“Within the first few hours, I already looked at the lake differently.” Hasler Lab’s summer intern reflects on her first week.

by Anna Mueller – I have grown up in the Madison lakes – jumping into Mendota and Wingra every summer without a second thought, doing polar plunges late in the fall, fishing with my brother. And, this year, rowing competitively for the Badgers. When I enrolled for my first semester at UW Madison, I chose a class called Climate Crisis Literature, and we immediately began exploring social perspectives of the environment, literary interpretations and reactions to the climate crisis, and environmental science. I wanted to stay in Madison while pursuing my interests in English and Environmental Studies this summer, so I was thrilled to find a position that combined them perfectly at the Center for Limnology (CFL). 

A woman lowers a net into the water of a lake.
Anna takes her first sample of Lake Mendota with a zooplankton net. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

In my first few days at CFL, I have discovered that being a Science Communication Intern is much more than a way to pursue my existing interests; it is an opportunity to tag along with different research teams and learn about their findings, an opportunity to teach people about the incredible science being done here every day. 

On my first day at “LimnoLaunch,” an event lasting several days that prepares new students for summer field work, I learned how to use tools to get water and sediment samples. Later, I observed zooplankton, scuds, bloodworms, snails, spirogyra, mayfly larvae, and seemingly countless other organisms found in a cup of Mendota lake water harvested off of the dock.

Blue-green algae blooms are occurring in Mendota earlier and earlier every year, and postdoctoral researchers showed me Aphanizomenon, a type of cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) that had bloomed a few weeks prior and was still present in the water. Among other toxins, Aphanizomenon can produce both liver and kidney toxins as well as neurotoxins, which affect the nervous system. I remembered rowing with my team through an algae bloom two weeks earlier and described to the postdocs what I had seen. 

“Yup, that was Aphanizomenon,” one of them told me, nodding his head. I looked back under the microscope at the algae, which resembled a microscopic bunch of grass, and considered how little I knew about the environment I was rowing – and breathing – in every day. I have accidentally drunk plenty of Mendota water while rowing, and living in Lakeshore dorms my first semester, I was immersed in the aquatic ecosystem every day. Here was a lab attempting to understand the lakes, ponds, wetlands, and rivers surrounding us, and within the first few hours, I already looked at the lake differently. In the same way that I have come to think of soil as an upside-down forest, with roots, animals, and organisms creating an even more complex ecosystem below ground, I now looked at the lake as a complex and busy frontier. I am excited to learn more. I am excited by how much more there is to learn. 

A toxic blue green algae bloom on a lake.
Part of a blue green algae bloom collects between the piers of the UW rowing team. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

When I think about science communication, I like to think about a quote from the intro to the book I’m With the Bears, by environmentalist Bill McKibben. He wrote that our new reality – of climate crisis, invasive species, algal blooms, and displaced populations – is “a tough world… not the familiar one we’ve loved without even thinking of it.” “In the end,” he writes, “the job of writers is not to push us in a particular direction; it’s to illuminate. To bear witness…to help pose the question for the final exam humanity now faces.”

That is my goal this summer: to illuminate the biodiversity, water quality, and ecosystem services we have taken for granted, to bear witness to a plethora of biological, chemical, and sociological research that aims to understand and preserve those same services, organisms, and ecosystems. I plan to write posts for our blog, help with community outreach events, and incorporate other genres of creative writing to promote CFL research. “Limnology” is a word that needs to be known. The health of our lakes and ponds is a goal that needs to be prioritized. 

When I row across the lake during early morning training with the UW rowing team, our boats send ripples through glassy water reflecting the bright colors of Memorial Union chairs. We watch the sun rise behind the Capitol. We hear flocks of American coots jump away from us as one; they make a whooshing sound as though someone had turned on a faucet the size of a waterfall. We get cold out there, rowing through wind and waves for hours, and the chill sets in deep, reminding us that we are alive. The lake is also alive. It is a part of this community, this town, this world. Stay tuned to learn about them and, more important, about the ways they can be protected.