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Group shot with Max Beal in Kenya
September 14, 2022

Analyzing an ‘Erie’ algae similarity with Kenya’s Kisumu Bay

Written By: Alex Holloway

When spring comes around, freeing Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, from its annual deep freeze, environmental engineer Paul Block and his students study the season’s climate conditions to predict what summer has in store for the lake.

Max Beal, a civil and environmental engineering PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is part of that group—and he’s taken lessons learned in his hometown of Madison to a similar lake more than 7,800 miles away. Beal went to Kisumu Bay, on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria in Africa, under a National Science Foundation-funded advanced studies program. Beal was one of 11 students from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom participating in the program; they traveled to Kenya for three weeks in June 2022 and, along with 11 Kenyan students, developed research projects to study harmful algal blooms in U.S. Lake Erie and Kenya’s Lake Victoria.

While in Kenya, the group visited the capital city, Nairobi, and Lake Victoria’s eastern shore. They spent most of their time in Kisumu, a port town on Lake Victoria’s Nyanza Gulf. The team took a few days to get to know each other and then spent a week on a research vessel in the gulf taking samples for algae abundance, cyanobacteria toxins, and nutrients including phosphorus and nitrogen, which can cause cyanobacteria blooms.

Such blooms can produce toxins that are dangerous to humans and animals, and Beal says it’s vital to be able to communicate where and when they’re happening to people who live around the lake. It’s not so different from the work he does with Block’s research group in Madison.

“Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is what we’re really concerned about from a public health standpoint,” Beal says. “Excess nutrients in the water can exacerbate their growth, and it’s important for us to understand exactly why these blooms show up in the water. These cyanobacteria are capable of producing toxins, and a lot of people use Lake Victoria for recreation and drinking water.”

Lake Victoria faces some of the same challenges as Lake Erie, and the students will conduct a comparative study between the two lakes. Beal says lots of agricultural nutrients flow into Lake Victoria, as is also the case with Lake Erie. However, there are notable differences, such as climate and the mixture of nutrient sources that come into the lakes.

“One of the major differences between Lake Erie and Kisumu Bay is that Lake Erie’s algal blooms are primarily fed by agricultural runoff,” Beal says. “There’s a big issue in terms of nutrient-rich agricultural runoff flowing into the water. When nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen are abundant in lakes, we tend to see increased cyanobacteria growth. We have that happening in Madison with Lake Mendota. Professor Block and I use several drivers of nutrient runoff to forecast cyanobacteria on Lake Mendota, it’s possible we might see similar drivers of cyanobacteria growth in Lake Victoria.”

Beal worked with colleagues and researchers from around the world during his trip to Kenya. He says he enjoyed learning across the group’s many cultures and being able to lean on locals’ knowledge of the area and the challenges facing the lake. The research effort also captured the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea—the idea that UW-Madison’s research should be shared beyond campus.

“It was great to do the science and learn from everyone in Kenya, and a big part of what I took away from this experience is that communication plays such a big role in making an impact with science,” Beal says. “You have to work with the community to bring that science out of the classroom or the research institution in a way that’s understandable.”

Photo caption: Max Beal (second from right) has taken lessons learned on Lake Mendota abroad on a NSF-funded research trip to Lake Victoria in Kenya.