With a specially-equipped Mobile Exposure Laboratory Trailer in tow — a rarity in scientific work — the students traveled to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan as part of a federal program to improve water quality and wildlife habitats in the Great Lakes region.
King, a graduate student in cell and molecular biology at St. Cloud State, and Solarz, an undergraduate in biology, spent the next three weeks visiting various locations in the Twin Rivers watershed, collecting water from different streams. They transferred the water samples to aquariums in the trailer with fathead minnows and observed, studied and recorded what they found to determine the condition of the water and its effect on the laboratory-raised fish.
“I never in my life dreamed that I’d ever have any interest in working with fish,” King said with a laugh. “It’s definitely not glamorous work.”
This field work by King and Solarz may not be glamorous, but it’s a highly rewarding opportunity and extremely important part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that seeks to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world. To advance this massive project, the federal agencies involved with the initiative have partnered with dozens of nonprofit, municipal and academic organizations,including St. Cloud State’s Aquatic Toxicology Lab. The lab, in turn, relies on student researchers like King and Solarz to do field work, specimen collection and data analysis.
Located in the Wick Science Building, the Aquatic Toxicology Lab is devoted to investigating the impact of chemical pollution on aquatic life. After 21 days in the field, King and Solarz returned to the lab, where samples from the fish they exposed to waters from the Twin Rivers (and their offspring) were examined for changes in normal biological function. The objective? To identify how chemical exposure affects the reproduction and growth of new minnows — and by extension, to identify the potential risks of exposure to human health.
“I was planning to be done with my education after earning my bachelor’s degree, but now I’m doing graduate work and planning to pursue a Ph.D.,” said King, who got involved with the lab as an undergraduate.
“I fell in love with the people and the work I’m doing.”
Lab leads to opportunities
St. Cloud’s Aquatic Toxicology Lab was founded by Dr. Heiko Schoenfuss in 2003. German by birth, Schoenfuss studied biology at the University of Bayreuth before coming to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in veterinary anatomy and a Ph.D. in evolutionary morphology — both from Louisiana State University. His interest in anatomy eventually led Schoenfuss to the intersection of biology and chemistry — and, from there, to minnows and Minnesota.
In the 1990s, scientists became alarmed by the number of deformed frogs and fish that were turning up in wetlands and waterways in developed countries. The exact cause of the problem was unknown, but several clues pointed to man-made chemicals called endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are compounds that alter the normal cellular process in an organism or its offspring.
Most often these altered mechanisms belong to the endocrine system, which produces hormones that regulat metabolism, growth, reproduction and a host of other essential processes.
“It was really reports about feminized male fish — organisms that were hermaphroditic that got people’s notice and moved Congress to pass legislation asking the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the problem,” Schoenfuss recalled.
“The EPA collaborated with scientists in academia, which essentially launched my career.”
Schoenfuss was hired as a biology professor at St. Cloud State in 2001, and shortly thereafter founded the Aquatic Toxicology Lab. The purpose of the lab is multifold. In part, it supports the professor’s own research — and Schoenfuss has managed to land dozens of high-profile grants to fund his work.
Dollars from the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state’s Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment have helped him purchase aquariums, fish food, freezers and other equipment and materials for the lab.
“It varies from year to year, but we have averaged about a quarter-million dollars in grant funding each a year, for a total of about $6 million at this point.”
Schoenfuss and the lab have also partnered with public agencies that monitor water quality in Chicago and Los Angeles, creating additional collaborations that support the research conducted in the lab.
In launching the lab, Schoenfuss also saw opportunities to advance research on campus. Various faculty members are now associated with the lab, including Dr. Satomi Kohno, a specialist in toxicology who studied crocodiles in Florida before moving to Minnesota to join the faculty.
“We were very lucky to be able to attract him to St. Cloud State,” Schoenfuss said. “We couldn’t have done that without the lab.”
But the greatest opportunity the lab could offer the university, Schoenfuss believed, was to give graduate and undergraduate students a chance to do research.
“Research is a very abstract concept,” Schoenfuss said. “Students really don’t know what to expect when they start doing research. We’re not officially a research university — we’re focused on teaching — so there are fewer opportunities for students to spend time in labs and to conduct research.
For some of them, research experience is beneficial because they’re going into professions that involve lab and research work. In other cases, I think, there’s a more personal and even social benefit to research work.
“Research generates facts. And in a place and time when we as a society are questioning the value of facts more and more, I think that understanding where facts come from is helpful to making sound decisions.”
The work of the Aquatic Toxicology Lab has changed since it was launched in 2003.
Partly, the science surrounding endocrine disruptors has grown and basic questions have given way to more complex questions.
“We have shifted from looking at single chemicals to more and more complex chemical mixtures that are getting closer and closer to reflecting what’s actually in the environment,” Schoenfuss said.
“It isn’t just the pesticides used in agriculture that contaminate our water, it’s also household chemicals and pharmaceuticals and industrial pollutants. In our research, we’ve shifted to looking at mixtures of compounds.”
The work has also moved beyond the walls of the lab and into the field, giving students yet another opportunity to broaden their horizons. In 2012, the lab was approached by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to participate in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. St. Cloud State students are now collaborators in helping pinpoint regions where chemical mixtures — a blend of contaminants used in everything from fertilizers to household cleaners — come together in the environment to form potentially harmful hot spots.
“We’re looking at environments to see what chemicals show up frequently and how they affect organisms,” Schoenfuss said. “Do the compounds and endocrine problems in fish co-occur in some sort of a predictable fashion?”
Which brings us back to King and Solarz. The pair were sent to do field work in Two Rivers because the area aligns with several of the suspected chemicals that lab researchers have identified as harmful. If their theory is correct, the region’s fish may be more likely to be affected by endocrine disruptors than organisms found elsewhere. This information could prove key to helping federal officials decide on next steps as they seek to clean up the Great Lakes.
Two other St. Cloud State students were dispatched in the summer to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to collect more samples with the Mobile Exposure Laboratory Trailer. Charles Christen, an undergraduate student majoring in biomedical sciences, signed up to participate in the field work because he thought it would enhance his education.
“I saw this as a chance to apply the skills I’m learning,” he said. “We learn things in chemistry classes, but we don’t apply that much to the world around us. In the mobile lab, we’re applying our skills to actual problems in real-life settings.”
James Gerads, another graduate student involved with the Grand Rapids field work, said he signed up simply because he was intrigued by the idea of a lab that could be deployed into the field.
Several students have used their experience with the Aquatic Research Lab to help publish papers, which is a significant honor to add to a resume. Others simply say they’re glad to have the opportunity to see behind the curtain and get a glimpse of what research looks like, from first inquiries to funding to publication.
“Even if they don’t go into aquatic toxicology research after they leave St. Cloud State, these students will have a firm grasp of the scientific method, how science progresses and how science is communicated,” Schoenfuss said.
King agreed and cited her time in the lab as critical to her growth as a student.
“I don’t think I would’ve been as successful in my college career without these experiences,” she said.
Written by Joel Hoekstra, a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.