Leadership Q&A: Immersed in northern Michigan nature

Aimée Classen, PhD, is the director of the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Michigan.

What is the University of Michigan Biological Station?

 By bringing communities together to learn from a place, the University of Michigan Biological Station alters the way you see the world. UMBS is our protected place of scientific exploration and discovery in northern Michigan just south of the Mackinac Bridge. 

It’s where nature comes alive for hundreds of college students on the cusp of their careers for a handful of weeks each year. The Biological Station is experiential learning. We immerse students in nature, make them believe they can be scientists, and then place these environmental problem solvers in every part of society.

UMBS also is where scientific researchers from around the globe come to study unique species and ecosystems. Students and scientists live and work as a community to learn from the place. Together, we help forecast how organisms, population, communities and ecosystems will assemble and function in the future under conditions that humans have never seen before.

Laboratories and cabins are tucked into over 10,000 acres along Douglas Lake. UMBS students, staff, artists and researchers reside on the 20-acre main campus but work and learn daily by immersing themselves in the diverse ecosystems of the greater Biological Station property. The bulk of our programming and the research conducted occurs between May and September. The UMBS land has 11 different natural communities — from bogs and forests to meadows and beaches — within which there are 125 different landscape ecosystem types. Multiple state-recognized threatened and federally endangered species exist on site. The opportunities for education and research are limitless.

Founded in 1909, UMBS is one of the nation’s largest and longest continuously operating field research stations. With over 100 years of learning and data collection, we are able to tell powerful stories about how northern MI has changed over time as well as how the changes we see here fit into our understanding of how populations, communities and ecosystems work all around the world. The opportunities for education and research are limitless and our extensive long-term data sets only gain power over time. We are uniquely positioned to address the greatest applied problem in human history: global environmental change.

What are some of your objectives and projects as director of the U-M Biological Station?

UMBS is full of possibility and we want to make sure our values are part of our campus life. Thus, we want UMBS to be sustainable and carbon neutral. The technology is there. We aim to be a showcase for sustainable living and infrastructure for both the University and northern Michigan communities. We can make it work, lead by example and be a model to show how one community can have an impact on the massive challenges we face with our changing climate.
We are in the early stages of a campus planning process to address new cabin and facilities needs for our next 100 years. UMBS enrollment has increased, and we need to be able to inclusively welcome and serve more students. More scientists with broad interests want to conduct research at UMBS, and their needs are different than those of the past. One important goal regarding expansion: We need the ability to operate year-round — not only during the warm weather seasons — and that means significant infrastructure upgrades.

Sustainability, accessibility and inclusion are central to our design goals. Reducing barriers to participation for students, environmental researchers and community members is our highest priority. We want to create space for more wonder, more science and more biological problem-solvers.

How do students participate in projects at the UMBS?

Students learn from the place rather than about the place. Thus, the UMBS experience is powerful and transformative for every person who spends time here. It changes their education, career and lives. 

 Our data show that students experience more of the kind of affective outcomes associated with persistence in STEM when they take courses at UMBS, and these gains are greater for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Our alumni repeatedly reference their time at UMBS as the most important and formative experience of their undergraduate careers.

 It’s important to note that this is a special place for families of staff and scientists who bring their children up North each year. We love our “station kids.” While mom or dad is out doing research or teaching during the day, the kids are making friends and memories to last a lifetime. Bicycles and canoes are the preferred mode of transportation.

We have a lot of fun outside of our core missions of education and research too. You can go swimming or play volleyball, basketball, badminton and more. The square dance is always a popular, energizing event each term. A local caller teaches everyone all the moves and a live band plays a selection of high-energy, old-time fiddle tunes with some Irish reels and hornpipes and a couple of waltzes. 

How does the research conducted at the Bio Station impact Michigan? 

Research areas at the Biological Station are wide-ranging yet interwoven and share the collective goal of understanding the changing environment of northern Michigan, Michigan and the world. To name only a few, there are scientists tracking carbon storage and fluxes through successive forest systems and to the atmosphere; working on how forest seedlings today will shape forests of the future; are monitoring mating habits and nesting sites of the endangered Great Lakes Piping Plover; following migrating monarchs, and still more are assessing the impacts of dam removal on animal and plant populations in local rivers and wetlands. Our long-term monitoring and highly specialized research infrastructure allow scientists to generate data and ask questions that could not be answered anywhere else. In fact, data from our lake buoy exploring relationships between lake size, warming, and biodiversity was just used in a global-scale analysis that pointed to how to manage lakes to maintain biodiversity. So, research at UMBS goes from local, to regional, to global scales and back again. 

What does the future of the UMBS include?

We are excited to design and begin our capital improvement projects at our historic scientific field station. This will allow us to build programming that will transform how we think about field-based education and research. We are eager to grow our aquatics program and welcome more research scientists and students to this special place that has inspired generations. Scientific discovery is beautiful and incredible. And it’s urgently needed now more than ever before to determine the resiliency of our natural world to global change.