Studying new lakes one of director’s key focuses

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Jim Elser, limnologist and director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, encourages incoming generations to “stay curious” about science. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

In his own words, the director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station was bit of a swamp rat growing up.

Throughout his childhood in Naugatuck, Connecticut, Jim Elser spent a lot of his time in the woods and playing in streams, and in high school would spend much of his free time exploring lakes with friends.

So when it finally came time for Elser to choose a major his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, he said he knew two things for sure: he didn’t have the desire or the capability to become a doctor like his dad, and he knew he liked science — specifically biology.

“I went to college with a vague idea of wanting to become a park ranger or maybe a zoo keeper and had no practical sense of what that might entail,” Elser said.

It wasn’t until he took an “eye-opening” college trip to a field station one summer that he was awarded more clarity as to what a future career immersed in the field of biology may look like.

“When I got to look at everything firsthand I realized that science is more about a process than being a set package of things,” Elser said. “Most scientists have that moment where they learn what science is all about — measuring, studying, experimenting, hypothesizing.”

It was shortly after this trip when he also learned about limnology, or the study of biological, chemical and physical features of lakes and other bodies of freshwater. The job of a limnologist, he decided, seemed to check all his boxes for a future career.

“Go out on a lake every day to measure and experiment with things? Yeah, sign me up. That sounds pretty cool,” he remembers thinking.

Elser, 60, proceeded to receive his master’s degree from the University of Tennessee and later earned his Ph.D. from the University of California Davis. Then in 1990, the limnologist launched into a 26-year career at Arizona State University. Over the years, he would take on several teaching roles, including instructing the largest class on campus, an 800-student introductory-level course on biology.

“These students weren’t scientists yet and most of them were interested in other fields, but part of my job in that class was teaching them that science is important and it’s something worth caring about,” Elser said.

Teaching students and immersing himself in a variety of educational settings when he could is one of Elser’s passions. It’s also something he was able to continue after departing Arizona in 2016 to take on his current role as director at the bio station, a position he applied for having never been to Montana.

The University of Montana-owned station, situated between Polson and Woods Bay on the east shore of Flathead Lake, is not only a hub for research, but also offers field-based summer ecology courses and graduate-level studies in ecology and limnology.

“We have students who have come from as far away as China,” Elser said. “When you get them out on the lake, it’s easy to tell everyone is having a blast.”

Most recently, a group of graduate students accompanied Elser on one of his ongoing research projects in Glacier National Park. Every year, he observes and samples new lakes that are forming as a result of rapid glacier melt in the park.

“They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So when life gives you lakes you do limnology on them,” he said referring to the exciting, albeit sometimes depressing task of testing the bodies of water that have appeared as a result of climate change.

There are many goals for Elser’s ongoing new lakes project, including one to inform others on “shifting baselines,” or the idea of when people look at something exactly how it is in the present and fail to think about how it may have looked at another point in history. At a recent Science on Tap event, Elser explained the concept through Grinnell Glacier and other famous areas in the park. He presented photos he took of Grinnell from this summer and compared them to those captured more than 50 years ago — a comparison that showed how the once snow-covered glacier now sits bare and almost unrecognizable, but still has taken on a new beauty.

While many aspects of his job force Elser to evaluate the gravity of climate change, he said being a limnologist and the director of the bio station is incredibly rewarding and he gets opportunities to be on the frontlines of critical research.

Out of all his accomplishments, Elser is best-known for his work on applying the theory of ecological stoichiometry, or the study of the balance of energy and chemical elements including carbon and nitrogen. About 80 percent of his research has focused on phosphorus, in particular.

Elser has worked on extensive projects in Alaska, Norway, Japan, Northern Mexico and elsewhere. He’s had a hand in writing multiple research reports and books, with one on phosphorus to come sometime next year. He has expanded the station’s water monitoring program and in May, he became one of two Montana-based scientists to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. For all this he said he is “grateful.”

Despite his long list of impressive achievements, it’s apparent Elser has remained humble and feels as though he has a lot left to learn — mostly from upcoming generations that are on the forefront of environmental change.

He believes everyone, himself included, can learn something from Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old environmental activist powerhouse from Sweden who has inspired a movement among primarily youth worldwide to push lawmakers to prioritize climate change.

“She’s astonishing, really,” Elser said.

In addition to Thunberg, he admires his research partner Diana Six, whom he describes as “an amazing person who has come so far and accomplished so much,” mostly by her own volition. As director of the bio station, Elser said these two and countless others have inspired him to help valley residents educate themselves about Flathead Lake and other precious environmental assets in the valley.

“I think when you become the director of a bio station like I am now, you’ve had a lot of privilege to get to that point,” Elser said. “So my hope is that now that I’m here I can use this opportunity to help the community enjoy this lake and benefit from it for years to come. To the incoming generations: stay curious, get excited about something you see around you and figure out how to carry it forward.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 748-4407 or

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