Our first stop on Beaver Island is a one-of-a-kind biological research facility operated by Central Michigan University.
Don Uzarski is director of CMU’s Great Lakes Research Institute, and my captain when I went for a lesson on the water.
He had to be qualified by the Coast Guard to pilot the vessel. He said strict requirements like that are why CMU’s facility stands, or, rather, floats, alone.
Uzarski said professors take on double duty as crew.
Small advantages like that maintain CMU’s ability to have classes that meet on the water, like this one taught by the facility’s senior professor, Dr. Donna King.
“There’s two different teams, and they’re making a collection each. They’re learning to identify them and the characteristics that make them the particular family or genus that they are. So they’ll have a saleable skill because these are so good at determining water quality.”The high-tech boat wasn’t the only feature Uzarski was excited to show me. Once we’d docked, we went inside the boathouse to see the facility’s most expensive feature, the mesocosms.
“With this facility we can run an experiment in here under controlled conditions and then we can actually couple that with an experiment done in Lake Michigan. And when the results of those two experiments converge you have some of the most powerful science you can get.”
CMU is the only university in Michigan to have this kind of technology. They’re essentially miniature Lake Michigans that scientists can completely control — everything from temperature to pressure to what sediments are in the water.
Dr. Kevin Pangle is one of the scientists currently using the Mesocosms. He’s attempting to study a relatively new concept in regards to invasive species.
“One of the things that were trying to test is this invasional meltdown theory. Where uh is this evidence that one invasive is facilitating the establishment of more invasives. That’s scary because if that is the case it makes it easier for more invasive species to come in.”
Pangle’s wife Wiline is also a professor on the island. She’s leading a project with Dr. Lindsey Reisenger and a troop of grad students.
Reisenger said projects like this get students working in teams, as they will be in their future jobs.
“We’re trying to get a picture of how the ecosystem in the near shore of the great lakes changes over throughout the summer. I think it’s cool because we’re looking at lots of different aspects of the ecosystem and so each student has their own focus but all of the research still fits together.”
While a summer of science may not sound exciting to everyone, these grad students are more than happy to spend time at the island institute.
“I’ll see something that I’ve never seen before and just totally like geek out about it, like ‘Oh wow, I’ve never seen this! This is a huge copapod, what is this?!?’”
That was Allison Goetz, a grad student from Ohio. One of her teammates, Illinois-native Kate Karl, said seeing the results of their work is what gets her excited.
“I really like just the whole research aspect. I’ve never really done this before. So being able to go out and take samples, like in the morning, then come back and process them and actually see data is really cool?”
By the end of the summer, the students will have their names on a published study… an important achievement for aspiring scientists.
That’s not the only reason they’ll fondly remember their time on the island. The students all said the people they interact with on a daily basis are some of the nicest they’ve ever met.
That feeling of compassion and acceptance was palpable as you crossed the island facility. Every face smiling and ready to welcome you with a generous wave. People genuinely happy to be working in relative isolation on an island in northern Michigan.
Of course… having your own beach probably helps!