New UWM school foments ‘revolution’ in freshwater technologies

New UWM school foments ‘revolution’ in freshwater technologies

The neighborhood surrounding the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences doesn’t scream academia, technology or innovation.

In fact, a visitor approaching the school will pass shuttered buildings, asphalt tanks, an enormous coal pile and the kind of gritty scenes that come with any working harbor.

Once inside the gleaming $53 million school, however, it’s a very different picture.

Opened in mid-September with tours, science demonstrations and a community celebration, the school represents the continued development of Milwaukee’s water cluster. It also symbolizes the potential for economic growth, jobs and revitalization that can flow from partnerships that apply high-end research to solving real-world problems.

Linked to UW-Milwaukee water research that dates to the 1960s, the School of Freshwater Sciences became the nation’s first graduate school devoted to freshwater research in 2009. Its new facility at 600 E. Greenfield Ave. includes about 94,000 square feet of space and is adjacent to an older research building that formerly housed the Great Lakes WATER Institute.

The latest structure, three stories plus a fourth for utilities, features 55,000 square feet of laboratory space that range from general purpose teaching labs to bio-secure space and labs designed for interdisciplinary research.

The new facility is home to the Center for Water Policy, the Great Lakes Genomics Center, classrooms, and other administrative and meeting space, as well as the school’s aquaculture programs. The older building will continue to be used for research and teaching, and include stations for the fisheries division for state Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers and more.

Collectively, the complex will help support the work of Milwaukee’s Water Council, the Global Water Center and water-based industries in the region.

Technological revolution

“We see ourselves at the start of a revolution in freshwater technologies,” said David Garman, a water scientist from Australia who serves as the school’s dean, as well as a ready source of knowledge about water challenges around the world.

Those challenges include finding ways to clean, conserve, recycle, pump, monitor, secure and measure water, as well as advancing the commercialization of aquaculture, learning about the epigenetic implications of pollutants, and studying the effects of climate change on freshwater levels, temperature and aquatic life.

The school’s efforts to innovate in aquaculture are a prime example of the intersection of research, economic benefit and even job creation.

If early indications hold, the School of Freshwater Sciences may be reinventing the Friday night fish fry.

Its researchers have genetically selected yellow perch that mature in 10 months instead of 21/2 years, have a 90% survival rate vs. 10% in the wild and 40% in ponds, and grow to maturity using less food than fish grown in other settings. Assuming expansion plans hit their goals, the complex will someday produce about 2 million fish per year.

“We can literally start a whole new industry,” Garman said.

Industries require trained workers, and the school is already thinking down the road to how aquaculture can help refine the Milwaukee economy. It has started programs with 31 K-12 schools in Milwaukee, helping to train students in aquaculture, aquaponics and other water technology fields.

“Many times, those are students who may have lived in Milwaukee their entire lives and never even seen Lake Michigan, but now they’re excited by science,” said Tom Luljak, UW-Milwaukee’s vice chancellor for university relations.

Competitive advantage

Of course, water expertise isn’t confined to Milwaukee, and relationships are forming to leverage know-how at UW-Madison, UW-Stevens Point and other Wisconsin schools and companies. The goal is setting Milwaukee and Wisconsin apart as a global center of water technology — a competitive advantage in a world where water may become the new oil.

“We want to see Milwaukee become to water technology what the Centers for Disease Control has become to Atlanta,” said UW-Milwaukee Interim Chancellor Mark Mone. “We also want for the process for integrating industry into what we learn and teach to become natural and entirely seamless.”

There will be competitors, of course, especially around the world. However, a first-to-market advantage for the school and larger Milwaukee water cluster at least provides a head start.

If the water “revolution” becomes a reality, the School of Freshwater Sciences may find itself in the vanguard.

Recent articles by Tom Still

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. He can be reached by email at

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