Shelby LaBuhn--Love of Math and Nature Leads Student to Lake Michigan Mud

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

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 completed her Ph.D. in freshwater sciences and technology.

LaBuhn studied 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 advisor J. Val Klump and LaBuhn explored a new method called eddy correlation. This noninvasive technique has been around for a dozen years or so, but this was the first time it had 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 compared the newer method to more traditional methods of shipboard sediment core incubation experiments.

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 received 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 focused around understanding the oxygen budget and, ultimately, seasonal hypoxia in Green Bay, Lake Michigan. Shelby’s fieldwork utilized a variety of methods, such as natural water tracers, sediment core incubations and diel oxygen fluxes. She was also part of a team that created a comprehensive Green Bay model to help environmental managers develop best management practices in the watershed to protect water quality in the bay. 

Shelby is currently working at The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research as a Project Specialist and Coordinator. She helps NOAA manage international ocean observing projects. 

Ph.D., Freshwater Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, May 2016
B.S., Environmental Chemistry, Lake Superior State University, May 2011

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