Hugh MacIsaac accompanies students from China’s Yunnan University on a boat tripUWindsor professor Hugh MacIsaac accompanies students from China’s Yunnan University on a boat trip to collect water samples from Lake Erie.

Visit anchors environmental exchange with Chinese university

For Chinese exchange student Zhongzhao Duan, the highlight of a field course at UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research this month was catching fish.

In China, waterways are stringently regulated, so collecting specimens requires government permission and paperwork — lots of paperwork, Duan explained. She found the ability to easily collect samples from the Great Lakes remarkable.

“I want to come here to study,” said the environmental science master’s student from Yunnan University in southwest China. She said she is especially interested in GLIER professor Jill Crossman’s research on hydrological modelling.

Duan was one of eight students from the university who travelled to Windsor for the two-week course. The exchange, which will see UWindsor students travel to Yunnan next summer, is part of a teaching and research agreement between the two universities signed in 2016.

Xuexiu Chang, a senior professor at Yunnan University’s school of ecology and environmental science, was one of three faculty members who accompanied the Chinese students here.

Dr. Chang said the trip was the experience of a lifetime for the students.

The students were out in research vessels nearly every day, collecting samples then returning to GLIER labs to process them.

They discovered that the human and natural stressors that affect the Great Lakes are the same ones that affect the Plateau Lakes in Yunnan, China, right down to the species of cyanobacteria responsible for the algal blooms in both places.

“With these field courses, these students learn five times as much as they’d learn in a classroom,” said UWindsor professor Hugh MacIsaac.

The students were able to participate in the binational HABs Grab event where researchers in Canada and the United States dispersed across Lake Erie’s western basin. The researchers collected water samples from 175 pre-determined locations to gauge the size and severity of this year’s algal bloom.

Chang and GLIER executive director Mike McKay, both experts on cyanobacteria, gave lectures on algae.

The students visited UWindsor’s Freshwater Restoration Ecology Centre in LaSalle where professor Trevor Pitcher is monitoring water levels with flood-warning equipment and raising endangered minnows called redside dace for reintroduction into Canadian waterways.

They toured GLIER labs including Aaron Fisk’s stable isotope lab, Ken Drouillard’s organic contaminant lab, and Christopher Weisener’s microbial lab. They learned about invasive species and how environmental DNA allows researchers to identify the species of flora and fauna in an ecosystem by analyzing water samples.

They took a boat tour of industrial areas along the Detroit River, visited Point Pelee National Park, and toured the Ministry of Natural Resources lab in Wheatley where they discussed how fish quotas are set and penalties for overfishing are determined.

Even their last day in Canada spent sightseeing in Niagara Falls tied into their studies, said Dr. MacIsaac. On the visiting students’ first day at GLIER, MacIsaac had delivered a lecture on the geological history of the Great Lakes basin, including the Niagara escarpment.

“For all the Chinese students, it was their first time in North America,” MacIsaac said.

“It’s refreshing to see how enthusiastic these students are.”

Now back in China, the students are working on a final paper for the class.

The teaching and research agreement between the universities will see GLIER researchers travel to Yunnan to deliver courses there. In addition to the field course, Yunnan will send six environmental graduate students a year to Windsor over the next three years.

The future plan is to build a joint research facility in Yunnan and dramatically increase its faculty complement in environmental science, evolution, and ecology.

─ Sarah Sacheli

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