Assistant professor of limnology
Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures & Department of Biological Sciences
Auburn aquatic ecologist Alan Wilson joined the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture faculty in the fall of 2007 and by the end of 2009, he had received grants totaling more than $1 million to fund eight research projects, all focused on the relationship between water quality and the interactions of tiny plants and animals that thrive in freshwater lakes, ponds and reservoirs. In 2010 he was awarded six more research grants totaling more than $877,000. At a year-end College of Agriculture and Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station recognition ceremony, his accomplishments earned him not only the AAES Director's 2010 Junior Research Award, but a 2010 Dean's Grantsmanship Award as well. The awards came on the heels of his joint appointment to the Department of Biological Sciences faculty.
1. What is limnology and how did you wind up specializing in it?
Limnology is the study of aquatic systems from a variety of intertwined perspectives including their chemistry, physics, geology, biology and ecology. I am an aquatic ecologist who studies the interactions between the tiny plants and animals that thrive in freshwater lakes, ponds and reservoirs. The path to my current position was convoluted. For six months after graduating from college, I worked as a technician on the North Carolina coast. I spent many long days on the water collecting fish using all types of fishing gear. After taking a year off from science to drive across the U.S. with my best friend, I started grad school at Michigan State, where I planned to study something involving fish. Soon after arriving in Michigan, my master's adviser helped me develop a project focusing on phytoplankton, the microscopic plants at the base of aquatic foodwebs. I fell in love with phytoplankton, especially the ease at which they can be studied in the lab and the field. As a doctoral student at Georgia Tech, I spent a lot of time studying the interactions between phytoplankton and their primary consumers, zooplankton. For the past 12 years, I have been studying plankton and hope to continue their study for the next 20 or so years.
2. Teaching vs. Research: Where does your heart lie, and why?
Although I love teaching, research is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Basically, I get paid to play in the water, hang out with interesting and intelligent people, and travel to exotic places. Honestly, engaging students in science is the best of both worlds. There is nothing more rewarding than watching the light bulb turn on in the head of a student that I am training.
3. Recap your grants this year -- how much, from whom and, in layman's terms, what for?
2010 was an unbelievable year for my lab. We received external grants from the National Science Foundation (two grants totaling $392,143), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (one $89,625 grant) and the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust (one $385,000 grant), as well as support from the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (two grants totaling $100,000). All of these projects focus on some aspect of water quality and involve collaborations with faculty and students at Auburn University or Purdue University. Although I am excited about opportunities made available through all of these new projects, I am most excited about the new undergraduate training grant (funded through the National Science Foundation) involving nine other faculty mentors from my two departments, Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures and Biological Sciences. During the next three summers, we will train 30 students in aquatic ecology at Auburn University. I expect this to be a fantastic experience for participating students and faculty mentors. Folks can learn more about this project at http://wilsonlab.com/reu.
Although I hope to maintain my current productivity and will be submitting proposals for at least two more large grants this year, I don't think I will have another year like 2010 anytime soon. There is only so much time in the day, and I work hard to achieve a good balance between family and work. With every new professional or personal commitment, something suffers due to time constraints. I don't want to compromise my experiences with my family or my science (in that order) any more than necessary.
4. How do you explain to the average citizen unacquainted with your field why it is important that your work be supported by federal dollars?
I think researchers should have this question in mind as they develop projects. I have found that having a good, concise, clear response to this question makes writing research proposals a lot easier. It also helps during family gatherings when my relatives ask about what I am doing at work. They don't need an hour-long treatise on aquatic ecology. Instead, they want to hear the abbreviated, two-minute answer. My research, in part, deals with the relationship between water quality and the composition of aquatic foodwebs, especially related to the control or promotion of harmful freshwater phytoplankton blooms (similar to noxious "red tides" commonly found around the Gulf Coast that are associated with manatee and fish kills and human sicknesses). My students and I are conducting field experiments showing how the genetic composition of zooplankton populations can have large and important implications for the presence of toxic phytoplankton in ponds. These studies strongly support the notion that we might be able to use zooplankton as an ecological and sustainable approach for controlling algal blooms, including nutrient-rich aquaculture ponds. This idea is in stark contrast to current techniques for algal control, including the use of man-made chemicals. More information is available about my lab, my students and our projects at http://wilsonlab.com.
5. You approach your job with genuine enthusiasm, energy and passion. What's your driving force?
I think my work ethic is driven by a combination of nature and nurture. I am inherently high energy and have a short attention span, which makes me want to do a lot of different things simultaneously. I have also been very fortunate to work alongside many terrific scientists who have shared their passion for the scientific method and the need to study and protect our natural resources. I want my research to matter, which is why I take my science so seriously. I also have purely selfish reasons for what I do. My family comes above all else, and I am certainly motivated to take care of them. In addition, I want my kids to appreciate the beauty found in nature. Given the powers of television and the Internet, I don't think kids get dirty often enough nowadays. My two kids get plenty dirty, despite my wife's efforts to keep them clean.