Small campus big on research

Few consider the smallest of the UW System campuses a research university. Yet, when it comes to research, the University of Wisconsin-Superior is making its mark. In 2007-08, the federal government committed $1.48 million to research efforts at ...

Euan Reavie of University of Minnesota Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute examines a sample under the microscope as part of the Great Ships Initiative, one of many research projects that is giving the University of Wisconsin-Superior a name in research. (Submitted photo)

Few consider the smallest of the UW System campuses a research university.

Yet, when it comes to research, the University of Wisconsin-Superior is making its mark. In 2007-08, the federal government committed $1.48 million to research efforts at the Superior campus.

"If you look at what the other UW campuses have done, including Madison and Milwaukee, we're the third highest," said Faith Hensrud, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and outreach. "That's pretty significant given that we're the smallest of the institutions in the UW System." Madison ranked first, followed by Milwaukee, she said.

Hensrud credits the university's location at the headwaters of Lake Superior and the rarity of the transportation and logistics management program with giving the university an edge in garnering research money among the state's 13 four-year campuses.

"One of the reasons we got that [transportation] program is because we are really positioned here where Great Lakes shipping is occurring," Hensrud said. "We've got pipelines coming through. We have railroads. We have trucking. We have all aspects of the transportation industry happening here, as well as the warehousing and other aspects related to logistics. Our location is very unique in that regard."


Economic engine

Recognizing the region's transportation economy, Chancellor Julius Erlenbach made it one of his first priorities to develop a transportation and logistics program when he joined UWS in 1996. It's one of 17 in the nation.

The education program included development of the Transportation and Logistics Research Center 10 years ago. The center's mission is to provide transportation and logistics research, education and advisory services to advance the regional economy.

Superior is the port of call for about 9 percent of the nation's crude oil, transported through Enbridge Energy's terminal in the city. The transportation industry accounts for 10.6 percent of Douglas County's economy, a recent study shows. And, the Duluth-Superior port is the 16th largest in the nation.

"As such, it is an economic engine for the local economy," said Dr. Richard Stewart, director of the Transportation and Logistics Research Center and co-director of the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute.

In addition to the ships moving in and out of the harbor, transportation and services support moving product through the port. It's an industry that has changed over time.

For example, Stewart said, in the 1950s and '60s, the port imported millions of tons of coal, but today, Midwest Energy exports millions of tons of coal. Research is vital to adjust ship types and business models for the future to keep the transportation system efficient, he said.

"We pay no attention to this great hidden empire," Stewart said. He said people may notice the shirt they buy was made in Burma, or the grapes they purchased came from Chili, but few ever consider how it ended up in the store where they shop.


"If we do it right, you don't notice us," Stewart said. "If we do it wrong, everything starts to fall apart."

In 2004, that research mission expanded when federal funding created the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute in collaboration with the University of Minnesota Duluth. The maritime institute pursues research in marine transportation, logistics, economics, engineering, port management and environmental planning. The U.S. Maritime Administration designated the institute as a National Maritime Enhancement Institute in 2005.

"It is a federally-funded research institute that is coming up for renewal of federal funding, hopefully for permanent funding, in the next budget cycle," Hensrud said.

While the research institute doesn't have a facility yet, city and university officials are working together to build a waterfront facility at the Montreal Pier in Superior, where another UWS research project is underway.

Great Lakes ecology

UWS got its feet wet in research in the Lake Superior basin about four decades ago. In 1967, the university founded its longest-running research arm, the Lake Superior Research Institute. The UW System board of regents approved the institute in 1969.

Funded almost entirely by outside sources, the institute's mission focuses on continuing evaluation and analysis of the environment of the greater Lake Superior basin. However, research conducted by the institute has studied the entire Great Lakes basin, according to its director, Mary Balcer.

More than 45 federal and state agencies, and private firms, rely on the institute's scientific expertise and contribute to its $25 million budget.


"One of our main missions is to get our university students involved so they get some hands-on experience," Balcer said. However, in giving students real world experience, the research conducted by the Lake Superior Research Institute has broader implications for the region. From toxicology and taxonomy studies to monitor and evaluate water quality, and outreach efforts and getting citizens involved, the institute has identified toxic sediments in the Ashland and Duluth-Superior harbors that led to clean up efforts, such as the Hog Island reclamation project.

The most recent undertaking, the Great Ships Initiative, is a research project designed to test ballast water treatment systems to eliminate invasive species, which threaten native species and cost the nation $120 billion annually.

"Unfortunately, now that we've cleaned up our harbors, they're clean enough for another species to become established here," Balcer said. "When our harbors were so polluted, we didn't worry as much about invasive species because nothing would live here."

Launched in 2006, the Great Ships Initiative is a collaborative effort among industry, government and researchers to end the problem of ship-mediated invasive species in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System by accelerating research, development and implementation of ballast treatment systems for ships.

Balcer said the project's goal is to determine if the "perfect system" is effective in treating ballast water or if it should go back to the drawing board, and developing a methodology to ensure systems are monitored adequately to prevent the spread of invasive species.

More to come?

The Lake Superior institute, in cooperation with UW-Extension, could expand its mission if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declares the St. Louis River estuary a National Estuarine Research Reserve. Gov. Jim Doyle nominated the estuary for the designation, and NOAA accepted the nomination for consideration.

"We're just about to enter a two-year management planning phase for that," Hensrud said. "...That is one additional thing that is going to draw more research dollars into the region because now we have this national designation."


When Doyle made the nomination last May, he said he looked forward to returning to Superior after the management plan was complete to dedicate the nation's newest research reserve.

If accepted by NOAA, the research reserve would be the 28th in the nation and the second freshwater reserve created. Old Woman Creek Research Reserve in Huron, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie, is the only designated national reserve that isn't an oceanic estuary.

The St. Louis River reserve would include 15,117 acres of land and water from the Pokegama Carnegie Wetlands State Natural Area on the river to Wisconsin Point and Dutchman's Creek.

State and federal funding for the reserve would add another $750,000 annually for research and outreach in the region, and promote better understanding of the estuary and the threats it faces.

"We're working on a number of different avenues to showcase what has already been happening," Hensrud said. "But we're working on getting additional resources."

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