By Melissa DeSiervo
The past two weeks I have been taking a summer course at the Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS) located on the shores of gorgeous Flathead lake in Montana. FLBS is one of the oldest field stations in the US and has a focus on aquatic ecosystems. It is an active research site with about ~30 faculty, grad students, postdocs, and techs there year-round who work on things like periphyton and invertebrate species interactions, vertical migrations of Mysis shrimp, methane production in lakes, and much more! The assistant director (Tom Bansak) is a Dartmouth alum who was inspired to be a field ecologist in part by his experience on the Biology FSP many years ago!
FLBS hosts summer courses run through the University of Montana which include topics such as: Stream ecology, Lake ecology, Landscape ecology, and the course that I took, Aquatic Microbial Ecology. For 2 weeks I stayed in a cabin on the shore of Flathead lake, ate meals with other students, staff, and faculty, adventured around the Flathead valley, and got experience using world-class lab facilities at the station. I truly can’t believe how much I learned in only two weeks, all while having fun and connecting with other scientists.
The aquatic microbial ecology class is taught by Associate professor Matt Church who has a background in oceanography and microbial ecology and is especially jazzed by the role of microbes aquatic nitrogen cycling. In the first week, we paddled out on 3 nearby lakes, measured parameters such as temperature and dissolved oxygen across depth profiles and collected water samples. We also went on a white-water rafting trip on the middle fork of the Flathead river, right outside Glacier National Park, and collected water samples in different river habitats such as upwelling zones.
By far the most beneficial part of the course for me was learning about the variety of lab techniques you can use to study aquatic microbes. We analyzed our water samples for chlorophyll fluorescence, prepared slides using a staining technique called DAPI to count bacterial cells, and learned about flow cytometry. We got hands on experience using elemental analyzers to measured nutrients like N and P in our water samples. We also extracted DNA from our samples and went through the entire process of PCR to look for the presence of specific genes involved in processes like denitrification and methane oxidation. One of the coolest things we discovered was the presence of purple sulfur bacteria thriving in anoxic conditions on the bottom of one of the lakes we sampled.
If you work in aquatic ecosystems, or want to gain a stronger background in field ecology, you should not miss the opportunity to take a course at FLBS. And if you work on aquatic microbes, I highly recommend the microbial ecology course! This was a great use of the funds provided to EEES grad students to take a course outside of Dartmouth. To top off the experience, I spent a few days in Glacier National Park (which is just about an hour away) and had an awesome time hiking through alpine meadows, over giant mountains, and seeing wildlife including grizzlies and big-horned sheep. What an experience!