Scientific Institute of the Month: School of Freshwater Sciences

By Jeff Kart

The School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee prides itself as the only graduate school in the North America solely dedicated to freshwater issues. For 50 years, it’s maintained the largest water-focused academic research institute on the Great Lakes.

“What sets us apart from your average school is that we tackle water from an interdisciplinary perspective,” says Eric Leaf, assistant dean for advancement. That means integrating a wide variety of scientific disciplines, as well as engineering, urban planning, policy and public health. “The networks of inputs (to the Great Lakes) is so complex that you need every discipline to understand it.”

Emily Tyner, a graduate student in the School of Freshwater Sciences, dives while working with the National Park Service to study benthic oxygen dynamics at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and how they may trigger avian botulism outbreaks. Credit: Harvey Bootsma/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Emily Tyner, a graduate student in the School of Freshwater Sciences, dives while working with the National Park Service to study benthic oxygen dynamics at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and how they may trigger avian botulism outbreaks. Credit: Harvey Bootsma/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The school is located in Milwaukee’s urban harbor near the shores of Lake Michigan, giving researchers and students a unique vantage point.

“It’s everything about our culture,” Leaf said. “We can walk out the back door, get on a boat and go do research.”

The Neeskay in the Milwaukee River. Credit: Troye Fox/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The Neeskay in the Milwaukee River. Credit: Troye Fox/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The school focuses on four areas: Ecosystem dynamics with an emphasis on large lakes, human and ecosystem health, water policy, and water technology. Overall, there are 120 people in the organization, including 20 faculty and senior scientists and 60 master’s and Ph.D. students. In addition, the school maintains close ties to water-focused groups in engineering, geosciences, atmospheric sciences, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“Student success, research excellence and university engagement are the main themes of UWM,” Leaf said. “At the school I can’t separate those things. The students are working on real research projects that affect the community.”

The School of Freshwater Sciences was founded on the idea that policy decisions that affect the lakes should be driven by science. “That’s what our students are learning,” Leaf said, “how they as scientists can affect policy, how to communicate science and how to communicate with decision makers.”

The school operates a research vessel called the Neeskay — a named derived from a Ho-Chunk Native American word that means “pure, clean water.” Leaders are in the early stages of planning and fundraising for a next-generation ship that will operate as a research vessel and floating classroom.

See also: Milwaukee to Host Second Public Meeting on Progress to Restore Great Lakes

Students from the school conducting research on Lake Michigan aboard the Neeskay. Credit: Peter Jakubowksi/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Students from the school conducting research on Lake Michigan aboard the Neeskay. Credit: Peter Jakubowksi/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Since the Great Lakes are a shared resource with Canada, collaboration with agencies in that country also are routine — and valuable, says Associate Professor Harvey Bootsma.

Bootsma grew up in Canada and studied at the University of Manitoba and the University of Guelph. He conducts nearshore work related to problems like Cladophora, a type of algae that grows to nuisance levels, and invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

He says working with colleagues at the University of Waterloo has been especially helpful. Workshops between the Milwaukee school and the Ontario university have allowed scientists to compare notes and helped jumpstart several areas of research.

“We have similar problems in a number of the Great Lakes, especially nearshore issues,” Bootsma said. “It’s really beneficial for groups of scientists from different lakes to get together.”

What is the school trying to discover?

“It’s more of a lab-by-lab thing,” Leaf says. “From a broad perspective, the school wants to investigate how the Great Lakes and other water systems function—and how we as humans impact them—so that decision makers and managers can make informed decisions to manage our most precious water resources.”

That includes work such as developing a model of nutrient contamination to help water managers reduce the size and duration of “dead zones” in Green Bay.

“We do a tremendous amount of work collaborating with the community in southeast Wisconsin and around the Great Lakes,” Leaf said. “That’s one of the points we take pride in: Our work is not theoretical, it is applied science.”

Leaf notes a movement in Milwaukee to revitalize its inner harbor. The school recently received a grant to conduct an extensive aquatic survey of the harbor.

“In addition to revitalizing land use of the harbor and making it a stronger part of the community, (organizers) want a harbor that’s environmentally clean, that supports recreational fishing, that supports birds and wildlife, that becomes a natural refuge in the city,” he said.

School researchers are working with partners including the Harbor District Inc. and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to assess existing fish forage and spawning habitat and develop a map to inform strategic development.

“It’s a really interesting project because it’s being done in Milwaukee but the way we’re doing it could theoretically be done in almost any harbor,” Leaf said. “It’s science to inform policy decisions and drive economic activity.”

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s Great Lakes Connection and Water Matters newsletters.