Senior Joe Fitzgerald been involved in graduate level research for the last four years at Northland College, leading plankton research in Chequamegon Bay, developing a phytoplankton catalog, and studying silver carp in the in the Mississippi. The first two have earned him the name The Plankton Guy.

This past summer he turned his attention to dragonflies. He hiked and boated to wetlands, jabbing a dip-net in the muck, to collect dragonfly larvae at Pictured Rocks, Isle Royale, Grand Portage, St. Croix, and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Next year he hopes to add Sleeping Bear Dunes and Voyageurs National Park.

Dr. Randy Lehr, professor and codirector of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, has been working with students since 2012 to collect larval dragonfly at the St Croix National Scenic Riverway.

The hope is to use larval dragonfly as sentinel organisms to monitor spatial patterns and trends in mercury across several parks. Recent studies have shown that concentrations of mercury in larval dragonfly are well correlated with levels of mercury in fish, and larval dragonfly are more easily sampled than fish.

This is part of a larger study in which students work as citizen scientists in cooperation with the National Park Service Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network, NPS Air Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Maine.

The U.S. National Park Service recently signed a five-year cooperative agreement with the College to hire students to assist in monitoring mercury trends in larval dragonfly in the Upper Midwest. The project will be housed at the Burke Center.

“The dragonfly monitoring project is an excellent collaboration where students get to learn about parks, wetland ecosystems, and mercury in those systems,” said Bill Route, ecologist at the National Park Service Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network. “For our part, we get excellent data collected for monitoring the levels of mercury in these parks.”

This agreement will expand Dr. Lehr’s capacity to oversee students to collect, manage, analyze, and report on data at up to nine other NPS locations. Students will learn about the process of mercury deposition, methylation, and bioaccumulation in the aquatic food web and will ultimately contribute to the park service’s mandate to provide visitors with information about the dangers of mercury and advice on limiting the consumption of fish from waters with high levels of mercury.

A Natural Resources major with an emphasis in ecological restoration, Fitzgerald is a shining example of Lehr’s vision for innovating higher ed research via the Burke Center. The idea is that students start as research interns their freshmen year then move through the ranks from research technician to research assistant until they progress into becoming full research scientists.

“I’ve never done anything like the things I’ve done doing this research,” said Fitzgerald. “On the Mississippi carp work, I was on the boat with a head researcher and we weren’t seeing carp so he took me into the backwaters and did donuts and it started to rain flying fish.”

Fitzgerald was raised in the freshwater city of Milwaukee. He had signed on to study environmental economics in the Twin Cities but a few days before classes started, he looked again at Northland College and decided to switch.

“I knew I would get lost in the business side of things, and lose the environmental emphasis,” he said. “So I chose to come to a place like this.”

Fitzgerald will be working on his science-based capstone project incorporating his research—including abundance analysis massive amounts of plankton collected at sites on Chequamegon Bay. He plans to pursue a future working on economic innovation around the Great Lakes. He’s interested in economics and policy but understands the importance of having a solid, science-based background.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do since middle school and I knew I could do it at Northland,” he said.


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