Shelby LaBuhn--Love of Math and Nature Leads Student to Lake Michigan Mud
Update: LaBuhn is a finalist for the 2017 John A. Knauss Fellowship program, which is a one-year paid internship in the Washington, D.C., area. Finalists receive placement with "hosts" in the legislative and executive branch of government. "I am very excited to have received the Knauss Fellowship because the experience will make me a better informed scientist and citizen," LaBuhn says. "Two of the most valuable aspects, in my eyes, are being able to understand what drives science funding and priorities and learning how to improve research efforts to create applicable policy."

Shelby LaBuhn with her arm covered in her favorite material: Lake Michigan mud. She's holding a sediment coring tube.

Credit: Kim Weckerly

The eddy correlation equipment mounted on a steel frame, which is lowered to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Credit: Dirk Koopmans

March 28, 2016

By Marie Zhuikov

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 freshwater sciences and technology. Her advisor is 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, which fish need to survive. These oxygen “dead zones” are especially problematic in the Green Bay area.

LaBuhn explained that one of the important mechanisms using up the oxygen in the lake bottom is the lake mud itself. However, it’s difficult to measure the production and respiration of oxygen there, so Klump and LaBuhn are exploring a new method called eddy correlation. This noninvasive 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, the researchers take measurements in the lake 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. Klump and Labuhn are comparing this newer method to more traditional methods of shipboard sediment core incubation experiments.

“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 our podcast (#8).

Shelby is currently working towards her Ph.D. in Freshwater Sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is interested in biogeochemical cycles of oxygen, phosphorus and nitrogen in coastal systems.  Her doctoral research is focused around understanding the oxygen budget and, ultimately, seasonal hypoxia in Green Bay, Lake Michigan. Shelby’s fieldwork utilizes a variety of methods, such as natural water tracers, sediment core incubations and diel oxygen fluxes. She is also part of a team building a comprehensive Green Bay model that will help environmental managers develop best management practices in the watershed to protect water quality in the bay. When Shelby is not busy getting covered in sediment (although she does enjoy it) you can find her running, biking or playing volleyball. She also enjoys baking, usually with chocolate, and visiting with friends and family.

Ph.D., Freshwater Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (in progress)
B.S., Environmental Chemistry, Lake Superior State University, May 2011

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