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A bug for algal blooms

Alan Wilson, recipient of Auburn’s highest teaching honor, shares research interests with undergraduates

Published: January 12, 2023
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A summer spent working as a research technician off the coast of North Carolina started Alan Wilson down a path he would never have predicted.

Wilson, a professor in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, is the 2022 recipient of the university’s highest teaching honor, the Gerald and Emily Leischuck Endowed Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching.

He leads and oversees all aspects of a Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, program funded by the National Science Foundation, or NSF, which is focused on aquatic ecology. Through this research program, he has supported and trained 65 undergraduate students, including four students with disabilities, 18 underrepresented students and 46 women from across the United States. Students working in Wilson’s NSF REU program have produced 30 research publications.

Supporting and creating research opportunities for undergraduate students is important to Wilson, whose own early studies might not have naturally led to a career as a researcher.

“I grew up in Atlanta and completed two years at Young Harris College, a small school in north Georgia, where I went to play tennis,” he said.

After two years, he went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for his undergraduate studies, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in biology. He joked that he could have earned a Bachelor of Science, but he didn’t want to take another semester of French.

But after his senior year, he spent the following summer working as a research technician for then-postdoc Phil Levin at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences.

“I think that’s where I got the bug to be interested in doing research,” Wilson said. “I wanted to work with fish in freshwater systems because working in the ocean is really tough. So, I then got my master’s at Michigan State University in fisheries and wildlife. But I actually didn’t work with fish there at all.”

He worked for Ace Sarnelle, who was then a new professor who had never hired a graduate student before. Wilson tried to do a project involving zebra mussels, an invasive species that was taking off in the area at the time.

“I did some experiments in the lab, and they weren’t as exciting as I hoped they’d be,” Wilson said.

But Sarnelle was working with and excited about phytoplankton.

“I got the bug, too,” Wilson said. “He did a lot of great things, but one of the best things he did for me was he got me to fall in love with field work and field experiments, which is something I continue to do now.”

Then the Atlanta native returned home to get a doctorate in applied biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“Didn’t work with fish there either,” Wilson quipped.

Wilson returned to Michigan to do a postdoc at the University of Michigan, before coming to Auburn in 2007. Today, he is broadly interested in understanding the ecology of freshwater lakes, ponds and reservoirs.

His lab studies, put simply, water quality. As an aquatic ecologist, he likes to study the interactions between organisms and their environment—in his case: freshwater systems. A lot of what he does is focused on algal blooms, or specifically, cyanobacterial bloom formation, trying to figure out why they form and what people can do to keep them from developing in recreational reservoirs, aquaculture ponds and other systems. He also studies factors leading to taste, odor and toxicity issues in drinking water reservoirs.

“As an ecologist, a big interest of mine is to use ecology to improve water quality,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of things people try, and some of them seem to work better than others. But it’s about trying to see if we can work with natural processes to control algal blooms.”

Wilson also teaches a meta-analysis class (FISH 7350), which teaches content applicable to students across the entire campus.

“I think this class in particular can reach people in all disciplines,” he said. “I’ve only had a couple colleges not represented in this class. And the cool thing is, some of these students have gone on to be the first in their fields to do this kind synthesis. One of my most cited papers is the first paper a student wrote in this class.”

From 2014-16, Wilson was the first faculty member from the College of Agriculture to serve as an NSF program director. He is the recipient of other teaching awards, including a USDA Excellence in College and University Teaching in Food and Agricultural Sciences Award in 2018 and the Auburn University Provost’s Award for Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship in 2014.

The Leischuck Award is the highest faculty honor the university bestows, recognizing full-time, tenured faculty members who have demonstrated exceptionally effective and innovative teaching methods, as well as a continued commitment to student success through advising and mentoring.

Wilson said it is the highest honor of his life.

“The students—what they’re doing is the hard part,” he said. “I think I am honestly just giving them training wheels to explore, to try a new technique and go somewhere no one has gone before. Any success that I have had instructing others was driven by the motivation and excitement of my students.”

He said his hope for the award is simply that it inspires students. He hopes to reach students who haven’t taken his class before and could benefit from it or those who could benefit from the research opportunities he and the college make available.

“I think it’s about getting these students in, seeing them get the bug that they want to explore science as a career,” Wilson said. “Not everyone who comes to my lab is particularly good at doing research, but that is an important thing to discover. And if they like it and are good at it, I want to push those students forward so they can keep exploring.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.

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