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Research, impact and opportunity on Beaver Island

A special series highlighting CMU’s Biological Station

Contact: Curt Smith

Thousands of people are spending their summer enjoying the beaches and waters of the Great Lakes.

At the same time, Central Michigan University researchers and students are on an island in northern Lake Michigan, doing work to ensure others can continue reveling in the largest freshwater system in the world.

These students and researchers have access to exceptional facilities in a unique environment at CMU's Biological Station on Beaver Island  – Lake Michigan's largest island. The island's incomparable freshwater ecosystems, natural habitat and inland lakes provide an unparalleled learning and research environment in a tight-knit community. 

Through this special series, you will meet a vessel that has become a part of the research team; learn about the impact of CMU's Biological Station on Beaver Island and the Great Lakes; dive into research that is vital to the future of the Great Lakes; and much more. ​

Central Michigan University researchers are changing the way freshwater ecosystems — particularly those in the Great Lakes — are analyzed.

At CMU’s Biological Station on Beaver Island, custom-designed 250-gallon freshwater tanks simulate Lake Michigan ecosystems, and researchers can control light, temperature, nutrients, water quality and organisms within them.

Advanced research projects examining the effect of multiple variables on ecological processes are being conducted within 12 of these ecosystem tanks, known as mesocosms. Each mesocosm represents an experimental aquatic ecosystem that is filled with warm nutrient-depleted water pumped from the surface of Lake Michigan.


"CMU is the only university in Michigan to have this kind of technology," Donald Uzarski, director of the CMU Institute for Great Lakes Research, said. "They’re essentially 'miniature Lake Michigans' that scientists can completely control — everything from temperature to pressure to what sediments are in the water."

This summer, CMU biology faculty and Institute for Great Lakes Research scientists Kevin Pangle and Scott McNaught lead simultaneous research projects with replicated and controlled experiments taking place at the biological station boathouse and throughout Great Lakes.

The results provide new insights into the probable responses to global climate and general environmental change. Natural resource managers and policymakers have gained access to the critical information discovered to make scientifically informed decisions.

CMU's Biosciences Building – slated to open in the summer of 2016 – will house mesocosms, allowing for year-round research.

“We often are criticized in the field because we cannot control all of the factors, but when we couple field experiments with mesocosm experiments, we generate the most powerful science,” Uzarski said. “We are looking at similar aquatic ecosystems across the Great Lakes basin and the facilities within CMU’s new Biosciences Building will allow us to replicate systems similar to inland wetlands and lakes.”

The M/V Chippewa – a unique 38-foot vessel – makes observing, monitoring and sampling the freshwater wetlands on a group of islands in Lake Michigan much easier for Central Michigan University researchers.

Since it was built in 2013, the 12-person vessel has increased research opportunities for faculty and student researchers at CMU’s Biological Station on Beaver Island and the Institute for Great Lakes Research.

Students and researchers step aboard the M/V Chippewa to gather data samples with the Institute of Great Lakes Research as well as various other experiments taking place in the archipelago. Each student taking a class at the Biological Station will utilize the vessel for a hands-on experience in their three-week course.

The vessel is moored at the Beaver Island Municipal Marina and is equipped with an A-frame and gunwale davit for deploying scientific equipment in both near-shore and deep-water regions of Lake Michigan. Its also includes a 350-foot cable that allows researchers to obtain deep-water samples, and an on-board small laboratory provides access for them to immediately record data after those samples are taken.

Donald Uzarski, director of the CMU Institute for Great Lakes Research and the CMU Biological Station, worked alongside marine architects to build the M/V Chippewa in Mobile, Alabama.

“This vessel allows us to take groups from the community out to see our work,” Uzarski said. “At the same time, we are collecting real data samples used for Great Lakes wetland research in ways we never could before.”

Bill McDonough, the fifth generation of his family to reside on Beaver Island, is one of many Beaver Island residents who have expressed interest in the health of the Great Lakes. Central Michigan University – along with its Institute for Great Lakes Research – is keeping residents involved in its work with coastal wetlands.

Open house educates community members on Great Lakes research

McDonough, a longtime business owner and CEO of the Beaver Island Boat Co., is proud to have an inside look into how CMU evaluates water quality and conducts invasive species research in the Great Lakes.

“It has been a great learning lesson for me. I have learned so much about my community and the other islands,” McDonough said. “If it were not for CMU leading the way, I would not know about the systems that surround Beaver Island.”


The CMU Biological Station on Beaver Island hosted an open house at the station’s boathouse July 21 in conjunction with the Beaver Island Historical Society’s Museum Week. Faculty and students shared research with members of the community, hosted children's activities and provided tours of the CMU research vessel – the M/V Chippewa.

Former CMU football quarterback Michael Franckowiak and his wife, Gay Ebers-Franckowiak, both graduated from CMU in 1975 and have spent their summers on Beaver Island for 15 years.

“Since opening the boathouse, CMU has branched out in Lake Michigan, and we have gone out on the M/V Chippewa,” Franckowiak said. “We are proud and honored to be a part of what is happening with CMU’s spreading outreach on the island.”

Community opportunities

CMU’s Biological Station on Beaver Island offers hands-on learning opportunities through various field trips, scientific cruises and seminars to inform the community of the ecosystems and natural habitats surrounding them.

These include the children’s field trip to CMU’s 240-acre Miller’s Marsh Natural Area held annually as part of Museum Week. CMU Biological Station manager John Gordon and Great Lakes Research Institute wetland technician David Schuberg take a group of children from the community to catch the island’s seven nonvenomous species of snakes and learn how to identify them.

“A lot of people have a fear of snakes, but our goal is to continue being a part of the Beaver Island culture here,” Schuberg said. “We offer opportunities for young kids to experience what Beaver Island has to offer and see there is nothing to be afraid of.”

Students have traveled from as far as China to participate in Central Michigan University’s efforts to study the Great Lakes. The numerous bays and various types of coastal wetlands on Beaver Island provide endless opportunities for freshwater research.

Students and researchers have access to many ecosystems throughout the island’s surroundings as well as the laboratory facilities to study their findings.

Studying the parasite of Great Lakes crayfish

Lindsey Reisinger is a postdoctoral researcher for the Institute for Great Lakes Research. She is studying parasites living on crayfish in Lake Michigan because crayfish have a large role in ecosystems – they are a food source for many fish and consumers of algae, aquatic insects and fish eggs.

Reisinger is looking closely at how parasites affect invasive crayfish behavior since it has been found that crayfish are becoming less afraid of their predators. After placing 20 traps along the shoreline near the CMU Biological Station's boathouse at dusk, she was pleased to have a bucket full of crayfish with parasites available the next day for study at the station’s laboratory.

“Beaver Island is a great place to do research,” said Reisinger, who is conducting research at CMU after earning her graduate degree at the University of Georgia and doctoral degree from the University of Notre Dame. “I have the opportunity to work in the Great Lakes since invasive species play such a large role here. There is a lot of flexibility in the topic I study so I can continue researching something I’m interested in.”

Undergraduate researchers on Beaver Island

Reisinger oversees CMU’s Research Experience for Undergraduates 10-week independent research program that provides opportunities for seven students from across the country, and as far away as China, to research the unique ecosystems of Beaver Island.

As a program mentor, Reisinger teaches students how to stimulate ideas and statistically analyze research. By working with their specific research sampling trips, Reisinger enhances students’ understanding of Great Lakes ecosystems.

The Central Michigan University Biological Station on Beaver Island serves as a unique employer for students each summer.

Students wake up overlooking the Lake Michigan sunrise before heading to work. After a full workday, they race to the west side of the island to view the sunset representing the end to a summer day.

Meet a few of the students who experienced summer jobs on Michigan's largest scenic islands, assisting in CMU's Great Lakes education and research programs.

Student engagement on Beaver Island

More than 200 students enrolled in courses at the biological station participated in engaging programs to develop relationships and become more connected to the island community.

Hemlock senior Christa Hegenauer serves as the conference hall director for the biological station. Hegenauer, who spent her third summer on Beaver Island, is a sociology major who was the leader of residency at the station and provided students with activities to explore island culture and develop friendships.

"It's a whole new culture up here. People are closely connected, and it is untainted," Hegenauer said. "I couldn't ask for a better summer job."

Connecting with the island community

Students living on the island often discover additional opportunities to gain professional experience while working at the biological station.

Palo senior Crissa Snyder worked as a kitchen assistant, but she also expanded her community outreach by serving as the director of YMCA Camp Arrowhead at Beaver Island Community School. The experience she gained as the leader of a five-week summer camp will prepare her to complete her degree in integrated science and biology for secondary and middle-level education.

"Not only do I get to practice lesson plans, but I also get to work on classroom management techniques with my campers," Snyder said. "Day-to-day contact with the students is a wonderful experience."

The eyes and ears of the biological station

While there is a lot of work to keep the station functioning, there always are opportunities for student employees to learn about research.

Northville sophomore Alex Spilman was a facilities management assistant whose responsibility was to maintain, fix and beautify the station each day. Since he is a biomedical sciences major, Spilman often used his spare time to talk to student researchers about the projects and learn about their fieldwork.

"Maintaining the biological station has pushed me outside of my comfort zone," Spilman said. "Not only has it changed my perspective of the environment, but it also has helped me learn handy skills I need."

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