Shelby LaBuhn grew up playing in the forests of Michigan’s rural “thumb.” Although she liked math more than science, when it came time to choose her undergraduate degree, her experience in nature tipped the scales.
“The forest was my world,” LaBuhn said. “That got me interested in environmental sciences and wanting to protect that at an early age.”
After graduating from Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., LaBuhn continued to pursue her interests at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, where she is working on her Ph.D. in fresh- water sciences and technology. Her advisor is J. Val Klump, a Wisconsin Sea Grant researcher and new advisory council member.
Klump is employing LaBuhn’s talents to study habitat changes in the bottom of Lake Michigan caused by climate shifts and the invasion of zebra and quagga mussels. These changes have caused a lack of oxygen in the water, creating “dead zones” that are especially problematic in the Green Bay area.
LaBuhn explained that one of the important factors using up the oxygen in the lake bottom is the lake mud itself. It’s difficult to measure the production and respiration of oxygen there, so Klump and LaBuhn are exploring a method called eddy correlation. This technique has been around for a dozen years or so, but this is the first time it’s been employed in the Great Lakes.
With eddy correlation, researchers take measurements with equipment mounted on a steel tripod frame that is lowered to the bottom. The instruments sit 10-20 centimeters off the bottom and measure the speed of the water currents and oxygen levels.
“Basically, we take a big chunk of sediment out of the bottom of the lake,” LaBuhn said. “We refrigerate it on the ship to mimic the cold conditions at the lake bottom, and measure the oxygen depletion. One of the things we want to answer is how well do these experiments on the ship correlate to what actually happens in the bottom of the lake. We found that they correlate very well. This is great news because it could be useful to a lot of Great Lakes scientists.”
The work is not clean.
“I’m usually covered in mud,” LaBuhn said.
But she likes what she does and hopes it will lead to a career as a scientist educator. She’d like to work for an organization that promotes citizen science to help the environment — for instance, a program where scientists engage community members to periodically sample a river.
“The people become engaged in the resource then,” LaBuhn said. “They begin to care about it in a different way because they’re starting to see numbers and how they change. Something like that, where I can help people become engaged in testing and protecting the resource would be valuable.”
For more information about Klump and LaBuhn’s project, listen to episode 8 in the podcast “Sea Grant and Lake Michigan: Waters in Transition” (go.wisc.edu/xau9zv).