New Director Wants A 'Bigger And Better' Flathead Lake Bio Station

Aug 6, 2015

The Flathead Lake Biological Station’s new director, Jim Elser was introduced during a open house at the station on Wednesday.

The Flathead Lake Biological Station is one of oldest active biological stations in the United States, opened in 1899 to study freshwater biology.

Elser comes to the Flathead from Arizona State University where he worked as a Regent’s Professor in limnology – the study of inland waters.

"This facility is a dream facility for a limnologist to have his or her hands on," Elser says. "The equipment is here, the facility is here, the expertise is here to do all kinds of cool things."

Elser is a two-time Fulbright Scholar and a foreign member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

The internationally renowned freshwater ecologist also comes with a record of earning large research grants, including multimillion-dollar awards from the National Science Foundation and NASA.

The station’s current director, Jack Stanford says the ability to pull in that kind of money was one quality making Elser an attractive candidate for the position.

"This place knows how to live on competitive research grants, and he brings a strong record with him in continuing that," Stanford says.

The Flathead Lake Biological Station has its own history of drawing large checks for research. But Elser’s addition to the Station’s team will hopefully bring more research partnerships into the funding pool, says Tom Bansak a researcher at the station for over ten years.

"Funding is always a struggle," Bansak emphasizes. "Funding sources change, and there are funding cycles and we have crises of funding all the time. Pretty much all the people that do the science and education here are funding by outside sources - grants and contracts and philanthropic giving. So we’re kind of used to that. So I think what Jim brings, which is great, is that he is going to be able to build off the long term foundation of work that we have here, with his twist on it."

Elser’s twist comes with a large connection of international freshwater researchers and funders.

Most of the Biological Station’s $5 million budget comes from soft money – grants awarded to past directors and scientists to pay for the continuation of their work.

Researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station are building large sets of data to help determine habitat conditions as the lake’s climate changes.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney

Researchers at the station are building large sets of data to help determine habitat conditions as the lake’s climate changes.

Scientists also study the interaction of native and non-native species, and advise lawmakers on policies that could affect water quality and conservation.

The University of Montana has traditionally supplied about 25 percent of the Station’s total funding.

That funding may see in increase with Elser’s appointment. The university pledged Elser funds for two additional professors at the bio station when he got the job. Elser hopes to fill those positions in the next year.

"My mission is to keep what is great about it and make it bigger and even better," Elser says. "So the scale of what happens here can be even bigger and the number of students that benefit from the programs here can be larger. The research quality is very high, I can only hope to match it, but maybe we can go higher."

Making the station bigger and better means providing more opportunity for University of Montana students to learn about lake ecology; bringing more international scientists to the station to talk about how Flathead Lake compares with bodies of water around the world.

Elser told a crowd gathered at the station that bigger and better also means expanding education so the community has more access to information about the lake.

"Furthermore, we are going to try and get more into the community. We are going to work with regional schools. We are going to be in the high schools trying to get more students involved and get the Flathead presence expanded in the community and in our school systems. So it is going to be great for the young people who grow up around this lake to learn more about what is out there in the lake and how it works and get them excited about science."

Elser plans for growing the station all depend on funding.

Elser will take on the position as director December 1, but will not move into the station until March 1, 2016.

Current director Jack Stanford will stay on at the station until Elser moves in. Stanford will help with the transition, and mentor his final graduate students before retiring.