WMU News

WMU receives $2.6 million for Great Lakes research

Oct. 31, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan University and Ann Arbor's Altarum will use more than $2.6 million in funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop tools that will give scientists, policy makers and citizens alike the detailed information they need to make decisions on critical environmental issues.

Sen. Carl Levin traveled to WMU Oct. 31 to announce a recently approved federal grant for $2,678,050 that will be used to establish the Great Lakes Center for Environmental and Molecular Sciences at WMU. The center will combine the resources of WMU environmental researchers with those of the energy and environmental division of Altarum, a non-profit research and innovation organization formerly known as ERIM.

The new center will use the technical expertise of both organizations to improve the assessment of Great Lakes water quality and more precisely measure the impact of pollution on human health and Michigan's Great Lakes ecosystem. The project could have implications for freshwater protection worldwide.

Center researchers will use new molecular science techniques and advanced informatics systems to understand, evaluate and help plan management of chemical, nutrient and biological contaminants that impact both human health and the environment throughout the Great Lakes.

"Three things really set this work apart from earlier efforts to assess environmental damage," says Dr. Charles Ide, director WMU's Environmental Institute, who will work on the project with the institute's associate director Dr. Jay Means. "We'll be the first group to apply genomic tools for assessing damage to the ecosystem and human health, we'll be applying the most sensitive and selective analysis methods, and we'll be developing a Web-based portal that will allow the people who need this information to get a better handle on the environmental data."

With 18 percent of the earth's fresh surface water, the Great Lakes offer enormous potential for perfecting ways to identify, trace and direct remediation of the impact of multiple contaminants on human health and the environment. The Great Lakes are the subject of a variety of international, federal, state, local, private and academic studies, but because those studies tends to focus on isolated pieces of the environment, the information gathered is seldom looked at in a systemwide or watershed-scale context.

"We're looking at a system that contains roughly a fifth of the world's surface freshwater supply," says Robert Shuchman, senior vice president and chief technical officer of Altarum. "What's so exciting is that this is truly a collaborative effort that combines geospatial informatics technology with hard science. We are looking at components like land cover, demographics, hydrology and other watershed information values for the Great Lakes basin and combining that information with environmental and molecular science models that will give us a long-term look at human environmental health risks."

Initial work of the center will take place at WMU, where Ide and Means and colleagues in the Environmental Institute have been working with previous EPA funding to measure genetic changes that are caused by toxic chemicals in the watershed. Their work, which has focused on the Kalamazoo River watershed, an EPA Superfund site, uses the latest genome technology and offers the potential for guidance on just what levels of such substances can be considered "acceptable." The work predicts long-term genetic changes that may be occurring in seemingly healthy specimens.

"When it comes to making decisions about cleanup, that is, how much contamination can be tolerated within a watershed system, the answers have sometimes been a source of scientific and legal controversy," WMU's Means says. "We're out to define the health effects more precisely than they've ever been defined before. This should remove some of the ambiguity associated with making health-based decisions regarding cleanup."

With such data available, Altarum will design a Web-based portal that will look at the Great Lakes as an entire system and incorporate the molecular-level findings with comprehensive GIS (geographic information systems) information. That information would include details on the effects of urbanization and changing patterns of land use. In conjunction with EPA watershed education programs, aggressive outreach activities are part of the grant-funded work to ensure that the new information and tools are put in the hands of a variety of interested audiences.

The Great Lakes portal will allow one-stop shopping for federal, state, county and local stakeholders. The portal will include relevant research and policy information as well as dynamic environmental data. It will utilize advanced geospatial techniques to convey complex issues in formats that can be easily understood. Special emphasis will be given to a section of the portal catering to the general public that will focus on environmental health issues related to the Great Lakes.

"The educational component is phenomenally important to this effort," Altarum's Shuchman says. "It's a way to connect the communities with the best available research findings. We'll be looking at ways to communicate health risks and, ultimately, play a role in mitigating those risks by making the information accessible so it can be used by government officials at the local, state and national levels, as well as by industry leaders, students, teachers and private citizens."

WMU scientists say work on the new grant project will be a continuation of progress they've already made on the EPA-backed Kalamazoo River study.

"We hope to take what we've learned on the river and apply it to several watersheds and eventually to the entire Great Lakes system," Ide says. "This integrated approach can serve as a model for how to work with large freshwater systems worldwide."

Altarum is a nonprofit research and innovation institution. As a full cycle innovator-research to deployment-of advanced informatics systems solutions and knowledge tools, Altarum serves societal customers in the healthcare, national security and energy, environment and transportation sectors. Altarum currently operates a Center of Excellence in Geospatial and Remote Sensing Technologies in Ukraine as well as a Pacific Disaster Center in Hawaii, both of which were initiated with U.S. government funding.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu


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