Science is all around us and a part of who we are, says Dr. Todd Wellnitz, a professor of biology at UW-Eau Claire.
From a young age, Wellnitz had a keen interest in water and the wildlife, catching frogs and turtles in a pond near his family’s home and watching nature. His curiosity and fascination with the topic turned into a lifelong career, teaching and studying aquatic life and ecosystems.
Undergraduate research attracted the Bloomington, Minnesota, native to UW-Eau Claire in the mid-2000s. He was working in Colorado at the time and love it there, but the opportunity to mentor undergraduates at UW-Eau Claire was too good to pass up. Wellnitz says he especially enjoys mentoring first-generation college students and helping them find transformative learning opportunities at UW-Eau Claire in the form of faculty-student collaborative field research.
“Mentoring student research projects is my favorite thing to do because you get to work one-on-one and get to know students as individuals. Mentoring provides an unique opportunity to help them grow as scientists by encouraging them to take the lead and really making the project their own. It’s fun and rewarding to empower and give them permission by saying, ‘Yes, you can do this. You are going to figure this out, make it happen, and you’re going to generate meaningful data,' then watch them work through the stages of presenting their work at a national conference poster or getting it published.”
Recently, Wellnitz and four UW-Eau Claire student researchers took a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to study the presence of microplastics. To date, says Wellnitz, no published research has investigated the distribution and abundance of microplastics in the BWCAW. His students developed their own research methods and techniques, and worked collaboratively to solve problems. On one of the canoe trips they took this past summer, Wellnitz said his students worked on their own, navigating between the lakes, collecting samples and conducting the research without his direct guidance. They know what they’re doing, and they’re comfortable leading the research, he says.
“They have the autonomy to make the decisions and make the mistakes and figure out what’s wrong," Wellnitz says. "They become engaged, and they take possession of their research. I love it when students — they get into it; they really get psyched by what they’re doing and then they just take it, and it’s theirs. It’s going to investigate what they want to investigate — and questions that they want to ask, and then they can go and answer them,” says Wellnitz, adding that is exactly what he wants his students to gain in order to learn and grow, personally and professionally.
The lifelong outdoor enthusiast is a big believer in teaching students in the field. "Biology — it’s all around us. We have to take them to where it’s at. Time and time again, I hear it from students, and I believe this too — one hour outside is worth a semester’s worth in the classroom,” Wellnitz says.
Transformative learning opportunities leave a lasting impression on students and could have life-changing effects on their educational career paths, such as helping them declare their major or area of emphasis.
“People say, ‘Okay, I think I’m going to become a marine biologist,' or, they were a biology minor and they’re going to major in biology because of those kinds of experiences. It’s an important moment. It’s a moment that you remember for a long time,” Wellnitz says.
Having an institution like UW-Eau Claire foster and support his educational and research ventures encourages him to continue pursuing his passions and involving students. “UW-Eau Claire faculty are very fortunate, having a lot of autonomy to be creative, propose new curricula, collaborate with others and have the support to do it,” Wellnitz says. “We can engage students outside the classroom, in the field for some ‘real-world experience’ and that often leads to student growth because they never imagined participating in science beyond the classroom or lab.”
That culture and climate permeate the biology department, where his colleagues are inclusive and supportive of each other, Wellnitz says.
“I am part of a great department. It’s very collegial — we get along with one another. We’re very supportive of one another, and I think the students pick up on it. They get that vibe — the teachers are really into what they do. I don’t think I could have picked a better job when I was out there looking for one. I think about all the other places I could have ended up. I’m lucky I ended up at UW-Eau Claire.”
Faculty and staff provide amazing opportunities for students to collaborate with them, Wellnitz says.
It’s the faculty and staff who make UW-Eau Claire such a fantastic educational institution, where students get amazing opportunities to do cool things, Wellnitz says. “There are some really good scientists at this institution in various disciplines. In the biology department, we have people who’ve been published in Science and Nature, top-tier, world-class journals. In addition to great teaching and mentoring of students, my colleagues are doing cutting-edge research, and students get to be a part of that.”
Wellnitz believes the power of potential is limitless at UW-Eau Claire, and any student can follow their passions. “Blugolds — the students and the people that I get to work with — they don’t have limits. They see possibility and potential first before they see downsides and setbacks. I think that’s something that permeates the institution — we have hope and pride in what we can be. I’d like to believe that we help students achieve that — the potential that they see in themselves gets realized.”