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Vanderploeg, Henry A.
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Vanderploeg, Henry A.

Great Lakes Ecologist Studies the Huge Impact of a Tiny Invasive Species


Henry A. Vanderploeg, Ph.D., is a research ecologist with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) in Ann Arbor, Mich. As non-native mussels have multiplied in Lake Michigan and beyond, his work has revealed how devastating this invasion is to the Great Lakes food web and ecosystem. As invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels establish themselves in a waterway, they consume phytoplankton, a source of food for fish communities. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Michigan Technological University, he earned a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in zoology, and a Ph.D. in biological oceanography from Oregon State University.

Why is your research important?

My research is important because it concerns food webs and how they interact with various stressors to affect ecosystem services such as safe drinking water and fisheries. Food webs show the many ways in which plants and animals are connected within an ecosystem, and studies of them provide information on how to best manage them for fisheries and water quality and other ecosystem services. For example, all fisheries are dependent on different parts of the food web to varying degrees.

Right now, invasive mussels are a big problem in the Great Lakes because they feed on phytoplankton, which robs fish of potential food. And so the question that I am constantly trying to answer is, “How we can optimize management of the system for fish production and water quality simultaneously?” This is a complicated problem because it involves looking at the current status of the environment and then doing research to understand its different intricacies. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

"My success as a scientist has been dependent on collaboration and team work. I get excited about observing the natural world and see it almost as a team sport."

I enjoy the intellectual challenge of my work. The problems facing the food web are of enormous importance to the public, and at the same time, these problems lead to new and different methods of research. I like going work, knowing that I’m pushing the boundaries of ecological research.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

This past year has been interesting. Most of my work has been conducted in intense field studies on Lake Michigan, where I examine the spatial structures of food webs. In the lab, I am determining the rate at which mussels remove phytoplankton. In other words, to understand the impact a species has, you must know where they are (field study) and what they are doing (lab study). 

What in your lab could you not live without?

I could not live without our cinematography room—a walk-in environmental room with controllable temperature, where I can do controlled experiments using tradition methods in bottles and beakers. Also, to fully understand what’s going on we have a special video camera system that allow us to directly observe what the animals are actually doing. It’s really a laboratory within a laboratory.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be and why?

In the lab, I’d like to develop a machine that can rapidly determine concentrations, sizes, and identities of all the particles found in lake water, and for the living particles such as algae determine their genetic identities. This would allow me to find out the factors that affect the feeding of zooplankton and mussels. I think I might be pushing 50 years down the line with that one.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

My dad took me on a fishing trip when I was 6-years-old, and it really charged me up. This feeling continued into high school when I developed an interest in forestry. By college, I had lost interest in forestry but became involved with the National Science Foundation Undergraduate Research Participation Program that focused on the plankton and benthos of the Keweenaw Waterway nearby the college. It was then that I became interested in limnology and oceanography as a career.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science? 

It depends on which area of science interests them the most. For general reading, I recommend The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species. For people interested in fisheries, I recommend The Experimental Ecology of the Feeding of Fishes by Russian investigator Viktor Sergeevich Ivlev. It’s the first book I purchased as a grad student.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

I have found that a large part of my effort is spent on managing people to come together as a team to do science. My success as a scientist has been dependent on collaboration and team work. I get excited about observing the natural world and see it almost as a team sport.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Charles Darwin has had the greatest influence on me, and he is, I am sure the favorite of many biologists. Something that’s not always known or appreciated about him is that he was actually a lot of fun to be around as a young man. He was not an outstanding student, though he was a great amateur naturalist. He was bright, but his career as a scientist wasn't necessarily mapped out for him, until he got his chance at age 22 to be the naturalist on the Beagle Voyage. One of the things that sets his career in contrast to a physicist is that many patient years of observations and thinking led to a his startling publication at age 50 of The Origin of Species. We hear discussions of physicist’s careers being over by age 30.

And how about a personal favorite book?

The Iliad (particularly as a book on tape, translation by Robert Fagels).

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

If I wasn't an ecologist (biological oceanographer), I would be either a molecular biologist or forester. Early in my college years I chose among these three serious options.

Do you have an outside hobby?

Cross-country skiing.


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