New scientists at Freshwater Sciences at UWM

November 1, 2011

By Michael Timm

Todd Miller samples Wisconsin’s Lake Koshkonong for toxic blue-green algae. ~photo Siddhartha Miller

UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences attracted new faculty for the start of its fall semester, including Laura Grant and Itziar Lazkano, two young economists specializing in natural resources; Todd Miller, a human health scientist studying toxins in water; and Matt Smith, an aquatic microbiologist developing new DNA sensing technology. The research of Lazkano and Miller is profiled below.

Todd Miller: Studying Algal Toxins

Todd Miller speaks softly, wears horn-rimmed glasses, and doesn’t use antibacterial soap.

He’s unaware of any research to suggest antibacterial soaps remove more bacteria from skin than regular soap, but he is aware of research that their estrogenic compounds, once rinsed down our drains, fester in the environment and can degrade into carcinogens. “So I think those things are going to come back to bite us,” he said.

But his latest research isn’t about soap. It’s about other fickle contaminants in water, toxins from “harmful algal blooms” of cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae. Miller hopes his research can improve the forecasting of harmful algal blooms and the dispersal of their toxins.

The two major toxins are microcystin, a liver toxin, and anatoxin-a, a neurotoxin. Microcystin causes nausea, joint pain, and headache. Anatoxin-a causes dizziness, shortness of breath, and numbness in limbs. It’s also been implicated in at least one Wisconsin death after a teenager consumed water from a algal-covered golf course pond in 2002.

In addition to noting recreational exposures, Miller is researching the presence of these toxins in drinking water. Lake Michigan is generally too cold to support blue-green algae, but shallower inland waterways like Lake Winnebago are warmer and provide drinking water to surrounding cities.

“There has been some research done to show that the chlorination process and ozonation process [drinking water treatment] is good enough to destroy the toxins; however, other research has shown that at times when organic carbon loading is high, that can inhibit the ozonation and chlorination. People haven’t looked at it over a time series, which is what we’re doing,” Miller said.

He’s also investigating the toxins that bioaccumulate in Wisconsin fish, including walleye. Some levels of toxin are expected. “What we don’t know is what concentrations they’ll be at in the fish relative to background levels in the lake,” he said. Initial results are expected in January.

Miller also wants to better understand what constrains the dynamic algae, which can control their own buoyancy, from forming blooms.

“We want to also monitor the lake conditions. When there’s a bloom of algae we want to know what was the water temperature, wind speeds…what sort of lake characteristics would lead to these organisms forming a bloom?”

His team is deploying buoys in several Wisconsin lakes to gather real-time data and monitor blue-green algae using fluorometric sensors, which measure the amount of blue and green algal pigments in water samples.

Two problems with the fluorometric data, however, are that the algae can clump together and that their pigments get “bleached out” over time. So, with UW-Madison engineers, Miller developed the “Water Guy,” a shoebox-sized device “that sucks up water, blends the sample, and holds it in the dark for about 20 minutes, thereby normalizing the previous light history between samples to some extent.”

In the lab, Miller uses a tandem mass spectrometer, an instrument sensitive enough to detect chemicals even at the very low concentrations at which the toxins occur in water samples.

He’s also part of a team led by John Berry at Florida International University and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory designing a device to apply a “pregnancy test” that detects specific algal toxins. It’s a tool that one day could do chemical testing on Mars.

Long-term, Miller hopes to chronicle human exposure rates to algal toxins and perhaps develop a human blood test.

Last fall Miller joined UWM’s School of Public Health as an assistant professor; as one of several interdisciplinary faculty, he obtained adjunct status at the School of Freshwater Sciences this fall.

Itziar Lazkano

Itzi Lazkano: Economics of Altruism

Itziar—call-her-Itzi—Lazkano talks like a tornado.

The self-described “hard-core economist” hails from the Basque Country of Spain, where she earned an undergraduate degree in economics and then worked for AZTI Marine Science Technological Institute, analyzing data sets to determine the effect of European Union policies on the fishing industry. She considered the efficiency of fishing boats, the capacity of fisheries, and the amount of EU subsidies paid to the industry. “I found that they were getting too much money,” she said.

Earlier this year she earned her doctorate in economics from the University of Calgary, writing on the theoretical relationship between environmental quality and economic growth.

“Environmental quality and economic growth are tied together, so that if one is bad the other will be bad as well,” she said. “And this is something that economists didn’t know before because we always thought that if we have technology, that will fix everything and we shouldn’t worry about anything else.”

But Lazkano looked at the conflicting economic incentives across different generations, which she said prevent widespread implementation of clean technologies.

“At the end of the day, firms are providing the technologies, but we are the ones who have to implement them,” she said. “So policies should not be directed only to firms and production, but also to individuals like us.”

Lazkano said she enjoys solving complex problems and hopes to apply her economic theory in three possible arenas: incentivizing more efficient water supply technology, predicting the efficiency of stricter minimum standards for water quality, and exploring whether and how climate change limits economic growth by looking at global water quality data.

Lazkano’s assistant professorship is joined between UWM’s Department of Economics and the School of Freshwater Sciences.

“In theory we know that when we all behave well, things go well,” Lazkano said. “But that coordination doesn’t happen in the public nature of things. And that’s sort of like an ironical thing, because we know what we should do, but we don’t do it. And natural resources are a clear example of that. Even if we know, we always end up in a situation where we don’t coordinate.”

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