University of Minnesota: Hands-on experience in environmental research

On a humid morning in July, Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering (BBE) students Fayth Nystel and Hunter Strubhart drove an hour and half east of the Twin Cities to Pipe Lake in Wisconsin to collect surface and deep-water samples to analyze in the lab.

They worked with BBE faculty member Joe Magner on environmental projects throughout the summer, and on this day boarded a pontoon to specific sampling sites around Pipe and North Pipe Lake.

“I find it so crazy that I can get all this hands-on experience so early on, and I get to do all this different work to gain experience,” says Nystel, who is on the Environmental and Ecological Engineering (EEE) track, one of the three tracks undergraduates can pursue within the BBE major.

Involving undergraduate students in field and lab work has been a part of Magner’s projects for the last decade, and he says it offers students a bigger picture of what EEE researchers do.

“Everything that I’ve done with Joe so far seems to be directly related to what I’ll be doing in my career ahead, “ says Strubhart. “Any device I’ve learned how to use, any fieldwork I’ve done, any lab work, pretty much everything seems to be directly oriented with my career.”

In addition to the surface and deep-water samples, the group collected data from different depths of the lake using a water quality sonde. The sonde allows the team to record water quality measurements including pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, and many others.

“Without knowing what happens during fieldwork, it’s hard for you to actually analyze what you would be getting from the fieldwork that someone else is doing,” Strubhart says. “That knowledge to bridge the gap between fieldwork and analysis, and then fixing problems from that, there’d be a huge gap there if you don’t experience it yourself.”

The students gain experience in the field, but also make connections with working professionals in careers relevant to their track within BBE.

“Networking with other people, meeting new people in the field, it’s been nice getting to talk about what they do,” Nystel said.

In addition to working with professionals in positions their degree could lead to, they also get to work side by side with graduate students in the BBE program who are conducting their own research.

“I’ve been able to talk to a bunch of grad students I have been working with,” Nystel says. “Finding out about their time as an undergrad and how they got into it all, what they’re doing now, and what they plan to do next, it’s helped me to see what I want to do. It helps me know I’m on the right path.”

Adds Strubhart: “I don’t think I knew much at all before going into this summer, and now I know exactly where I want to be as far as consulting or working at a firm, or even doing more research into the future. It’s been a blast!”