WMU receives $2.6 million for Great Lakes research
Western Michigan University
KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan University and Ann Arbor's
Altarum will use more than $2.6 million in funding from
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop tools
that will give scientists, policy makers and citizens
alike the detailed information they need to make decisions
on critical environmental issues.
Sen. Carl Levin traveled to WMU Oct. 31 to announce a
recently approved federal grant for $2,678,050 that will
be used to establish the Great Lakes Center for Environmental
and Molecular Sciences at WMU. The center will combine
the resources of WMU environmental researchers with those
of the energy and environmental division of Altarum, a
non-profit research and innovation organization formerly
known as ERIM.
The new center will use the technical expertise of both
organizations to improve the assessment of Great Lakes
water quality and more precisely measure the impact of
pollution on human health and Michigan's Great Lakes ecosystem.
The project could have implications for freshwater protection
Center researchers will use new molecular science techniques
and advanced informatics systems to understand, evaluate
and help plan management of chemical, nutrient and biological
contaminants that impact both human health and the environment
throughout the Great Lakes.
"Three things really set this work apart from earlier
efforts to assess environmental damage," says Dr.
Charles Ide, director WMU's Environmental Institute, who
will work on the project with the institute's associate
director Dr. Jay Means. "We'll be the first group
to apply genomic tools for assessing damage to the ecosystem
and human health, we'll be applying the most sensitive
and selective analysis methods, and we'll be developing
a Web-based portal that will allow the people who need
this information to get a better handle on the environmental
With 18 percent of the earth's fresh surface water, the
Great Lakes offer enormous potential for perfecting ways
to identify, trace and direct remediation of the impact
of multiple contaminants on human health and the environment.
The Great Lakes are the subject of a variety of international,
federal, state, local, private and academic studies, but
because those studies tends to focus on isolated pieces
of the environment, the information gathered is seldom
looked at in a systemwide or watershed-scale context.
"We're looking at a system that contains roughly
a fifth of the world's surface freshwater supply,"
says Robert Shuchman, senior vice president and chief
technical officer of Altarum. "What's so exciting
is that this is truly a collaborative effort that combines
geospatial informatics technology with hard science. We
are looking at components like land cover, demographics,
hydrology and other watershed information values for the
Great Lakes basin and combining that information with
environmental and molecular science models that will give
us a long-term look at human environmental health risks."
Initial work of the center will take place at WMU, where
Ide and Means and colleagues in the Environmental Institute
have been working with previous EPA funding to measure
genetic changes that are caused by toxic chemicals in
the watershed. Their work, which has focused on the Kalamazoo
River watershed, an EPA Superfund site, uses the latest
genome technology and offers the potential for guidance
on just what levels of such substances can be considered
"acceptable." The work predicts long-term genetic
changes that may be occurring in seemingly healthy specimens.
"When it comes to making decisions about cleanup,
that is, how much contamination can be tolerated within
a watershed system, the answers have sometimes been a
source of scientific and legal controversy," WMU's
Means says. "We're out to define the health effects
more precisely than they've ever been defined before.
This should remove some of the ambiguity associated with
making health-based decisions regarding cleanup."
With such data available, Altarum will design a Web-based
portal that will look at the Great Lakes as an entire
system and incorporate the molecular-level findings with
comprehensive GIS (geographic information systems) information.
That information would include details on the effects
of urbanization and changing patterns of land use. In
conjunction with EPA watershed education programs, aggressive
outreach activities are part of the grant-funded work
to ensure that the new information and tools are put in
the hands of a variety of interested audiences.
The Great Lakes portal will allow one-stop shopping for
federal, state, county and local stakeholders. The portal
will include relevant research and policy information
as well as dynamic environmental data. It will utilize
advanced geospatial techniques to convey complex issues
in formats that can be easily understood. Special emphasis
will be given to a section of the portal catering to the
general public that will focus on environmental health
issues related to the Great Lakes.
"The educational component is phenomenally important
to this effort," Altarum's Shuchman says. "It's
a way to connect the communities with the best available
research findings. We'll be looking at ways to communicate
health risks and, ultimately, play a role in mitigating
those risks by making the information accessible so it
can be used by government officials at the local, state
and national levels, as well as by industry leaders, students,
teachers and private citizens."
WMU scientists say work on the new grant project will
be a continuation of progress they've already made on
the EPA-backed Kalamazoo River study.
"We hope to take what we've learned on the river
and apply it to several watersheds and eventually to the
entire Great Lakes system," Ide says. "This
integrated approach can serve as a model for how to work
with large freshwater systems worldwide."
Altarum is a nonprofit research and innovation institution.
As a full cycle innovator-research to deployment-of advanced
informatics systems solutions and knowledge tools, Altarum
serves societal customers in the healthcare, national
security and energy, environment and transportation sectors.
Altarum currently operates a Center of Excellence in Geospatial
and Remote Sensing Technologies in Ukraine as well as
a Pacific Disaster Center in Hawaii, both of which were
initiated with U.S. government funding.
Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, email@example.com