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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

New dean shares vision for UW-Milwaukee freshwater sciences school

 Rebecca Klaper came to the freshwater school 20 year ago, founded its Genomics Center and will now become the school's dean.
Susan Bence

UW-Milwaukee's School of Freshwater Sciences offers students a chance to study complex freshwater ecosystems, weather patterns and climate change and the opportunity to apply that knowledge to real world problems.

One of its founding faculty members, Rebecca Klaper, will become the school's dean on July 1.

Klaper's path to the world of freshwater science began in high school with a keen interest in chemistry and biology and continued through her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“I was always kind of torn between those two fields until I realized there’s a field called chemical ecology,” Klaper says.

She worked with entomologist May Berenbaum.

“So she studies insects and she’s a member of the National Academy (of Sciences) and just a fantastic person all around,” Klaper says. “She studies chemicals that plants make that defend them against insect populations, but also bacteria and fungi.”

When Klaper moved on to the University of Georgia she folded genetics into her research.

A science and technology fellowship internship through the American Association for the Advancement of Scienceat the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ushered in another facet of Klaper’s research.

“I kind of switched over to looking at manmade chemicals and how they affected organisms and then that’s what I pursued when I came here,” Klaper says.

That was 20 years ago.

“I was involved with using genomics technology … look and see which genes are responsible for a response that an organism has to a stressor in the environment, like a chemical that it comes in contact with, or global warming or other things that are going on in the environment. And then how can we use that as kind of an indicator in order to tell us when that organism is not healthy,” Klaper says.

Klaper founded the school’s Great Lakes Genomics Center, while colleagues founded other Centers.

“We identified when we started the school that we needed social scientists here in order to really fill out the full picture of water science … A lot of decisions are made not 100 percent based on the science but also based on the human factor. And so really including some of those human factors into the School were really important. So that’s where the water policy center came from,” Klaper says.

She says School of Freshwater Sciences’ graduates are doing important work.

“I recently went to a conference, actually it was sponsored by our Water Policy Center … and what I saw were our graduates all over the audience in that meeting and they had been hired … by the DNR, the EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey some of the nonprofits, by industries. So our impact has grown because our students are going out in the world and are making a difference,” Klaper says.

Klaper says being dean means expanding her focus beyond her own research.

“Trying to figure out ways of getting more funding so our scientists can do the research they need to do in order to push us forward and make our water safer, figure out why things are happening in the Great Lakes so we can best protect our very large freshwater resource we have,” Klaper says.

She says functioning as a team is important to the School’s future.

"We're seeing in science in general that you need teams of people in order to be successful. That it really takes a multidisciplinary approach in order to answer a question, in order to get funding, in order to support students. And that's one of the great things about this place is that we have a breadth of disciplines represented under one roof," Klaper says. "So we have this breadth of folks that can be brought to bear on a problem or a topic, and I think that makes us richer for it."

Klaper hopes to strike a balance between her administrative and research roles.

"Right now, I have three Ph.D. students, so I can't just drop everything and become Dean and ignore them, and they're fantastic students, so I want to see them through at the very least," Klaper says. "I just applied for two very large grants — one was $3 million, and the other was $500,000 — so if either one of those comes through, that would add another couple of students to my lab."

She thinks the balance is good for both the school and its reputation.

Klaper says she’s watched others strike a balance that is good for both the institution and the students they serve.

"Just even starting with that first faculty member that I had, actually two of them, Carol Augspurgerand May Berenbaum, and University of Illinois. The way that they involved their lab and the entire research program that they operated; it was everybody from undergrads to technicians, to grad students to post docs to senior staff in their labs were involved with grant writing and coming up with questions and figuring out how to do things," Klaper says. "Each of them has moved into administrative roles too where they are still able to still interact in the scientific community and still maintain their administrative roles."

Our conversation ends with Klaper considering the students who come through the School of Freshwater Sciences’ door. She says each has a unique water story.

"They went fishing as a kid or went and vacationed on either of the Great Lakes or northern Wisconsin lakes, and so their water story is what brought them to our doors … and when they go back out, they're trying to address some of those concerns from the places that they came from," Klaper says.

Klaper sees students’ stories and concerns as fundamental to the school, “because we also care about that — how people view those resources and that science.”


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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