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Chasing Algae

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It’s February, in the dead of winter, and Prof. Michael Twiss is on an icebreaker in the middle of Lake Erie with a hardy crew of students in a makeshift lab, chasing an elusive prey on high seas. 

The Clarkson professor is a sort of Captain Ahab—except the twist here is an inverted food web and it’s not rare cetaceans (that aren’t present in the lakes, anyways) but abundant wintertime algae that are sought.

“I’m always skeptical of people who want to explain how a lake functions by looking at it for only eight months out of the year. So we set out in the winter to study the lake and we ended up discovering a tremendous amount of cold-loving algae,” the associate professor of biology says.  “But it’s not just what’s out there—I want to know what it’s doing.”

When student researchers join Twiss for fieldwork by hitching rides on Great Lakes icebreaker ships, they learn how to plan ahead so multiple experiments can be conducted around the clock to make the most of every moment.

“It’s akin to a space shuttle in that we are constantly moving and have quite a few objectives we need to accomplish in a short period of time,” he says. “Students learn not just the discovery stuff, but the ‘grunt’ stuff: lifting and logistics. It makes the data so worthwhile.”

If you’re thinking that the algae they’re chasing sounds pretty unassuming, well, let Twiss set the record straight:

“The oxygen in the atmosphere we breathe is attributable to algae. All land plants evolved from algae. Algae are found across vast areas of the world—in soil, lakes, rivers, oceans and even snow and ice. Algae are credited with changing the atmosphere of the Earth millions of years ago, and if anything is going to solve our CO2 problem, it’s algae,” he says.

To that end, Twiss is working with graduate and undergraduate students and faculty in the Coulter School of Engineering to develop algal biofuels. Their plan? Take wastewater flowing off a nearby landfill and use the excess heat from methane produced in the landfill to grow algae and create biofuels, more efficiently than other plant derived biofuel  The gregarious professor calls these students Clarkson’s “Garbage Juice Gang.”

Since coming to Clarkson in 2002 from Ryerson University in Toronto, Twiss has also gotten to know another body of water: the mighty St. Lawrence River. As the Director of the Great Rivers Center at Clarkson University, he helms the 25-foot research vessel Lavinia, named after one of the founding sisters of Clarkson University. “We have the largest freshwater source to the North Atlantic Ocean, the only outlet for the Great Lakes, just north of us. The St. Lawrence is so close I can take students on the river during class so they can experience the study of a globally significant river,” Twiss says.

One of the interesting things he’s been able to study on the St. Lawrence is how physical influences on this large river affect how the algae populations in the water distribute themselves as water flows downstream from Lake Ontario.  In collaboration with faculty in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mathematics at Clarkson, Twiss is opening up new ways to view microbial ecology in this and other large rivers. 

Twiss’s Canadian love of hockey fits in well at Clarkson. In addition to catching Golden Knights games, he plays weekly at Cheel Arena with a group of faculty members He also organizes an annual scholarship-fundraising Canada vs. USA game of ice hockey at the International Association for Great Lakes Research conference each year.

He had the big prize for the tournament specially made by the mechanical shop at the university. It’s called the “Defy Cup,” and it’s made of Potsdam sandstone with Adirondack maple wood and brass, all in a nod to his new academic home, and Clarkson’s commitment to defying convention.

Michael Twiss 

Prof. Michael Twiss