Featured Student: June 2013
Michael Timm doesn’t have the typical science background of a master’s student in freshwater sciences. An anthropology/English double major as an undergraduate at Ripon College, he has primarily been a writer and journalist since his 2004 graduation. His achievements include serving as editor of the Bay View Compass, winning a Milwaukee Press Club award for investigative journalism, writing and directing an interactive murder-mystery play, and taking a creative writing course at the University of Oxford in England.
Along the way he has nurtured a longtime interest in engaging the general public in science. At the Compass he edited a column on important water science issues. Since his January 2012 enrollment in the professional-track M.S. program, Michael has taken an internship as the science communication specialist at the Center for Water Policy.
Michael is still a busy freelancer—he’s writing a book about the 125-year history of the Coakley Brothers moving and storage company—and a weekend librarian at the Cudahy Family Library. But he’s found time to maintain a 4.0 GPA in his graduate program and he earned a $5,000 Chancellors Graduate Student Award last fall. Jenny Kehl, associate professor and Center for Water Policy director, as well as one of Michael’s supervisors, calls him “an emerging scholar” who has “demonstrated academic excellence as well as innovation and integrity.”
“One of his greatest achievements,” she continues, “is that he has provided a model of how to bridge the gap between science and social science.” Kehl adds that several faculty say they “most enjoy reading Michael's essay exams because they are academically impressive, intellectually astute, and elegantly written.”
As for his research, in June Michael is presenting a paper in the Great Lakes Futures Project, a 21-university collaboration whose goal is to develop long-term research projects to help protect and restore the Great Lakes. In the fall—which he expects to be his final semester—Michael will present research on how climate change is expected to increase the risks of rain-related disease in Wisconsin. He also plans to lead a research expedition on the Neeskay, the school’s 72-foot research vessel.
- 1) How would you describe your field of study/research to a friend who is not in your graduate program?
- The School of Freshwater Sciences is about more than fish. You will be exposed to a diverse array of disciplines. The professional master’s program offers what I’d call the liberal arts of freshwater sciences—coursework in environmental health, economics, policy, engineering, quantitative analysis, aquatic ecosystem dynamics, communications, business. The required courses are like a boot camp to get everyone using the same language within the metadiscipline of “freshwater sciences.” Some of the work is intense. The overall goal is to be able to critically assess scientific literature; to ask questions in a way you can measurably answer; to interpret, visualize, and communicate scientific data; and to discover the tensions between researchers, grantors, resource managers, business interests, and environmental advocates. One of the lessons I’ve learned is to simplify big problems. As SFS biogeochemist Jim Waples says, don’t miss the forest for the trees.
- 2) What brought you to UWM for your graduate studies?
- Opportunity. I am passionate about connecting science to general audiences through creative storytelling. Previously at the Bay View Compass newspaper, I edited a column called H2O in cooperation with the scientists at the WATER Institute, whose researchers form the core of the School of Freshwater Sciences. For over four years we worked together to bring water science stories to our readers. In 2011, I was ready for a change. Aware that the emerging school was attracting significant investment, I was excited to enter at the ground floor of something special that was also aligned with my passion. It was a risk to change the course of my life by going back to school, but I know in my heart it was the right choice. Grad school has already proved a fertile hub of connections. It’s a privilege to be a part of this community.
- 3) What's been your best experience so far?
- Collaborating, conversing, and socializing with my fellow students. I love that I am surrounded by smart, fun, articulate, passionate people. I’ve become a more open, more integrated person as a result. SFS is also a really cool place. Every morning I walk by a giant research vessel; through a loading dock filled with boats, nets, and buoys; past a lab that makes underwater robots; and finally plop down in my cubicle beneath dozens of lacquered fish mounted high up on the walls. But the best part of this special space is not the rabbit-warren of labs hidden in an old ceramics factory on the river in the middle of the city—it’s the dynamic people who make it a genuine community of learning. I am daily impressed by their quality and character. My first three semesters have been stimulating to say the least, and the past few months have been the happiest of my life so far.
- 4) If you were able to merge another discipline with yours, what would that be and why?
- Communications. Communication remains an afterthought for many receiving “hard” sciences education. Although SFS should be commended for recently introducing one science communications course, I believe this remains a serious blind spot, both culturally and institutionally. I also believe that true communication is about more than successful rhetoric—it’s an alignment of understanding and value. We need to better equip current and future leaders with the mental tools to bridge this gap.
- 5) What is your favorite stress-reduction activity?
- 6) What do you most enjoy about Milwaukee?
- Milwaukee is honest.
- 7) Is there anything that you've had to "give up" as a graduate student?
- Weekends. My old job with the newspaper. A cynical and socially paralyzed version of myself. Not owning a cell phone . . . I’ve traded an isolating form of personal liberty for a more demanding kind of personal freedom. Despite the added stressors to my life, I am a better person for this choice. I continue to learn more about myself.
- 8) What are your plans for after graduate school?
- I am a freelance writer who researches corporate history projects. While I remain interested in local history, I am even more passionate about engaging audiences with science. I plan to pursue that passion after graduate school and have already begun. For example, I am developing a kids game called Mussel Madness where players discover how invasive mussels destabilize aquatic food webs. I am also pursuing a Fulbright fellowship that considers climate change and alternative energy in Australia.
- 9) What trait do you find most necessary to succeed in graduate school?
- 10) Do you have any advice that you would give to a new graduate student in your program?
- Talk to some faculty here before you decide to come and make sure you feel you would be a good fit. Get their advice about how you might fit. Have a realistic conversation about if you can tackle the required coursework. (As a practical note, if applying for the professional track, have a good conversation about the internship requirement because arranging an internship can be a challenge.) Then commit. Believe you can succeed. Do the work. Ask questions. Talk to your fellow students. That’s the only way to form genuine community.