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Great Lakes Article:

Lead Bullets Still Poisoning Region's Lakes

Associated Press
Posted 09/12/2002

UW-Oshkosh making impact with local, state science: What effect does the lead shot mired in the muck at the bottom of Rush Lake have on microorganisms living there?

Todd Sandrin is trying to figure that out. The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh faculty member who has now traded his canoe for microscopes and petri dishes back at the lab is getting near an answer.

“A lot of the sediment is rich in organic matter, and what we’ve found is most of the lead is tied up in sediments, which is a good thing,” said Sandrin, 29. “But there may be further implications.”

The big question: If microorganisms in the local lake — a rare, large “prairie pothole” — are being poisoned, killed or even slightly impacted by decades-old lead duck shot, does it send a ripple or shockwave through the rest of the food chain and ecosystem?

That’s some pretty important science.

And, while it is no major U.S. research institute, it is coming out of UW-Oshkosh.

UW-Oshkosh biology faculty like Sandrin continue scoring grant funding, time and support to undertake far-reaching research projects that are locally and regionally digging up new findings and revelations.

In the last few months to year, Sandrin has undertaken his study of Rush Lake’s lead woes, biology professor Colleen McDermott has analyzed and blown the whistle on inordinately high bacteria levels in popular Menominee Park Beach’s waters and two other scientists have earned funding for research into developing less toxic plants and preserving Native American wild rice stands.

“I think there may be a bit more research, but definitely, the spotlighting has been beneficial,” Sandrin said.

McDermott said about 14 years ago, the university made a deliberate effort to hire faculty with research interests beyond classroom instruction.

“It isn’t that we weren’t doing it before,” she said. “In the 1970s, people were working on phosphorous dumping in Lake Winnebago. But 13 to 14 years ago, we emphasized research more heavily. From that point on, everybody we’ve hire has been pretty research oriented.

“Whether they chose to study the fish in the Mekong River or the algae in Lake Winnebago is pretty much up to them. It just makes sense to research the area around you because it’s easier,” she said.

And how.

McDermott’s reported findings of inordinately high bacteria levels in Menominee Park beach has prompted further university-city collaboration on finding a solution.

More cooperation has been a key issue under the watch of Chancellor Richard Wells, who argues UW-Oshkosh should be a bigger player — be it in science or other disciplines — in its home community.

“We think it’s important and we think it gives our students an advantage,” McDermott said.

Now, McDermott said Wells has granted her a $600 grant to seek certification deeming the UW-Oshkosh biology lab as an official testing lab.

“It will let us have more clout and impact to do testing for municipalities and to teach our students,” she said.

The science projects undertaken by UW-Oshkosh biologists have been varied:

- Teri Shors, an assistant professor who came to UW-Oshkosh from the National Institute of Health, has studied the anti-virus for smallpox. Shors has also been able to score the university of gene sequencer — the state-of-the-art tool international researchers are using to map the human code of life.

Shors also teamed up with two other university faculty members in 2001 to study the spread and sociological impact of the infamous 1918 Oshkosh flu epidemic.

- Biology professor and director of UW-Oshkosh’s Electron Microscopy Facility Todd Kostman has undertaken a two-year research project studying how a potentially toxic acid in plants consumed by humans and animals can be reduced. A $74,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant fuels the work.

- UW-Oshkosh Aquatic Biologist Robert Pillsbury has a more-than $40,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant in hand to study wild rice in 60 wetlands in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Pillsbury and UW-Oshkosh grad student Melissa McGuire of Campbellsport are trying to determine how factors from boat traffic to agricultural runoff effect endangered wild rice stands.

“Over time, the wild rice fields and lakes they’ve been harvested from, sometimes, just tend to disappear,” said McGuire, working on her master’s in zoology. “The crop isn’t productive from year to year, and so far no one has been able to figure out what’s causing the decline.”

McGuire said students, too, have noticed the apparent boon in research efforts from UW-Oshkosh.

“The trend seems to be more local,” she said. “It’s ‘What can we do to benefit the local area and Wisconsin?“’

Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Science, said the efforts aren’t just in biology. UW-Oshkosh’s geologists, chemists and physics faculty have also won grants, setting out on important research projects.

“It really is true that the quality of research that’s going on here is every bit as high as at any research institution,” Zimmerman said. “The quantity is less, because people are teaching more, but the quality is high.”

“We have done a wonderful job of hiring the best people in the world,” he said. “When you hire people that good, you change the campus and you also change the community, and that’s exciting.”

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