First, fishing. Then, volleyball. Serious fun at Trout Lake Station

August 12th 2013 | Mary Ellen Gabriel
Natural & Physical Sciences, Students
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Angling for perch at sundown is just one of the perks of Wes Matthews’ summer research job at Trout Lake Station in Wisconsin’s north woods. Another is donning scuba gear and diving for lost equipment. The most important task, though, wouldn't appeal to everyone.

“Basically, I study what fish had for lunch,” says Matthews (x'14, Geography and Environmental Studies). “We push the contents of their stomachs out and look at them under a microscope.”

Matthews is one of 24 University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduates who landed a summer research job at Trout Lake Station this summer. Undergraduate help is vital to more than a dozen faculty and graduate students studying a wide variety of aquatic ecosystems at this year-round field station operated by the UW-Madison Center for Limnology. Most students are hired through grants from the National Science Foundation or as student hourly workers, while a handful are Juday Fellows (like Matthews) or Lane Fellows, thanks to fellowship programs made possible by the Juday family and the Lane family, both longstanding supporters of Trout Lake Station.

Undergraduates collect aquatic samples, process data, check sensors and instruments, monitor fish, do lab work, and much more. They are assigned to ongoing station projects (Matthews works on the Crystal Lake Mixing Project), but they also have the opportunity to pursue individual research.

“This can be a life-changing experience for undergraduates,” says limnologist and station director Tim Kratz. “Many decide on their career direction up here at Trout Lake.”

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Trout Lake Station is eight miles from Boulder Junction, Wis., in Vilas County. With a sand beach, swimming raft, and volleyball court, the station looks and feels a bit like summer camp. Many students live in historic 1920s-era cabins (fully remodeled inside, but no bathrooms; a central facility is next door) and while they work hard — some research days run from dawn until well past midnight — there are plenty of opportunities for fun.

Ultimate Frisbee, grilling, swimming, and fishing. Blueberry-picking, biking, and hiking. Weekly seminars, followed by a field trip, give undergraduates a closer look at what everyone else is working on. After seminars, everyone heads to the volleyball court.

"Volleyball is pretty much the official sport of Trout Lake Station,” says Caitlin McAleavey (x'14, Zoology and Environmental Studies).

McAleavey is a member of the base crew for the Long-Term Ecological Research project (LTER), the longest-running project at the station and the “umbrella” under which many others fall. Since 1980, LTER has drawn more hundreds of undergraduates to Trout Lake.

On a typical day, McAleavey might check monitoring instruments on lake buoys and bring water samples back to one of the 20 labs at the station. There, she adds radioactive carbon 14, and starts an incubation process.

"I like being part of something bigger, that has an impact on a lot of lakes, everywhere," says McAleavey.

“It shows how much photosynthesis is occurring at different lake strata,” she explains.

Her data is added to the LTER database, which includes “anything and everything” to do with Trout Lake, as well as two bogs and four other northern lakes monitored by researchers for the last 30 years (as well as four lakes in the Madison area). The database is the most comprehensive in North America, and is used by limnologists worldwide.

Matthews works with CFL graduate researcher Zach Lawson on the Crystal Lake Mixing Project. By inverting cold and warm water layers through a unique mixing process known as “thermomanipulation,” researchers hope to determine the effects of warmer water on invasive smelt. Limnologists also want to know if warmer waters are good, or bad, for native fish. Matthews’ individual research project studies how the mixing project is affecting yellow perch.

Around sundown, his group typically heads out for night sampling, where they’ll catch perch and monitor smelt movement. They finish up around midnight.

“We have to be careful not to disturb the campers at Crystal Lake campground,” says Matthews.

He’s fielded many questions from a curious public about the GELIs (Gradual Entrainment Lake Inverter), trampoline-sized mixing devices that surface from time to time, and has learned valuable lessons about communicating science to the public.

“You have to be careful not to talk about preliminary results as findings,” he says.

McAleavey says she has done things at Trout Lake Station that she probably would never have been exposed to, otherwise.

“I've learned practical skills like how to drive a boat, back up a trailer, go out fishing,” she says. “I’d never worked in a lab before; now I know how to be orderly and thorough, to make sure I get good results. I have a much better general knowledge of how the scientific community operates.”

Matthews has enjoyed the opportunity to work with cutting-edge scientific tools, but also the opportunity to “give back” to the north woods of Wisconsin, where he spent time as a kid.

“Working in this area, and learning about these lakes through research, is one thing that drew me up here for two years,” he says.

All photos thanks to: Aisha Liebenow 

For more information about how to apply for summer research jobs at Trout Lake Station, visit the Center for Limnology website.

For more about daily life at the Station, read Notes from the Northwoods, a blog by station outreach coordinator Aisha Liebenow (x’14, Life Sciences Communication and Environmental Sciences).