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Ten student researchers learned how to collect data while discovering the value of a multidisciplinary approach to tackling a serious ecological issue this summer as part of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Winnebago Pool Lakes Harmful Algal Blooms Project. The endeavor is funded by a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant.

Learn more from the project leader Stephanie Spehar, the director of UWO’s Sustainable Institute for Regional Transformation, and get a glimpse into how the students are cleaning up and restoring biodiversity to the water system:

Seeking answers

Throughout the summer, students collected the majority of the biophysical and social science data for harmful algal blooms (HAB) project. “This information will allow us to answer questions about the factors influencing blooms and what the public thinks about them, which we will use to inform education, outreach and, hopefully, policy to help address the issue,” Spehar said. “We are working with a community partner, Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance, to help ensure that our findings reach a broad range of stakeholders.”

Dipping into research

As a UWO student researcher, Frances (Frankie) Kerkhoff, a senior anthropology major from Oshkosh, collected ethnographic and biophysical data and analyzed samples and toxicity levels from the Lake Winnebago Pool System. She also helped create promotional and educational materials to engage the public in the project. “Being part of a truly interdisciplinary project is rare for undergraduate students. I am grateful to have first-hand experience working on such an important project for the community. Every day was a learning experience,” she said.

Caring deeply

When talking with people who actively use the water system, Kerkof was struck by how deeply people care about the environment they live in. “HABs aren’t only unique to the Winnebago Pool System, but something that affects people around the world,” she said. “Hopefully, the research done on this lake system will also help people understand them globally as well as locally.”

Doing good work

Biology major Diana Koehler, a junior from Appleton, conducted interviews with the public and collected and analyzed water samples as well. She valued the experience of working with multiple professors from a range of backgrounds. “I think it was a very eye-opening experience, and it felt good to be helping gather data that can be used for future sustainability efforts,” Koehler said. “My favorite part of this project was getting to form bonds with so many likeminded people. There is nothing better than doing good things with good people.”

Preparing for the future

No matter where the students are headed in their careers, Spehar is certain they’ll make good use of all that they learned this summer. “Students are getting to take all the things they’ve learned in the classroom—theories and different perspectives on issues, disciplinary knowledge about how the world works, research—and apply them to a real, tangible problem,” she said. “The students grew so much, not only in their more research skills but in their ability to solve problems, work with others, interface with people from all sorts of different backgrounds, work independently, and to manage a complex project from start to finish.”