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Michigan Sea Grant interns focus research on conservation issues in Great Lakes

Story by Elizabeth Striano, Michigan Sea Grant


This summer, Michigan Sea Grant (MISG) welcomed 16 undergraduate interns from seven Michigan colleges and universities to work on research related to aquatic invasive species, fisheries, ecosystem modeling, and education and green infrastructure. Their two-month-long internship projects, aimed at enhancing sustainable use of Great Lakes resources, were part of the Sea Grant Community Engaged Internship (CEI) program. The CEI program strives to support a diverse group of undergraduates doing innovative research and provides a series of professional development opportunities for the interns throughout their internships.


In addition, most of the projects also included an outreach and communication component, often with the community most directly affected by the research being conducted. Outreach efforts involved using social media, developing web pages, writing brochures and other materials, and meeting with community members.


“When we review [internship] proposals, we really are looking for projects that not only have the potential to benefit the environment and human life in the Great Lakes region but also that provide a full, rich experience for the student,” says Catherine Riseng, Michigan Sea Grant Assistant Director and Research Program Manager. “We supported some truly inspiring students this year, who worked on everything from fish egg mortality in the St. Clair and Detroit rivers to New Zealand mud snails in the Boardman River.”


Projects that make a difference


In mid-August, each intern had an opportunity to present their project at a virtual symposium and answer audience questions. Each student worked with a collaborating organization and Michigan Sea Grant faculty member to develop and conduct their projects. 


David Martinez-Vasquez, a student at Calvin University, developed the framework for a project that will use tree planting to discourage growth of invasive reed canary grass and he provided watershed education to urban Grand Rapids high school students. His project’s goal is to determine if native trees produce enough shade to reduce the growth of reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea). Martinez-Vasquez and his advisor plan to plant 220 trees of seven different species. 


In the meantime, Martinez-Vasquez worked with the Plaster Creek Stewards Green Team on teaching watershed ecology, environmental justice issues, green infrastructure and job skills to high school students. The team worked with the students to identify native plants and conduct restoration projects. 


“I got to meet eight different high schoolers from around the area. They learned about different native plant species, different types of green infrastructure, and they also worked on a few different restoration projects,” said Martinez-Vasquez during his virtual presentation. He also learned the value of restoration work. “Restoration work is not the easiest thing to do all the time,” he said, adding, “But there’s so much satisfaction that comes with doing it. The smallest changes can really give you hope for the future. And in a few years, when these students graduate from high school, they can come back to these different sites they worked at and see what they contributed to.”


Another intern, Abigail Meyer, from the University of Michigan, assessed how well native wetland plant communities can resist invasion from non-native plants. The goal of her research was to understand the specific mechanisms of plant competition to determine under what conditions native plant communities are able to better resist invasion, and why. This information can be used by wetland managers to select species best suited to increase biotic resistance of the native wetland.


Although the pandemic affected nearly all of the projects in some way, the students were able to make progress, altering course or refocusing some aspects of their work as needed. Indeed, for any fieldwork students were able to conduct, everyone had to wear masks, maintain social distance and sanitize all tools. 


Through her project, Julianne Grenn of Lake Superior State University worked with the Anglers of the Au Sable, LSSU and Grayling Fish Hatchery to develop an operations manual for the hatchery and improve community outreach. “Our goal was to be open to the public because we’re a public resource. So I had to figure out how to … keep the guests safe while also keeping myself safe,” said Grenn. Steps included shutting down the visitor center and installing one-way paths, hand sanitizer stations and a guest-free zone. “That definitely taught me how to adapt to the circumstances at hand.” 


Program background


MISG’s undergraduate environmental internship program coordinates and funds undergraduate students from accredited community colleges, colleges or universities in Michigan. Applicants typically work on environmental stewardship projects in the Great Lakes in collaboration with private businesses, local government, state and federal agencies, or environmental non-profit organizations, or university faculty. Preference typically is given to students who plan to pursue a career in environmental science and those working with an organization outside of an academic setting, such as a local government, state, or federal agency.

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