New podcast series: Teach Me About the Great Lakes

December 2nd, 2019 by

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s Dr. Stuart Carlton has started a new monthly podcast called “Teach Me About the Great Lakes.” The purpose of the podcast is to help Carlton—a social scientist who grew up in the South near the Gulf of Mexico—learn about the biology, ecology and natural history of the Great Lakes.

“In my two years at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, I’ve learned a lot about what makes the Great Lakes special, but there’s so much to know,” said Carlton. “This podcast gives me a chance to harness the knowledge of IISG specialists and the many scientists and other fascinating people in the region to help me better understand this amazing resource.”

A new episode of Teach Me About the Great Lakes will be released on the first Monday of each month. The first episode, “They’re Also Called Nurdles,” is embedded below. Carlton and co-host Hope Charters talk with special guests Carolyn Foley and Sarah Zack about microplastics. What are they? How do they affect fish and people? What can we do to help prevent adding more microplastics to our waters? Find out what researchers know so far about this contaminant.

Love this episode and want to hear more in the future? Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

If you have questions you want answered about the Great Lakes, reach out to @TeachGreatLakes on Twitter or email Stuart Carlton at

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.

IISG expands funding on ‘Persistent Organic Pollutants on Microplastics’ research

January 22nd, 2019 by

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center has released information about additional IISG funding for researcher John Scott to expand a microplastics research project to include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Excerpt: “With new funding from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) researcher John Scott and his team will be able to expand their research to include more environmental contaminants. With their current project on persistent organic pollutants in Lake Muskegon, they are studying the effects of microplastic type and deployment time in the sediments and the water column on sorption of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to the microplastic particles.”

Full URL – “Persistent Organic Pollutants on Microplastics Project expanded to include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” by Elizabeth Meschewski”:

Microfibers are in the food web in three Lake Michigan rivers

March 28th, 2018 by

As you dine on locally-caught fish, you probably aren’t thinking of that old acrylic sweater or fleece jacket that you wear and wash frequently. But it turns out that they may be on your plate. Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant-funded researchers have found microplastic fibers that come from clothing and other sources in the water, in sediment and in fish in three major rivers that flow into Lake Michigan.

Loyola University Chicago biologists John Kelly, Tim Hoellein and Rachel McNeish are assessing levels of microplastic using a range of measures. As part of a larger study, they collected samples from the mouths of the Muskegon, Milwaukee and St. Joseph rivers seasonally over the course of 2016 and into 2017.

“We found that 99 percent of the microplastic is fibers, and microfibers are everywhere,” said McNeish, a post doc who implemented the project. “Much of what we found is acrylic, polyester, and polyethylene, which comes from plastic bags.” These plastics break down to microscopic size in the water due to physical abrasion, sunlight and freezing.

While water sampling is typically done using nets, the Loyola team also sampled water directly. “We started doing these grab samples, we just fill up a liter container and bring it back and filter it, and we found particles smaller than 300 microns, the pore size of the nets,” said Kelly. “The smaller you go, the more numerous the pieces of plastic there are.”

The three rivers in this study have provided insight into the effect of how we use the land on how much microplastic is in the environment, which was a key goal of this project.

The most northern river, the Muskegon, which flows through land dominated by forests had less microplastic than the other two rivers, as one might expect. Moving south to more populated and developed areas, are the St. Joseph River, in a farm-rich watershed, and the Milwaukee River, which sits in a mixed, urban and agricultural region. The researchers found that both agriculture and urban land uses contribute significantly to the abundance of microplastic in these Lake Michigan tributaries.

“Ultimately what we really want to do is predict what aspects of our development or features of the landscape pose bigger problems when it comes to contributing microplastic to the landscape,” said Hoellein. “And we need to understand where microplastic accumulates the most, because if we don’t answer those questions, we’re not really in a good position to come up with a solution or even address the problem.”

The researchers also sampled 74 fish from the shallow waters of these three rivers and 85 percent of them, including bass and other sportfish, contained microplastic in their digestive tract, averaging 13 particles. They found that the amount of microplastic in individual fish was not a reflection of how much plastic was in the water—fish from all three sites had similar numbers of microfiber in their digestive system.

How much microplastic shows up in one fish versus another can better be explained by looking at the food web. The researchers found that fish that eat insects and other invertebrates, which may already contain microplastic, have more fibers than those that eat plants.

“Microplastic is interacting with aquatic wildlife,” said McNeish. “Fish are consuming it—either actively eating it thinking its food, eating insects with microplastic in them or maybe just drinking water with microplastic. Or they may consume it through contact with sediment. In any case, microplastic is entering the food web.”

“And as these three rivers drain into Lake Michigan,” she explained, “the movement of microplastic can happen with the rivers’ currents, but also through the migration of animals.”

Plastics pollution report highlights latest research and brainstorming

August 16th, 2017 by

This year’s International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) conference in Detroit, Michigan, was the most attended IAGLR conference ever, and IISG helped organize one of its popular sessions.

Sarah Zack, pollution prevention specialist, and Carolyn Foley, assistant research coordinator, along with Melissa Duhaime, a microbiologist at the University of Michigan, co-chaired a session titled “Plastics research in the Great Lakes: identifying gaps and facilitating collaboration.” This session was well-attended throughout the day, with as many as 70 people there for individual talks.

“While research on the effects of plastic contamination in the oceans has been building for some time, similar knowledge in freshwater systems is lacking,” said Zack. The talks in this session brought together recent studies, including citizen science initiatives, from the Great Lakes and beyond, looking at prevalence and impacts of plastics in waterways as well as some possible solutions to plastic contamination.

IISG hosted a discussion at the end of the day focused on microplastics, which are particles that are less than 5 millimeters in size, which is smaller than a pea. Microplastics, including beads, fragments, or fibers, are a major concern in the Great Lakes, as effects on fish and other members of the food web are not well known.

More than 20 conference attendees stuck around after a long day of talks. Fueled by snacks provided by Alliance for the Great Lakes, they shared their thoughts on microplastic-related datasets available to researchers and outreach specialists, defined the data that is needed to better understand the effects of microplastics in the Great Lakes, and listed organizations who are leading efforts to address this issue.

“Conferences are a great time to bring scientists together to brainstorm about the next great idea and to figure out where research gaps can be found,” said Zack.

UpClose: Researcher measures impact of microplastics moving from rivers into Lake Michigan

December 12th, 2016 by

From his lab at Loyola University Chicago, aquatic ecologist Tim Hoellein investigates the interactions between common pollutants and organisms in rivers and streams. After several years of investigating microplastics in waterways flowing from Lake Michigan, he has now turned his sights to beginning to document the impact of microplastics carried into the lake.

In this new large-scale study, Hoellein and his team are quantifying how much rivers contribute to the plastic load in Lake Michigan by measuring plastics in water and sediment in several of the largest tributaries feeding the lake. In this twelfth and final issue of UpClose, the award-winning Q&A series gives readers an insider’s view of research on emerging contaminants. Each interview highlights a unique component of emerging contaminant research. Readers also learn about the complex, and sometimes tricky, process of conducting field studies and the potential implications of research on industries and regulations.

“The impacts of emerging contaminants on human and environmental health can be hard to document, let alone understand in the context of other issues facing Lake Michigan and other waterways in the Great Lakes basin,” said Laura Kammin, IISG outreach program leader. “The researchers highlighted in the UpClose series each tell a piece of this very complex story.”

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.

CGLL scientist spotlight: Tim Hoellein

October 4th, 2016 by

Every month, the Center for Great Lakes Literacy (CGLL), a close partner with IISG, selects an outstanding scientist who embodies the CGLL mission and inspires people to take action to improve the health of the Great Lakes watershed.

This post originally appeared  on the CGLL website.

Tim Hoellein
Associate Professor
Research Institution: Loyola University Chicago
Home state: Illinois

 What got you interested in science and how did you end up as a Great Lakes scientist?

My interest in ecology is firmly rooted in where I’m from. I grew up in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, near Erie, and later lived in Pittsburgh and went to college in Buckhannon, West Virginia. My experiences in natural areas were places like Presque Isle, Point State Park, and Seneca Rocks. These are some of the most beautiful places in the world. The lakes, hills, rivers, and four seasons speak directly towards a sense of identity for those of us from the area. It is a landscape of extremes, because this region also has a heritage of heavy industry. Manufacturing and mining are important components of our cultural identity and provide the basis for commerce and quality of life. However, the history of mineral extraction, manufacturing, and contaminant storage left a legacy of insidious pollution throughout the region. My motivation for research in water pollution is rooted in that view so common in the Great Lakes and western Pennsylvania: the green and blue of Presque Isle in one direction and the smoke and metal of Erie’s industrial waterfront in the other. My overarching career goal is to work towards a restoration of ecological integrity within the urban and industrial areas where we work and live.

Describe your research related to the Great Lakes.

I study the interaction between common pollutants and the organisms living in streams and rivers of the Great Lakes region. Water quality in the lakes strongly depends on what we put into the tributaries. The pollutants I study include nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which when in excess contribute to noxious algae blooms in the lakes, and small plastic particles, which affect microorganisms, insects, and fish that sustain aquatic food webs. In particular, I’m interested in how those materials move through streams and rivers, and whether they can be broken down, processed, or retained in streams before they go downstream. This requires first determining the sources of nutrients and microplastic, then measuring the interactions with those materials and microorganisms active in decomposition, and then determining how far downstream the chemicals are transported and how they are incorporated into food webs.

Describe an experience you have had working with educators or the community. What was something that surprised you or that you especially enjoyed about the experience?

I was fortunate to spend a week on Lake Michigan aboard the research vessel Lake Guardian, with a group of teachers from throughout the Great Lakes. We collected samples from the surface water and sediment throughout the lake, and I walked the teachers through the process of isolating plastic particles, including digestions, filtration, and counting particles on the microscope. One of my favorite things about the experience was the enthusiasm that the teachers brought to topic, and how each of them used their own unique talents to come up with creative ways to explain our work in their classrooms. One of the teachers brought a video camera to interview me, detail the collection and counting processes, and give his students Tim_Hollein__boatand understanding of how and why we were doing this work. Another used video editing skills and a Go-Pro camera on the sampling equipment to put together fantastic videos of the devices we sent to the bottom of the lakes. This reinforced to me that teachers are at their best when they are using their talents, enthusiasm, and dedication to convey information in creative ways. I try to carry that spirit with me in my role as a teacher in the college classroom.

Why do you think it is important for scientists to share their research with educators?

In my role as a scientist and teacher, I’ve added to my focus on my studies and students, by looking for more creative ways to share the mission of my work, which includes community service, speaking with students of all ages, and engaging the general public and teachers whenever possible. I’ve found the time spent doing this spreads the message of the research to a broader audience, and deepens my appreciation for the career I’ve developed. Speaking with educators like those on the research cruise on the Lake Guardian was one of the best ways for me to communicate in this way, as the teachers can take that information to their schools and classrooms.

What do you think are the most critical skills for students interested in a career in science?

Science requires a combination of lots of different skills. There are the obvious ones like attention to detail, curiosity about the natural world in all its forms, and the ability to think logically.  One often overlooked ingredient for making a good scientist is an open mind with creative impulses. In order to make the step from one project to another, or the first step in a new project, a scientist has to come up with a new question to answer. This requires being interested in lots of different topics, being able to think about combining facts and ideas in new ways, and then creatively and carefully explaining those ideas to collaborators, funding sources, and students.

Contact Tim Hoellein at

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.

Looking back, it’s been a very good IISG year

December 17th, 2015 by

This has been a good year for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Working with our many partners, big projects reached their culmination, in some cases providing researchers and decision makers new ways to access data. And the spotlight was turned on Lake Michigan for research and education. Here are10 important stories from 2015.

The year started with big research news that southern Lake Michigan has high concentrations of plastic microfibers, which are likely from clothing that sheds in the wash. This news was picked up by media outlets around the world, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Chicago Tribune.
2015 saw the release of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which laid out a plan to reduce the flow of nutrients down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. This strategy was developed with input from a range of stakeholders, including government agencies and agricultural producers.
Be a Hero is now the primary invasive species awareness campaign in Illinois. Recreational water users have heard this message, but now the campaign provides easy tips to help water gardeners, teachers, and aquarium hobbyists curb the spread of aquatic invaders. Plus, Be a Hero provides guidance to hunters, campers, and hikers to prevent the spread of species that threaten habitat on land.
The Grand Calumet River in Indiana just keeps getting better. Another section of this long polluted waterway has been cleaned up through Great Lakes Legacy Act funding and that of many local and state partners. Remediation of the Kennedy to Cline Avenues section led to the removal of 1.1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.
Twice this year, it was Lake Michigan’s turn for ongoing projects that rotate yearly around the Great Lakes. First, the Lake Michigan Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) brought together agencies and scientists to study the nearshore environment, which ultimately will help inform management decisions. CSMI is part of a larger binational effort to advance Great Lakes monitoring and research.
Second, this was the year for the Shipboard Science Workshop on Lake Michigan, in which 15 teachers spent a week aboard the U.S. EPA R/V Lake Guardian working with researchers and learning about Great Lakes science.
IISG has developed new tools to help scientists enhance their research and help decision makers, and others make informed choices. Great Lakes Monitoring is a web application that provides the means for environmental data from across the Great Lakes region to be just a click away.
For communities looking to set water prices smartly, the Northeast Illinois Water and Wastewater Rates Dashboard allows them to compare rates with communities in the region that have similar characteristics. Setting the right price for water is the first step in managing water supplies sustainably.
In our latest issue of The Helm, we report on a tool under development for critical facilities in Cook County to reduce flooding impacts. Through answering a series of questions, facilities managers can assess how the building might be vulnerable to flood damage, and how this risk can be addressed.
Finally, IISG installed a second buoy in the waters of Lake Michigan. This one is off the shores of Wilmette, Illinois, joining the first one in the Indiana waters near Michigan City. These buoys provide key information to the National Weather Service, researchers, boaters, anglers, and beach goers alike. 
As we look forward to 2016, we thank partners, stakeholders, and many others that we worked with and supported to achieve noteworthy goals.

UpClose: An insider’s view of plastic pollution research

December 14th, 2015 by
The latest edition of the UpClose interview series takes readers behind-the-scenes of Great Lakes plastic research.
In 2012, chemist Lorena Rios-Mendoza took part in the first-ever sampling of microplastics in the lakes, a project that revealed that Lake Erie has a higher concentration of minute particles than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since then, she has led a number of studies to improve understanding of the chemicals that build up on the surface of microplastics and how photodegradation affects those chemicals and the plastics themselves.
UpClose with Lorena Rios-Mendoza is the tenth issue of the award-winning Q&A series that gives readers an insider’s view of research on emerging contaminants. The series kicked off in 2012 with Timothy Strathmann, an environmental engineer at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Later editions featured the work of John Kelly, a microbiologist at Loyola University Chicago, Rebecca Klaper, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Dana Kolpin and Barbara Mahler.
Each interview highlights a unique component of emerging contaminant research—everything from tracing their source to understanding how they impact aquatic life. Readers also learn about the complex, and sometimes tricky, process of conducting field studies and the potential implications of research on industries and regulations.

IISG funds four new research projects

December 3rd, 2015 by
Residents of Illinois, Indiana, and the broader Great Lakes region will benefit from new IISG research. Altogether, the four, two-year projects will receive more than $780,000 starting in 2016.
John Kelly, a Loyola University biologist, will survey eight major rivers around the lake to trace the origins of microplastics pollution and what river characteristics—such as
surrounding land use or nearby wastewater treatment plants—may be driving this.
Purdue University’s Zhao Ma will lead an interdisciplinary team that seeks to reduce nutrients, sediment, and E. coli contamination in southern Lake Michigan. The team will use models to assess best management practices (BMP) for reducing runoff and the willingness of individuals to implement these BMPs. Looking at these two approaches together will allow them to optimize the best courses of action to reduce overall pollution.
A project led by Sara McMillan, who studies biogeochemistry and hydrology at Purdue University, will examine drainage ditch design from multiple perspectives. McMillan will compare designs that improve long-term stability and ecological effectiveness.
And Beth Hall, Midwestern Regional Climate Center director, will work with Paul Roebber of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to improve how flash flooding events in urban centers are predicted and communicated. Hall and Roebber’s project is partially funded by Wisconsin Sea Grant.
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