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Window into water quality opens for CNR student

March 21, 2022
Isabel Dunn working with a microscope in the lab.

Isabel Dunn spent summers on an island in Lake Huron in the Great Lakes, where her family enjoyed birds, bugs and plants. “We were surrounded by water. I didn’t realize how special that was until later.”

Those experiences formed her love of water and interest in water quality. Originally from Johnsburg, Ill., Dunn discovered UW-Stevens Point with her mother’s help. “As soon as I came to visit, I knew this is where I wanted to go,” she said.

The multidisciplinary approach in the College of Natural Resources gave Dunn the opportunity to learn about forestry, fisheries, soils, biology, chemistry, water resources and wildlife ecology.

But it was her experience in the Aquatic Biomonitoring Lab that cemented her interest in invertebrates as a window into water quality.

“Water supports everything. The presence or absence of invertebrates – insects, crustaceans –tells a more complete story about the condition of a body of water,” said Dunn, a fisheries and water resources major.

Some can tolerate pollution, and many cannot. Sampling a stream for invertebrates, fish, water chemistry and other factors indicates quality for aquatic ecosystems as well as human health. Invertebrates are animals that lack a backbone, including earthworms, spiders, snails and dragonflies. “Invertebrates have huge diversity, they’re relatively easy to identify and retain,” Dunn said.

Dunn began working as a lab assistant her sophomore year, processing samples from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and tribal and other partners across the state. The Aquatic Biomonitoring Laboratory analyzes samples of bottom-dwelling water bugs (known as benthic macroinvertebrates) to assess the ecological condition and environmental quality of water in various locations. 

The lab is run by Jeff Dimick, laboratory manager, who employs about five students. They learn basic research skills, such as keeping records, following protocols.  “It enhances and extends the curriculum,” he said.

Dimick held weekly taxonomy labs for his student employees and taught them all about snails and the basics of the food chain. “He cemented that this is what I wanted to do,” Dunn said.

Pursuing a career in water resources will allow her to use biology, soils, policy skills and geographic information systems and coding, Dunn said.

Dimick promoted Dunn to assistant lab supervisor after working a year. “She’s fantastic. Isabel trains easily, gains confidence quickly and always has a calm, even-keel,” he said. “She understands there are always some limitations. She takes every opportunity to learn, absorb and apply.”

Dunn applied this experience to research on whether macroinvertebrate communities would indicate a decrease in water quality downstream from four wastewater treatment plants in central Wisconsin. She tested samples upstream and downstream from discharge to determine the ecological condition of waterways. Data showed no statistical significance, indicating the treatment plants appear to manage effluent well.

Her project earned highest honors in a UW-Stevens Point research symposium. She took first place in the regional WiSys Quick Pitch Showcase, where she had three minutes to convey the relevance and economic impact of her research.  “It was a good exercise to communicate to a non-scientific audience. It did challenge me to make the connection that water quality is important globally, she said. “Water is the most precious resource, so it really critical we know how to protect it.”

Her experiences at UW-Stevens Point have prepared her well, said Dunn, who graduated in December. She was co-president of the organization Students for Wetland Awareness, Management and Protection (SWAMP), project coordinator for the American Water Resources Association, and co-leader for a freshwater mussel research project through The Wildlife Society. She has banded saw-whet owls and planted native plants. She studied sustainable agriculture in Kenya as part of her CNR summer field experience. She was a CNR academic peer mentor. She received the chancellor’s leadership award.

All these experiences helped her land her first job, working where her interest in water quality was first piqued, the Great Lakes. Dunn will participate in a research training opportunity monitoring the biological integrity of the Great Lakes sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, based in Chicago.

And she’s had fun. With the UW-Stevens Point Adventure Club, Dunn went rock climbing, backpacking, surfing and skiing. “I’ve gotten to do a lot of cool things and make great friends.”