Sea Grant quagga mussel research leads to NSF funding

March 27th, 2017 by

A collaborative research project about the impacts of quagga mussels in Lake Michigan has led to more funding for the issue from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The original project, jointly supported by the Illinois-Indiana and Wisconsin Sea Grant programs, looked at the effects of this invasive mussel in the deep parts of Lake Michigan on plankton abundance, the phosphorus cycle, and water movement.

Harvey Bootsma

The new project is funded by the Biological Oceanography and Physical Oceanography divisions of NSF for more than $1 million with the expectation that the results will be useful in understanding conditions in other large lakes as well coastal areas.

The principal investigators are Harvey Bootsma and Qian Liao with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,

and Cary Troy with Purdue University. David Cannon is a Ph.D. student working on the project at Purdue.

In the original project, the team discovered that quagga mussels in Lake Michigan are eating more plankton than what is reaching them by sinking from above. They’ll be looking at how and why this could happen with the new project.

“We think that food delivery to the bottom of the lake is not just determined by the passive settling of phytoplankton as it’s sinking through the water, but that

Cary Troy

plankton is always being circulated in the lake,” said Bootsma. “It’s like the plankton are on a kind of conveyor belt where they’re going up and down.”

The researchers now will be studying turbulence in the entire water column.

Troy studied the impact mussels have on water movement as they filter it—sucking in water and spitting it

out. “Although this filtering has a dramatic effect on water quality, we found that quaggas do not strongly influence movement throughout the entire water column,” explained Cannon.

But the movement they cause in the thin layer immediately above the lake bed—a

Qian Liao

phenomenon consistent throughout the year thanks to stable temperatures at the bottom of Lake Michigan—is an element missing from most mussel filtration models.

The researchers also found that the mussels are changing the phosphorus cycle in the lake. “The nutrient-loading models used to set limits for phosphorus aren’t accurate anymore because of these new components to the ecosystem – bottom-dwelling filter feeders,” Bootsma said. “They have changed the rules for how Lake Michigan works.

David Cannon

“Lake managers have a conundrum right now. They’ve got too much algae in the nearshore zone and they want to reduce phosphorus to solve that problem. But there’s not enough phytoplankton in the offshore zone because of the mussels. So if they reduce phosphorus loading in the lake, they could make that offshore problem even worse so that there’s virtually no food left out there for the rest of the food web,” Bootsma said.

With the new project, Bootsma said his team hopes to determine what the “sweet spot” is for phosphorus loading. “There may not be one perfect phosphorus load that solves both the nearshore and offshore problem, but we’d like to try and find one that minimizes the nuisance algae while at the same time keeps the offshore animals alive with enough plankton production.”

The NSF project will start this spring. “Although we’re focusing on Lake Michigan, the work has implications for most of the other Great Lakes as well as other lakes in general that are being invaded by mussels,” Bootsma said. “We’re looking at a fundamental change in the way lakes work, and that’s the kind of thing the NSF is interested in.”

“It’s generally accepted that the ecosystems of smaller, shallower lakes—Lake Erie, for example—are at the greatest risk of quagga mussel invasion,” Cannon added. “Our results could help show other researchers that the effects of mussels on large, deep lakes cannot be ignored and, more importantly, how they can be accounted for.”

Irene Miles, IISG coordinator of strategic communication, contributed to this post.

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


Discovery Grant research reveals that X-ray chemical turns toxic in disinfected drinking water

July 25th, 2016 by

University of Illinois geneticist Michael Plewa discovered that a non-toxic medical diagnostic chemical that accumulates in drinking water sources can become a toxic chemical as water goes through the disinfection process.

This study, funded as an Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Discovery Grant project, revealed that wastewater generated by hospitals can contain toxic disinfection by-products associated with X-ray contrast media. Contrast media are widely-used substances, which when ingested, can enhance medical imaging.

IISG has funded 41 Discovery grants since 2009—these small pots of money are awarded to support graduate student work, to help when researchers need a final boost to finish a project, or to explore new questions or follow up on data that may grow into something larger.

Plewa’s project provides a great example of how a Discovery Grant can open the door to new knowledge and provide a stepping stone to answer bigger questions. It’s also a story about how when data doesn’t fit one’s hypothesis, the quest for answers can lead to new discoveries.

In previous research, Plewa’s lab was looking at the connection between naturally-occurring iodide in drinking water sources and the creation of very toxic substances through the disinfection process. In their study of 23 cities, they measured the level of toxic iodinated disinfection by-products (DBPs) in the drinking water. “Surprisingly, four cities that had no natural iodine in the water­ still had these toxic iodinated DBPs,” said Plewa. “Where was the iodine coming from?”

At a scientific conference, a colleague suggested that the iodine source in these four water supplies may be from X-ray contrast media, and Plewa set out to find out if that was right. Sure enough, the water samples were tested and had high levels of iopamidol, the most commonly used contrast media.

“We let the data carry us to help us understand,” said Plewa. “It’s a puzzle and an adventure. It’s very exciting.

“Through the Discovery Grant, we were able to confirm that iopamidol plus disinfection led to disinfection by-products that were more toxic than iopamidol alone or disinfection alone.”

This project was selected for a 2012 U.S. EPA Scientific and Technological Achievement Award (Level I). According to the EPA, Level 1 is awarded to those who have accomplished an exceptionally high-quality research or technological effort. Awarded work has national significance or has high impact on a broad area of science and technology.

The findings from this project also led to a $495,000 National Science Foundation grant and international collaboration. Working with scientists at the Federal Institute of Hydrology in Germany, the University of Akron in Ohio, and at U.S. EPA, Plewa was able to further study the toxicity of contrast media and the mechanisms of how the chemical change happens.

“When we studied five contrast agents, only iopamidol transformed into a toxic substance during disinfection, but iopamidol is also the most widely used.” said Plewa.

And as their adventure in science continued, Plewa and his team learned that their theory of how iopamidol was transformed was, in fact, wrong. Instead, they discovered it was a very different mechanism, which opened a door to new information. They were able to identify a molecule associated with these toxic chemicals that inhibits an enzyme involved in cellular metabolism. This molecule could be contributing to neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s, or to birth defects.

“There’s much about this that we still don’t understand,” said Plewa, and he defers to medical researchers to make any direct health connections.

Despite decades of research on drinking water disinfection by-products, Plewa sees water disinfection as the greatest public health achievement of the 20th Century. “Lincoln’s children died of water-borne disease. Before the advent of water disinfection in 1908, water borne disease and death was common in the U.S. With water purification we have dramatically reduced the risk of acute disease.

“But since 1974, we’ve also identified over 600 disinfection by-products, which is maybe only 50 percent of what’s in the water,” he added. “And of these, we’ve analyzed only a few. It makes sense to identify the most toxic chemicals and modify the disinfection process to reduce their presence. The goal is to make good drinking water better.”

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

Sara Paver looks back on her experiences as a Knauss Fellow

January 8th, 2015 by
As the 2014 Knauss season wraps up, IISG-sponsored graduate student Sara Paver wrote in to update us on her work at National Science Foundation Division of Ocean Sciences since we last heard from her in July. 

The last few months have been a whirlwind of activity. In my placement as a Knauss Fellow in the Division of Ocean Sciences at the National Science Foundation, I have continued working with the Coastal Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (Coastal SEES) working group and the Biological Oceanography Program. I am currently leading the efforts of the working group to organize and plan the Coastal SEES Principal Investigators’ Meeting, which will be held January 29-30, 2015. I am looking forward to meeting the 2013 and 2014 Coastal SEES awardees and hearing about the exciting work they are doing to make progress on coastal sustainability issues.
As part of my work with the Biological Oceanography Program, I have been helping manage the review of five grant proposals. I am currently writing analyses that summarize the reviewers’ feedback and explain whether or not the proposal is being recommended for an award. 

In addition to the work I’ve been doing at NSF headquarters in Arlington, VA, I have had the opportunity to participate in valuable professional development opportunities. I presented my dissertation research at the International Society for Microbial Ecology meeting in Seoul, South Korea. I also participated in the Explorations in Data Analyses for Metagenomic Advances in Microbial Ecology Workshop at Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, MI. Ashley Shade, Tracy Teal, and Josh Herr put together an excellent week of learning modules, lectures, and guest speakers. My favorite highlight—out of many—was the question and answer session we had with Jim Tiedje.

Most recently, I traveled to Hawaii to participate in the Ecological Dissertations in the Aquatic Sciences (Eco-DAS) Workshop at the Center for Microbial Oceanography:  Research and Education. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet peers who, like me, have recently finished a Ph.D. or will be finishing very soon. As a result of participating in Eco-DAS, I am working on two collaborative manuscripts. It was a great week to get excited about science and collaboration.
The best part of my fellowship has been all of the connections that I have made with people, including my colleagues at NSF, the other fellows, people in the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Office, individuals that I interacted with during Knauss placement weeks and Knauss professional development activities, researchers serving on NSF panels and giving presentations at NSF, and people I interacted with at the workshops and conferences I attended. The opportunity to be a Knauss Fellow has broadened my perspective on many things, including available career paths. I might consider coming back to NSF as a rotating program officer in the future. In the near term, I plan to return to an academic setting in a postdoctoral research position.
Please visit our fellowship page for more information, or contact Angela Archer at

Knauss Fellow Sara Paver shares her experiences at NSF

July 24th, 2014 by
It’s been a few months since IISG-sponsored graduate students Sara Paver and Katherine Touzinsky began their Knauss fellowships. We were curious to hear about their experiences so far and thought you might be too. First up is Sara, an alum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is spending the year at the National Science Foundation Division of Ocean Sciences. 

“I have officially reached the halfway point in my fellowship. I am having a wonderful experience, and the time has passed unbelievably quickly. I would consider the best aspects of being a Knauss Fellow to be (in no particular order) the abundance and breadth of opportunities—no two fellowship experiences are the same, and there is quite a bit of flexibility to tailor your experiences to your interests—and the awesome people you have the opportunity to interact with along the way. I really enjoy working with my colleagues at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and spending time with the other fellows. 

My fellowship placement is in the Division of Ocean Sciences, where I have been working to facilitate the review of grant proposals submitted to the Coastal Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (Coastal SEES) program and the Biological Oceanography core program. I submitted a few grants to NSF as a graduate student, and it has been very illuminating to see the grant review process from the other side. I especially enjoy meeting and interacting with the scientists who serve on panels.

My position at NSF has also enabled me to improve my science communication skills. I revised the 2014 Coastal SEES award abstracts to make them accessible to a non-specialist audience. I have also been writing NSF Highlights to describe the broader impacts of research accomplishments funded by the NSF Biological Oceanography program.

Outside of my work at NSF, I have been using my non-stipend fellowship funds to travel. I recently returned from Waterville Valley, NH, where I attended my first Gordon Research Conference. The theme of the conference was “Ocean Global Change Biology: Interactive Effects of Multiple Global Change Variables.” In May, I had the opportunity to travel to the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, ME to participate in an Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry scoping workshop focused on improving predictive biogeochemical models through single cell-based analyses of marine plankton. These experiences provided me with opportunities to network with researchers—including scientists whose work I cited in my dissertation and had specifically hoped to meet—as well as the chance to watch collaborations form and new research areas emerge. 

The Knauss Fellowship has also provided me with unique extra-curricular experiences. For example, I recently viewed Saturn through a telescope at the Naval Observatory during a special tour for Knauss Fellows set up by Justine Kimball, the fellow currently serving as policy liaison to the Oceanographer of the Navy. Earlier in the year, I went bowling with my NSF colleagues at the Truman Bowling Alley in the basement of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is near the White House. I also went on a road trip with some of the other Knauss Fellows, including IISG fellow Katherine Touzinsky, to Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where we completed an Integration and ApplicationNetwork (IAN) science communication course.

I am excited to see what is in store for me in the next six months and would encourage anyone interested in the intersection of science and policy to seriously consider applying to be a Knauss Fellow.”

Be sure to check back here next week to hear how things are going for Katherine Touzinsky

**Photo A: Sara (left) and three other Knauss Fellows take a break from Capital Hill Ocean Week events to pose for a photo. 
Photo B: Sara enjoying her visit to East Boothbay, ME. 


Najwa Obeid, IISG-sponsored Knauss Fellow, shares her work with the National Science Foundation

March 7th, 2014 by
Najwa Obeid’s experiences as a Knauss Fellow at the National Science Foundation can perhaps most accurately be described as diverse. And that diversity, she said, will go a long way in helping her achieve her goal of working on water and coastal policy.

Her greatest exposure to policy came while participating in an ecosystem-based management working group with representatives from agencies like the Department of the Interior, NOAA, the U.S. Navy and EPA. Ecosystem-based management is a type of resource management that focuses on whole ecosystems instead of individual species or resources and is one of nine policy recommendations included in the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. The group – officially known as the National Ocean Council ecosystem-based management interagency subgroup – was charged with determining what this recommendation meant for each agency and identifying work priorities and pilot projects. In her role with the National Science Foundation, Najwa identified science and knowledge gaps and connected the group with academic experts.  

“I have a better idea now of how things do and should work, particularly when there are a lot of agencies involved,” said Najwa, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Reading about the work is one thing, but being immersed in it adds much more value.”  
Before her time with the working group, Najwa helped launch the new Coastal Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability program, part of the Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE), and facilitated peer review and award decisions for grant proposals. She also analyzed data on past OCE proposals to better understand award trends and determine how best to change or modify current OCE policy.  
And, like her co-fellow Will Tyburczy, Najwa has some advice for those considering a Knauss fellowship. 
“If you have any sort of interest in policy or want to be involved with work that has a faster and more direct social impact,” she advised, “give it a try. It is a very unique and educational year.”
For more information about the Sea Grant Knauss fellowship and other fellowship opportunities, please visit the IISG Fellowship and Scholarship page.

Knauss Fellows head to D.C. to find and begin their new positions

December 13th, 2013 by
Two student applicants sponsored by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant were selected as Knauss fellowship winners this year, and last month they traveled to the nation’s capital to find their respective positions working on water resource and environmental issues. 
Katherine Touzinsky and Sara Paver both wrote in to update us on the positions they selected and the specific areas where they will be focusing their energies. 
“Placement week – what to say?” Katherine writes. “Over the course of three days, I had 17 interviews for different positions, and each and every one seemed like something I had dreamed up. It was one of the most stressful and exciting experiences I’ve ever had. 
I was placed as a navigation R&D advisor for the US Army Corps of Engineers. The US Army Corps of Engineers provides vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters. I get to take a leadership role in research and development by helping to manage a national R&D agenda, make decisions about technical approaches, and integrate technical teams from federal, academic, and industry sectors. And I’ll get to actively participate in actual research projects too. For at least one week each month, I will be traveling to national DoD labs to meet scientists, get to know their research, and work to make connections between them and other governmental and non-governmental sectors.
I’m in the second year of my master’s program in ecological sciences and engineering (ESE). My thesis work is on the plasticity of Asian carp between the Illinois and Wabash Rivers, and I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with bowfisherman through most of my Asian sampling and extension activities. Right now I’m trying to choose whether or not I will continue on for my PhD and if so, on what topic. I’ve gained some crucial insight on my interests through working with ESE – what I love about ecology is studying interactions and, more broadly, systems. I’m so excited about the Knauss Fellowship year because it is going to let me get a bird’s eye view of the intersections between high-level government, scientists and researchers, the ecology of specific areas, and end users (fisherman, recreationalists, commercial operators, etc.).”
Sara also found placement week to be quite the experience. “Knauss placement week was a fun, speed-dating-esque marathon. It provided an amazing opportunity to get a glimpse of the breadth of work being done within NOAA and other host agencies. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with representatives from various host offices as well as incoming, current, and former fellows.

I selected a position at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences. Part of my responsibilities will be to facilitate peer review and award decisions for proposals submitted to the Ocean Section, including the Coastal Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (Coastal SEES) program.  I am really excited to be exposed to cutting-edge research and to see the grant review process first hand. I think that reading and participating in the review of the Coastal SEES proposals will be particularly enlightening due to their interdisciplinary nature.

I am graduating in December with a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, having studied aquatic microbial ecology in Dr. Angela Kent’s lab. I am looking forward to broadening my understanding of how policy and the needs of society influence science and how science, in turn, informs policy. I plan to return to microbial ecology research armed with this knowledge following my year as a fellow.”
To learn more about the fellowship program, visit the National Sea Grant College Program Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship website. And to find out about all of the fellowships available to undergraduate, graduate, and post-grad students, visit our fellowship page.

IISG-sponsored Knauss Fellows begin their positions

April 26th, 2013 by

Two student applicants sponsored by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant were selected for Knauss fellowships this year, and both have begun their respective positions working on issues related to protecting water resources. 

Najwa Obeid and Will Tyburczy both wrote in to update us on the positions they selected and the specific areas where they will be focusing their energies. 

“My host office is the Division of Ocean Sciences at NSF,” writes Najwa. “I will be involved in activities under the Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) cross-foundation portfolio, and in particular, the new Coastal SEES program. The goal of Coastal SEES is to support interdisciplinary research on the dynamic interactions between human behavior, physical forces, and ecological processes in the coastal zone. This program will support fundamental research to facilitate the nation’s ability to maintain sustainable coastal systems.

My involvement with Coastal SEES will allow me to broaden my interdisciplinary understanding by participating in the peer review panels and by conducting background research to help the program. I will also gain exposure to policy though my involvement in the National Ocean Policy Ecosystem-based Management interagency taskforce.”

Meanwhile, Will is working in NOAA’s Office of Program Planning and Integration, “which helps to coordinate activities across NOAA to ensure that the organization is using its resources effectively to meet NOAA’s mission and the nation’s needs. Specifically, I work on NOAA’s Regional Collaboration Network. The Network was formed to improve communication, coordination, and collaboration across NOAA’s programmatic line offices (Weather Service, Fisheries, Satellite and Information Service, Ocean Service, and Oceanic and Atmospheric Research). This is critical for issues that transcend traditional line office boundaries, such as providing stewardship for aquatic habitat or integrating NOAA’s emergency and disaster response capabilities. The network also provides a direct conduit between NOAA leadership and NOAA’s regional partners and stakeholders, allowing the administration to respond more rapidly and effectively to local issues and concerns. Recent examples of network activities include helping the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative to provide training on climate adaptation planning to 104 cities, and helping to prioritize and coordinate efforts in Alaska to manage tsunami debris.

Thus far in my fellowship, I have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects for PPI and the network. They include presenting NOAA leadership with the ongoing impact of federal sequestration on network activities, preparing proposals to improve the efficiency in oversight for network travel needs, and helping the network to develop documents that effectively convey to headquarters the key priorities, emerging issues, and network activities in each of the network’s eight regions. I am also participating in a NOAA-wide project to optimize the execution of NOAA’s corporate planning. These activities are improving my workplace skills, such as effective writing, project management, and facilitation, as well as helping me to learn about the diverse array of critical services that NOAA provides to communities across the nation.”

Stay tuned for future blog posts to learn more about how these IISG fellows progress in their new positions. To learn more about the fellowship program, visit the National Sea Grant College Program Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship website.

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