, followed by a summerlong experience at a field station in Door County’s Sturgeon Bay. The project allows for customized areas of focus and scheduling so each student can build a program that best suits their interests and needs.

Kleinheinz says the project has value well beyond preparing individual students for a career in water.

“I see this as a catalyst to increase collaboration,” says Kleinheinz.

The FCW-funded project, like the FCW itself, is about combining the unique resources at 13 campuses into a single freshwater sciences powerhouse.

“In a time of limited fiscal resources, there’s no sense in duplicating efforts,” Kleinheinz says. “Taxpayers have invested in our facility. Let’s make it available to students across campuses. It’s a much more efficient use of resources.”

Serious Mussel Power

Mussels sometimes get a bad rap, thanks to destructive invasive species. While these unwelcome outsiders stir up trouble, dozens of native mussel species are quietly going about their business, cleaning our water and serving as sentinels for the health of entire ecosystems.

“Mussels filter feed a huge amount of water. It’s insane how much they filter,” says Becky Doyle-Morin, UW-Platteville freshwater invertebrate ecologist. “They’re helping to clean waterways, like little vacuums or pool filters.”

As these hardworking bivalves suck in water, food particles and sediment, they’re also taking in any pollutants in the environment. As Doyle-Morin puts it, “What’s in the water determines whether they thrive.”

Studying the size and health of native mussel populations provides researchers with crucial data about water quality and the stability of entire food webs, including fish that might end up on your plate.

But to monitor and protect native mussel populations, first you have to find them.

“Wisconsin waterways have some of the most diverse mussel communities in the world,” says evolutionary ecologist Gretchen Gerrish, director of the Trout Lake Station in Vilas County. And while mussels around the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries have been well-documented, many other populations remain unstudied.

Gerrish and Doyle-Morin plan to fill in some of the gaps while also providing the next generation of researchers with invaluable skills. With support from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, their team of undergraduates has begun surveying locations in southwestern Wisconsin. They’ll also study North Woods sites around Trout Lake Station, which is operated by UW-Madison’s Center for Limnology.

“The project spans the state, linking regions that might not otherwise be connected,” Gerrish says.

Those connections will soon stretch all the way to Australia. The diversity of Wisconsin’s native mussel species, and the high caliber of the research already underway here, has attracted scientists from Murdoch University in Perth. Doyle-Morin and Gerrish are building an exchange program with their Australian colleagues. The collaboration will send Wisconsin undergrads Down Under and allow Murdoch students to train here, in the Freshwater Mussel Capital of the World.

A Great Lake’s Unwanted “Diamonds”

“Plastics can be like diamonds: forever,” says Lorena Rios Mendoza. The UW-Superior environmental chemist studies how the nonbiodegradable synthetic materials get into Lake Superior and the problems they can cause as they fragment or absorb toxic chemicals also present in the environment.

Rios Mendoza focuses on microplastics, pieces smaller than a pea, that may look like food to fish and other lake dwellers. When the organisms eat the synthetic materials, they also ingest any toxic chemicals the plastics have picked up. Some of these compounds can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems for animals higher up the food chain – including us.

Now, Rios Mendoza is working with colleagues from UW-Madison, UW-Eau Claire and the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, with support from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, to answer key questions about Superior’s tiny troublemakers.

“We know the sources of the microplastics. They enter Superior through the St. Louis River and other tributaries that move the microplastics into the lake,” Rios Mendoza says. “But what is the distribution? What is the speed and flow? How are they transported?”

In summer 2021, Rios Mendoza and her team will collect samples from both western Lake Superior and the nearby St. Louis River estuary. Most previous sampling collected material from the lake’s surface. The new project will also sample various depths of the water column and the lake bottom, where many heavier, denser microplastics are likely to be found.

Colleagues across the state will analyze the samples to learn more about how the microplastics interact with the Lake Superior ecosystem and, potentially, how to reduce the damage they’re doing to even the greatest of Great Lakes.

“If you compare Lake Superior and Lake Erie, Lake Erie is small and shallow and surrounded by a lot of people, so the pollutants are right there,” says Rios Mendoza. “Lake Superior is huge and deep, and people say ‘Oh, it’s the cleanest.’ But it’s not really clean. We still find things.”