George Bullerjahn

Professor of Biology
Home state: Ohio
Research Institution: Bowling Green State University
What got you interested in science and how did you end up as a Great Lakes scientist?

When I was 14 years old, I was told that I am made of 10 trillion human cells, and about 100 trillion bacteria. That was a terrific moment. From then on, I have always been fascinated with microbiology. Microbes represent the dominant biomass on Earth, driving the geochemical cycles on which all other life depends. For me, there is nothing else worth studying than those organisms that support all life.  Moving to the Great Lakes to start my faculty career, it was a natural transition to study what the microbial communities are doing in the different aquatic environments present from Lakes Superior to Erie.  Most recently, the toxic cyanobacterial blooms in Erie have focused our attention on improving water quality to protect our recreational and potable water supplies.

Describe your research related to the Great Lakes.

Most recently, our work has focused on understanding the characteristics of bloom-forming toxic cyanobacteria in lakes.  Regarding Ohio watersheds, our lab has studied both Grand Lake St. Marys and western Lake Erie.  These ecosystems have been plagued with seasonal toxic cyanobacterial blooms that have severely degraded water quality and yielded significant negative economic impact to the lakeshore regions.  Our laboratory has published recent studies demonstrating the likely origin of toxic cyanobacterial species, as well as the nutrient requirements of bloom formation.  Whereas it is well known that phosphorus loadings from agriculture have contributed greatly to the expansion of cyanobacterial blooms, more recently the role of nitrogen in triggering bloom events and mediating toxicity has become increasingly clear.

Describe an experience you have had working with educators or the community. What was something that surprised you or that you especially enjoyed about the experience?

Along with my colleague Dr. Ken Newbury, we developed a grade school level learning module in which students examined factors that promote and constrain nutrient loadings into rivers and lakes.  Experiments asking how cover crops can limit nutrient runoff, how nutrient ratios are important in promoting algal growth, and data analysis of water flow in watersheds were major elements of the curriculum.  A joy and surprise regarding the professional development sessions with the teachers was their ability to take our materials and develop more sophisticated experiments and activities that were tailored to their specific classroom.

Why do you think it is important for scientists to share their research with educators?

All the science done at the University level is waste of time unless it can inform policy and change how people understand their world.  There is no better way to effect positive change than to work with young people who will become our future leaders.  It’s important to work with educators so they can communicate the emerging issues of the day that require the attention of problem solvers (scientists, engineers, social scientists) both now and in the future.

What do you think are the most critical skills for students interested in a career in science?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – there is no such thing as a dumb question.  Then once you have a question you want to pursue, work your hardest to answer it, and be sure to have fun along the way. To be successful as a scientist, hard work is more important than genius!