UMN professors say they need $6M to continue important work
Pioneer Press, 3/14/2014
Critical research on Minnesota's aquatic pests and food supply is being conducted in a century-old tractor garage and a condemned workshop on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.
The school's bee laboratory is lodged in a small, unfinished cinder block structure tucked away on a muddy road on the northwest edge of the campus.
The Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center is studying ways to control carp and zebra mussels with Rube Goldberg-like contraptions housed in the tractor garage built in 1911.
Both labs are headed by world-renowned researchers: Marla Spivak at the bee lab and Peter Sorensen at the invasive species lab.
"They put the best minds to work on two very problematic issues in a garage and a shed!" an incredulous Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said last week.
University officials are asking lawmakers to help them remedy that situation this year. They have requested $6 million from the state to help pay for a $6 million upgrade at the invasive species lab and a new, $3 million bee lab. (The U would pay the remaining $3 million of the projects' costs.)
Those two labs are small fish in the U's application for $232.7 million from this year's state bonding bill for public works projects. Yet they are examples of the challenges faced by many projects vying for state money.
Hausman, chairwoman of the House Capital Investments Committee, is championing the labs, saying she would include them in the bonding bill she plans to introduce this month.
Gov. Mark Dayton recommended allocating money for the two projects in his $986 million bonding proposal.
And Hausman's Senate counterpart, Capital Investment Committee Chairman Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said both labs "should be funded."
Although the labs have influential backers, no project is a sure thing in a politically charged bonding session. Legislators have received more than $3 billion in bonding requests and likely will have to turn down more than one-third of them.
'EVERYTHING IS BROKEN ALL THE TIME'
At the aquatic invasive species center, Sorensen, the center's director and a professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, opens the lid on a tank brimming with small silver carp, and one of the jumping menaces leaps out and slithers down the floor until the scientist retrieves it.
The lab is doing research aimed at preventing silver and big head carp, also known as Asian carp, from invading Minnesota's rivers and streams, where they could upset the food chain and threaten the state's prized game fish.
Researchers are testing ways to poison, scare away or otherwise eradicate these non-native carp, as well as getting rid of common carp that have infested thousands of lakes. But the obsolete facilities severely limit their work.
"We're not able to study adult Asian carp," said Becca Nash, the center's associate director. "We can't have any reproducing animals in here because our water-filtration system is broken," and it empties into wetlands that drain into the Mississippi River.
The center's well also is failing, pumping just four gallons of water per minute one day last week, far below the 200 gallons Sorensen said his research projects need.
Some students have had to build improvised lab equipment using garbage cans and window screens from Home Depot. "We could do better in a grade school," Sorensen said.
He would like to hire more researchers, "but right now, there's no reason for anybody to come here. Everything is broken all the time."
U officials won't build an expensive new lab if they get the state money. Instead, they plan to gut the tractor garage, upgrade its water, electrical and heating-and-cooling systems and install up-to-date lab equipment.
Sorensen said that would allow the center to hire more faculty, double its complement of student researchers to about two dozen and start studying invasive aquatic plants, such as Eurasian water milfoil and curlyleaf pondweed.
"If we get it fixed, we'd be the leading center in the Midwest," he said.