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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Head of Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin envisions a globally-focused future

LaCrosse crew on boat.JPG
Courtesy of Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin
One hands on project based at UW- La Crosse trains students to do fish and mussel monitoring in collaboration with the Wisconsin DNR and Trout Unlimited.

The Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin was created in 2019. In 2020 Marissa Jablonski, who was featured in a recent Milwaukee Magazine article, became its first executive director.

READ Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin picks up steam

She says the initiative sets a high bar.

Susan Bence
Collaborative executive director Marissa Jablonski comes to the job with multiple credentials including water engineer, environmental advisor, and plastics-reduction expert.

“The Freshwater Collaborative brings together all 13 University of Wisconsin universities together specifically around their water programming. And we want to engage students in a way that brings them to Wisconsin, gets them to the university system at any campus they choose and allows them to travel and learn from all of our professors and around all of our water systems, in a way that they can then get hired and work anywhere in the world,” Jablonski says. ”Hopefully (they) stay in Wisconsin, but work anywhere in the world knowing enough to jump into an industry and bring a perspective of water conservation, water safety, policy, health, humanity, nature.”

Jablonski says the Collaborative aims to attract students early, that means in high school. One tool is through weeklong summer high school camps.

From left, high school students Numa Khan, Jacquie Rouse and Maya Dawson inspect a water sample from Bluff Creek during weeklong Freshwater Camp last summer.

One camp brings “students to Eau Claire, Stout, River Falls and then also take them across the state to Oshkosh. And they’re working not just groundwater, geology…they’re camping and they’re cooking food together every evening,” Jablonski says.

She says the high school campers are also working along side some of the best researchers.

“One of the professors, he spends his summers in Antarctica on the mountaintops in Alaska and does all sorts of geology research,” Jablonski says. “And this is just one of many professors involved.”

Jablonski says a steering committee with representatives from every Wisconsin's state university is setting the Collaborative's short and longterm course.

“Before I got hired the Freshwater Collaborative had defined ten grand water challenges that really focus on Wisconsin’s grand water challenges, but these are global water challenges," Jablonski says.

They include agricultural water management, water quality safety and emerging contaminants, and industrial water engineering and technology.

The Collaborative, in large part thanks to the infusion of $5 M approved in the 2021 biennial state budget, has funded 80 projects to create curriculum, enhance student experience and cultivate collaborative research and career development.

Jablonski says now the steering committee is crafting a series of certificates, giving students an intensive course in facets of freshwater studies; from climate change impacts, to policy or public health. They’re seen as another tool to provide students with hands on experience and prepare them for jobs that water industry leaders are prepared to fill.

search crew Lacrosse.jpg
Courtesy of Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin
Jablonski says offering hands on experience throughout the UW university system and with professionals working in the water industry sets students firmly on a path for employment in the field.

“That’s the piece we’re smack dab in the middle of. In February we’re getting together as a steering committee and we are organizing those so that we can now pitch to provost and to faculty governance,” Jablonski says.

She says she’s learning the Collaborative has a role outside the university system.

“I get emails from an agricultural association in central and northeast Wisconsin, they say ‘oh we want to know what you’re up to and how we can collaborate,'” Jablonski says. “There’s also lakes and rivers associations and smaller groups in rural Wisconsin that say, ‘are you able to help us.'”

Jablonski says the Collaborative can serve as translator.

“We can obtain the (research) information from the different research entities across the state of Wisconsin and then translate that and we can also make connections to help universities connect with their local community in a different way than they had before,” Jablonski says.

She says funding is critical for the Freshwater Collaborative to coordinate research, nurture students and ultimately help come up with solutions to address existing and future challenges.

Jablonski (background) made her 16th trip to Guatemala this January with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders. She cofounded the chapter and now mentors student crews as they design and construct gravity and pump-fed water distribution systems. Jablonski says the experience fuels her global perspective, 'We have one water, we have one soil, we have one air and we are all connected."

The Collaborative plans to ask the state legislature for $10 M in the next biennial budget.

“It’s a tricky spot because we are so grateful for the $5 M and we’re doing amazing things. We can do a lot with $5 M. We could do a lot more with a lot more,” Jablonski says.

She thinks shining a light on what researchers throughout the university system have already contributed to freshwater science and technology and the potential of recruiting students to learn from a growing collaboration among those researchers will pay off, not just for Wisconsin but around the world.

“The future of the Freshwater Collaborative has got to be global because the issues that we’re working on and the challenges we face are being faced by the whole world,” Jablonski says.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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