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D. Tim Gerber Is Cultivating the Future

Tim Gerber. Credit: B. Harried

Every day, all across the globe, scientists make important contributions to the world through their work, whether by conducting research on a microscopic level to find cures for diseases, reaching out into the immeasurable vastness of space to investigate planets and stars, finding ways to combat climate change and its effects on our planet, or through many countless other ways across a multitude of scientific fields and disciplines. And one of the most important and impactful ways some scientists contribute to the enrichment of humanity and our planet is through science education, passing knowledge to students and ensuring that important scientific research and endeavors will continue to live on for generations to come.

D. Timothy Gerber, professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, is one prime example of a scientist and educator whose work is making an important difference, investing not just in the now, but in the future. Gerber has volunteered his time and expertise to help create lesson plans for K-12 students for AAAS’ Science NetLinks, a website for teachers, students, and parents that features tools, videos, podcasts, interactives, and activities for teaching and learning science. There, kids can learn about a wide-range of topics, from the effects of climate change on the grasslands of northern California to how a batter’s brain predicts when a fastball will come across the plate.

Gerber also worked with Science NetLinks staff to develop a mobile app produced by AAAS called Classify It! The fun, kid-friendly app, which is available for free on iTunes and Google Play, tests kids’ knowledge of how various organisms can be sorted and grouped, letting them learn fun facts like what poison ivy and a firefly have in common and the ways in which a dolphin and a goldfish are different.

In addition, Gerber also volunteers as a reviewer for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F (Science Books and Film) Prize, which recognizes outstanding science writing and illustration for children and young adults. This award, as well as Science NetLinks, is designed to foster a passion for and appreciation of science in kids.

That dedication to the future, which is apparent in Gerber’s involvement in shaping education with AAAS and teaching college students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, is echoed in the work Gerber is doing in Wisconsin lakes, where he and his team (which includes college and high school students) have been doing hands-on aquatic plant restoration.

Tim Gerber First Flight
Geber's team getting ready to conduct hands-on aquatic plant restoration. | D. T. Gerber

In basic terms, aquatic plant restoration involves keeping exotic and invasive aquatic plants out of a body of water while trying to protect and revive native plants. As with so many things in nature, such as pollution in oceans, humans have had a significant impact on the normal balance of freshwater ecosystems, said Gerber. As people on boats travel from one body of water to another, they move weeds, transferring them from place to place. When that happens, invasive species that are not native to a body of water can quickly take over an entire lake like weeds, preventing indigenous plants from thriving. “The worst ones grow very quickly and root in the sediment and grow, knocking out native plants,” said Gerber.

The native plants not only serve as the food source for the creatures that live in the lake, but they also function as a habitat for many animals. “Frogs may place eggs there, insects use it as their home, or baby fish may use it to hide under,” said Gerber. “Plants are an important part of the entire system.” Having an exotic species take over can mean death for much of the life in the lake.

One such invasive and exotic species in Wisconsin lakes is the Eurasian water milfoil, which needs to be pulled out by hand at the roots in order to prevent fragmenting. Otherwise, they can simply float away and take root in another part of the lake. It’s painstaking and labor-intensive work, but it can make a significant difference making the ecosystem of a lake healthy. Gerber and his team dive under the water and carefully hand-harvest the invasive plants and remove them from the lake. They also have been experimenting with restoration, using coconut fiber mats to establish the good plants and get them to grow. Keeping the lake healthy also requires constant monitoring to make sure the water milfoil or other invasive plants aren’t growing back.

This type of conservation effort may not be on the radar of many people, especially those who aren’t near a lake. But it’s crucial work that can mean life or death for a body of water and its inhabitants. “Most people don’t think about what’s under the surface of the water unless they dive or snorkel,” said Gerber. They many not think about exotic aquatic plants unless it gets caught in their fishing line or boat propeller or snags on their legs while swimming. But if left to propagate, these plants can lead to a silent and deadly effect beneath the surface of the lake.

Gerber has always been interested in ecology. It’s what led him to work with an insect ecologist as an undergrad at the University of Nebraska and study avian behavior as a graduate student at Clemson University in South Carolina. Eventually, the world under the surface of the water called to him, and Gerber began his work in freshwater aquatic plant ecology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received his Ph.D.  Currently he works on freshwater aquatic plant management and restoration. “The underwater world is different and fascinating,” said Gerber. “You’re swimming in a world that most people don’t think about.”

The work Gerber does in the lakes is important, and has far-reaching consequences — just like the work he’s doing to educate today’s children and young adults through Science NetLinks and at the university. Like nurturing young minds, aquatic plant restoration takes time and patience; and like educating youth, the payoff can be enormously rewarding and far-reaching.

Gerber views this work as an educator as a way to shape the future. “If those students you teach go on to have careers for thirty years, the impact goes on,” said Gerber. And even if the students of today don’t go on to become teachers, Gerber said, they can still be citizens who understand and respect science and comprehend the impact of climate change, for instance. “The impact can be broader,” Gerber said. “These kids may not go on to become teachers, but they may be homeowners on a lakefront.” And they may grow up to play an important role in fixing some of the problems we see in the world today. Gerber said, “One of [my former students] is now a top wetlands expert."