Just a few days into the Algae in Freshwater Ecosystems class at the U-M Biological Station (UMBS), even squeamish students happily stepped straight into lakes, marshes, and bogs without protective clothing—snakes and leeches be damned. None of the students knew much about algae before taking the course. But very soon, they had become obsessed.

Anyone who breathes should use every third breath to thank algae, say UMBS faculty members Rex Lowe (professor emeritus of biological sciences at Bowling Green University) and Pat Kociolek (director of the natural history museum and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado), because those little aquatic organisms produce an enormous amount of the oxygen on Earth. Algae aren’t plants, precisely—they lack roots and leaves—but they do photosynthesize. And their health reflects the health of the ecosystem they occupy, so studying algae is a good way to test water quality.

The tight-knit group of six students and two visiting professors in the algae class traveled from the Biological Station deep into Michigan’s upper peninsula, searching for specimens. They camped in tents at a state park in the Porcupine Mountains near Lake Superior. They hiked a steep and winding trail from their campsite to the shore of Lake of the Clouds. There, they swished nets, squirted turkey basters, scraped rocks, and dove deep to collect from all parts of the water column. The class hurried back to UMBS with their samples and spent the rest of the summer looking through microscopes to see what they’d found.

This green alga, Draparnaldia, is a primitive ancestor of plants. It emerges each spring and disappears with the summer heat. A gummy, gelatinous substance covers each one. Kociolek says, "They're not big, but they're beautiful and charismatic in their own way."

“The beauty at that scale was breathtaking,” says Mark Fate (’13). The class collaborated on their observations, working with special equipment so they could project a microscopic view of the samples onto a screen for everyone to look at. What they saw were strings of structures, lime-shaped compartments patterned in different shades of green, broccoli-tufted aggregations, and other bizarre, beautiful forms. Sometimes they admired algae in the lab until long after dinner. They created digital photo libraries of their specimens, using the microscope to snap images, exploring a world of tiny organisms they’d never even considered before.

Uncharted Waters

More than that, they saw completely new things that no one had ever described before: The class discovered three new species of algae. Three new species of diatoms, to be exact—a type of algae whose single cell is surrounded by a glass cell wall, and whose diversity of forms resembles the unique and beautiful geometry of snowflakes.

The algae class honored a much-loved former director of UMBS and LSA professor emeritus of biology, David Gates, by naming one of the diatom species Brachysira gatesii. They recently published their research in the Michigan Botanist, an academic journal established at U-M. Adding a scientific discovery to the scholarly record is a rare, tangible outcome for a semester of class—even at UMBS, where undergraduates routinely get valuable scientific research experience in the field.

“We actually don’t get to that level with most classes,” Kociolek says. “Everybody was working on the one project, which gave them an opportunity to get into some uncharted waters and get a deeper knowledge of algae.”

“You have this bonding experience, and you become very good friends,” Lowe says, remarking on the social impact of studying at the Biological Station. “You become colleagues by the end of the summer.”

“That was the best experience I ever had in my life,” says Eric Hsieh (’13). “It taught me a spirit, a mindset, a way of thinking.”