March 2024 eNewsletter

ALUMNI HIGHLIGHT: 2019 – 2020 CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow, Chelsea Weiskerger

Project: The Not-So Calm After the Storm: Modeling Storm-Associated River Plumes in Southern Lake Michigan

Chelsea Weiskerger, 2019-2020 CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow recipient from Michigan State University (MSU).

Chelsea Weiskerger was a 2019-2020 CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow from Michigan State University (MSU). Weiskerger graduated with a doctoral degree in civil and environmental engineering focused on Lake Michigan storm and water quality impacts. Currently, Weiskerger is working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She is based in Atlanta, Georgia, and is developing and calibrating watershed and water quality models to inform regulatory decisions to protect surface water and public health.

While at MSU, Weiskerger focused on how heavy rainstorms affected beaches near Chicago, Illinois, by sending contaminant plumes to Lake Michigan. Contaminant plume releases are relatively rare in Chicago (<1 per year) due to locks and dams, but when they do occur, they accompany large storms that often lead to substantial contamination from runoff. The contamination can persist around the nearshore zone, including at beaches, for days to weeks after the storm events. Plumes are wind-driven nearshore, but over time, they start moving with the currents and disperse through the lake. As a result, these plumes not only affect the nearshore for longer than expected after storms, but they also travel farther along the shore than previously thought. The results of her research are helping guide researchers and local shoreline managers to better predict and manage Lake Michigan areas impacted by contaminant plumes in the face of progressively intense storm events.



Q: Which is your favorite Great Lake and why?

Lake Michigan is my favorite Great Lake because it is was the focus of my research studies. It was also the first Great Lake that visited as an adult. I grew up in the American West, so I was not familiar with the concept of large lakes until I came to Chicago for work. Seeing the lake for the first time from the Indiana Dunes National Park, with the Chicago skyline in the background, is one of my favorite memories and reminded me of just how small I am in the grand scheme of things. From an ecological standpoint, the effects that the lake has on its surroundings are incredible. From erosion and accretion of sediment, to flushing of bacteria and contaminants, to oligotrophication (nutrient depletion) and its impacts on the aquatic food web, the lake truly affects its entire surrounding environment.

Chelsea Weiskerger sampling lakebed sediments at a Lake Michigan beach in Indiana to conduct bacterial analysis for E. coli on the sand. Photo Credit: MSU College of Engineering.

Q: What is your current position and what led you to pursue this career path?

I currently work for the U.S. EPA, doing modeling for the southeast region of the United States. I’ve always wanted to work in the environmental field, but my particular career path was largely a product of accepting opportunities that I was given. At my undergraduate university, I started by studying wildlife biology and GIS, but through my work at the Indiana Dunes, I found that I really enjoyed studying water quality for public health. At MSU, I was admittedly nervous about getting involved with the modeling side of water quality, but the idea that we can use mathematics and physics to predict the dynamics of nearshore systems is incredibly powerful to me. As I have gotten more comfortable with the models and theoretical bases, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for how powerful they can be.

Q: What was your favorite part about being a CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow?

Being a CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow was a wonderful experience for me, in terms of both personal and professional development. I feel so fortunate to have worked with Dr. Mark Rowe (NOAA GLERL) on development of base models and the subsequent addition of bacteria kinetics. Mark, along with other CIGLR and GLERL colleagues (both current and previous) have been wonderful resources for me as I was learning the ins and outs of model troubleshooting and calibration, adjustment of model parameters for sensitivity analyses, and interpretation of model outputs. Beyond the technical experience that I had through the research itself, I am grateful to CIGLR for the personal development experience that the fellowship offered me. I was able to attend CIGLR’s Great Lakes seminar series, virtual lunch and learn opportunities, and additional discussions with current researchers. The holistic development experience through the fellowship rather than just a technical/research experience was incredibly valuable to me.

Q: What advice would you give to current graduate students?

I have two pieces of advice for graduate students:

    • Try not to say “no” to any opportunity that comes your way, unless you have a really good reason. So many people talk about how they didn’t end up doing what they initially thought of doing in their professional life. You never know when an opportunity that you truly are passionate about may come your way.
    • At the same time, don’t forget to listen to yourself and recognize when you are burning yourself out. Having activities outside of research and school is really important for mental health and avoiding burnout, so try to find something that takes your mind off of graduate work as well. 

Q: What was your favorite part about studying storm-associated river plumes and water quality impacts in southern Lake Michigan?

I really enjoyed being surprised by the project. When I started graduate school, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pursue hydrodynamic modeling in my career. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed both the intricacies and the power of modeling, as I learned more about the process and end results. The results of the model were also surprising – they indicate that storm-associated contamination may travel along the nearshore zone for longer than we previously thought.

Related Articles and Resources:

    • Weiskerger, C.J. and M.S. Phanikumar. 2020. Numerical modeling of microbial fate and transport in natural waters: Review and implications for normal and extreme storm events. Water. 12(7):1876. (DOI:10.3390/w12071876).
    • Weiskerger, C.J.; J. Brandão; W. Ahmed; A. Aslan; L. Avolio; B.D. Badgley; A.B. Boehm; T.A. Edge; J.M. Fleisher; C.D. Heaney; L. Jordao; J.L. Kinzelman; J.S. Klaus; G.T. Kleinheinz; P. Meriläinen; J.P. Nshimyimana; M.S. Phanikumar; A.M. Piggot; T. Pitkänen; C. Robinson; M.J. Sadowsky; C. Staley; Z.R. Staley; E.M. Symonds; L.J. Vogel; K.M. Yamahara; R.L. Whitman; H.M. Solo-Gabriele; V.J. Harwood. 2019. Impacts of a changing earth on microbial dynamics and human health risks in the continuum between beach water and sand. Water Research. 162:456-470. (DOI:1016/j.watres.2019.07.006).
    • Weiskerger, C.J.; M.D. Rowe; C.A, Stow; D. Stuart; T.H. Johengen. 2018. Application of the Beer–Lambert Model to attenuation of photosynthetically active radiation in a shallow, eutrophic lake. Water Resources Research. 54(11):8952-8962. (DOI:1029/2018WR023024).