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James "Jim" Elser

James "Jim" Elser's favorite lake creatures are zooplankton.

Soon, the internationally renowned freshwater ecologist will be studying the little swimmers in Flathead Lake.

On Friday, the University of Montana announced that Elser will become the next director of the century-old Flathead Lake Biological Station.

"The location is unrivaled, facilities are impressive, the station is impeccably maintained and, perhaps most importantly, the staff is so outstanding and so clearly committed to the mission of the station," Elser said in a statement.

The lake, of course, is full of zooplankton. In a telephone interview, Elser talked about the reason the teeny creatures are important, his interest in Flathead Lake and the station's research and his commitment to the community. 

"I'm very excited about this opportunity. I'm honored," said Elser, a regents' professor at Arizona State University. "It's a little bit daunting, so I ask for (the community's) help. I ask for their partnership.

"The Flathead station exists to serve the people of Montana, to keep an eye on their favorite lake for them. So we rely on their support and their engagement."

The acclaimed scholar also shared a don't-try-this-at-home initiation rite undertaken by some who work with zooplankton.


Elser will take on the job Dec. 1, and begin residence at the station on March 1, 2016.

Tom Bansak, a research scientist there, said the team got its top pick in Elser. The station has 24 people on its payroll, from a bookkeeper to scientists to educators.

"Elser has the whole package," Bansak said. "He's a phenomenal scientist. He's been a dean before, so he knows how to lead and administer a unit of the university. He's got fundraising experience. He's got a stellar scientific grant-writing track record. And he looks forward to engaging the local community as well."

Elser will succeed Jack Stanford, who will retire in June 2016 after 44 years with UM. Stanford will complete research, and he will write and mentor graduate students once Elser takes the helm.

In a statement, UM President Royce Engstrom praised the incoming and outgoing biologists.

"We knew that Jack (Stanford) would be a tough act to follow," Engstrom said. "So we were delighted to find Jim Elser, who has the breadth of skills and experience in both science and leadership that is needed to continue the tradition of FLBS excellence.

"We look forward to a seamless transition."


Elser already is a fan of Flathead Lake.

"It's super clear. It's super beautiful. And it has such a great research facility on its shores," Elser said.

The station has monitored lake conditions since 1977, and it also conducts research. One of Elser's priorities is learning where the lake has been through the data already collected, and another is learning the direction the body of water will take in the future.

"All kinds of environments globally are going through all kinds of changes for various reasons, so we want to make sure we're watching where Flathead Lake is going," he said.

Elser studies phytoplankton, and it's an important element in Flathead Lake, he said. The lake doesn't have much algae, part of phytoplankton, and he wants to understand the reasons.

"It's very important in Flathead Lake because as we understand that, what those limiting factors are, we can make sure that Flathead Lake stays blue, which is what people like," Elser said.

Just the same day he gave his phone interview, scientists in Montana were diving to the bottom of Flathead to collect algae. In the words of Bansak, they were looking at "how green and fuzzy the rocks are."

Elser is clearly equipped to look at fuzzy rocks and the future of the lake, according to a news release from UM noting his achievements: He is a distinguished sustainability scientist in Arizona State's Global Institute of Sustainability; president of the world's largest water science society, the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, or ASLO; is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and is an active member of the Ecological Society of America.

"I hope to bring a broad interdisciplinary and international vision to the station," Elser said. "Globally, freshwaters are a critically important resource for our very survival, and lakes especially are central in providing economic, cultural and social value.

"This is especially true for Flathead Lake, which is a treasure of Montana and the whole Northwest."


Zooplankton are his favorite life-form in lakes.

Daphnia, for instance, look like little water fleas with "an eye-like thing." They've got swimming appendages, which they beat, and they're just a millimeter or two in size, he said.

They're somewhat transparent, so people can see their complete digestive system, or "their gut full of algae," and their developing embryos through a microscope.

"They're really fun to work with, easy to grow in the laboratory," Elser said.

They're part of an initiation rite of sorts, too, one Elser said he does not recommend for amateurs. Scientists on a boat will tow a net that collects many, many zooplankton and bring it up for sampling.

A new scientist on board just might knock back "a little shot glass full."

"It's like drinking some tapioca seeds," he said.

Elser has won numerous awards, according to UM: He's been a Fulbright Scholar twice, ASU Professor of the Year, foreign member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, and the G.E. Hutchinson Award, the ASLO's most prestigious award for research accomplishment.

"I want to help make the University of Montana a world leader in advanced research and training in limnology, ecology and environmental science," Elser said. "FLBS can become a global fulcrum for innovation, discovery and entrepreneurism in those domains, and I am thrilled to join the University of Montana and build a team around that vision."

He has a record of earning research grants as well, including multimillion-dollar awards from the National Science Foundation and NASA. He's also been published more than 220 times in prestigious scientific journals, UM said.

Elser has a bachelor's degree from University of Notre Dame, a master's in ecology from the University of Tennessee, and a doctorate from the University of California, Davis.

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University of Montana, higher education