Flathead Lake Biological Station: Part 2

SensorSpace

From the beginning, Flathead Lake Biological Station has had a wide-ranging approach to science. FLBS Assistant Director Tom Bansak explained the three parts of the bio station’s mission: research, education, and outreach.

RESEARCH AND MONITORING

 Research has always been the station’s main function, but FLBS has grown quite a bit since the early days. FLBS has assembled a long history of research and monitoring, which has resulted in much scientific discovery and insight, as well as one of the best long-term ecological and water quality records in the world. Bansak said FLBS prides itself on its interdisciplinary approach to research.

In addition to water science, the station has made an effort to incorporate aspiring educators, lawyers, journalists, chemists, and computer scientists, among others.

"The other disciplines are what we've been adding more recently—trying to provide bio station opportunities for more students and more people than just upper-level water scientists," Bansak said.

The research station collaborates with scientists all around the world and conducts a wide variety of research outside of freshwater ecology. One faculty member has recently spent time researching in Antarctica.

"A lot of our work starts here in the Flathead but can be applied to other places, so I think of it as start local, scale global,” Bansak said. 

FLBS also employs an environmental economist, relating the ecological concerns of scientists to the context of the surrounding community.

"The lake is a primary driver of the region's economy,” Bansak explained. “A quarter of Flathead and Lake County's economies are related to non-resident spending and tourism, and the lake is one of the major drivers of that."

"It's in all of our best interests to protect the lake, because it generates so much economic activity, whether you're a shoreline homeowner, a fisherperson, or you recreate in water or not. If you live in the Flathead and Mission Valleys and you have a job and you have a home, we're all benefiting from a healthy Flathead Lake."

EDUCATION

 Among the newer developments at FLBS is the Flathead Lake Aquatic Research and Education Program (FLARE), a K-12 education program, which provides outreach to local Montana schools.

Bio station educators visit classrooms, help teachers develop curriculum, and invite school groups to visit the research station as part of this initiative. 

FLBS has also offered onsite summer classes since 1899. The courses provide diverse, hands-on experiences with both aquatic and terrestrial ecology. About a third of summer class students come from the University of Montana; the others come from around the nation and around the world, allowing students to make new connections alongside their studies. Courses can be taken for graduate or undergraduate credit. Many students gain experience by interning at the station during the summer months.

The SensorSpace is another relatively recent development at FLBS. This lab, dedicated to electrical engineering and manufacturing, gives scientists the resources to create whatever technological tools they need for their research. Bansak said he’d like to see FLBS resemble Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s commitment to the development and production of research technology.

“Our ultimate goal is that we scientists and field station folks, we should not be consumers of technology like this, but we should be the inventors, developers, testers, and possibly the sellers of technology like this,” Bansak said. 

The laboratory allows scientists to specialize their tools to the task at hand, and explore new ideas.

"We've got this wonderful test bed right out there where we can sandbox it, come up with ideas, see what we can build, bring students in and see if they have ideas that no one else has thought of before, and see how they work,” Bansak said.

OUTREACH

 FLBS plays an active role in the Flathead Valley, as well as in research initiatives around the world. 

"Science in a file cabinet doesn't benefit society very much,” Bansak said. “Ultimately, we want our science to guide the best possible informed decisions by managers and elected officials.” 

FLBS does not decide how natural ecosystems are managed, but they strive to make their research accessible to those who do. 

“It doesn't mean they always use it, but at least it's been provided to them, that they can understand and incorporate it,” Bansak said. 

The bio station regularly hosts workshops and conferences and provides a meeting place for stakeholders to discuss ecological, social, and political issues affecting the region. 

The lakeside campus includes a large cafeteria building and overnight accommodations for as many as 120 people at once. Some of these are furnished apartments, and others are rustic cabins that evoke a bygone era of Montana history.

There are countless ways for the wider community to engage with science at FLBS, and one of these is through art. During spring, summer, and fall, FLBS hosts artists in residence on the premises through a partnership with OpenAIR MT, based in Missoula.

In summer 2019, the resident artist was Debbie Kaspari, who created a series of oil paintings inspired by the natural settings around the Flathead Lake watershed. 

"There's never a dull moment,” Bansak said. “There's a lot of variety of things going on, and you never know what's going to walk in your door some days."

  

By Jackie Bussjaeger

This is Montana Editor

 

Photo: The SensorSpace building at Flathead Lake Biological Station houses manufacturing and electrical engineering equipment that allows scientists to develop and create their own tools for research. Photo by Jackie Bussjaeger.