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hallie testing toxic algae

Disproving Ideas Key of Award Winning Research

It seems obvious. A beautiful, remote lake is blooming with toxic algae. At the headwaters cattle graze in and around the creek. Of course the toxins are related to the cattle.

But they aren’t.

That was the conclusion of a thesis project that earned Hallie Rajkovich the Outstanding Masters Research and Creativity Award.

“At first it was a no-brainer,” she said. “It has to be the cattle. But we had to prove it.”

Hallie is the third graduate student of Frank Wilhelm’s, fishery professor in the College of Natural Resources, to take on the mysteries of Willow Creek Reservoir. The area in eastern Oregon has been plagued with toxic algae for years. People are warned to avoid contact with the water in the summer when blooms are present—and keep their pets away.

cattle near willow creek resevoir

The first graduate student identified the creeks as the major source of phosphorus to the lake. The second student pinned down the nitrogen to phosphorus ratios in the lake that promote blooms of toxic algae. Hallie was there to figure out the watershed source of phosphorus, examine possible solutions, and look at the social aspects of the lake and how much visitors and nearby residents understood the risks.

A survey of the residents showed they were not opposed to a constructed wetland to reduce nutrients from the creek before it enters the lake, much like a wastewater wetland. However, the geography limited the size of the wetland and for much of the year, the phosphorus was in suspension and wouldn’t settle in a wetland. The wetland, much like the research premise, was a bust.

She also found out that teachers would not take students to the wetlands for possible outreach and STEM learning opportunities—another surprise to her.

Sometimes research goes that way. Scientists learn what it isn’t.

Hallie said the findings were fascinating because they went against popular thinking. That is one reason she found earning her master’s degree much more challenging than anything she did for her bachelor’s degree. The experience she brought to her graduate studies from a year of teaching at the McCall Outdoor Science School and a year collecting hazardous waste on Cape Cod were invaluable.

hallie rajkovich

“I am interested in linking the social and physical sciences together.”Hallie said Wilhelm played a huge role in her success in taking on such a challenging research project.

“He set really high expectations for me.”

Wilhelm said he had never advised a student with little hand-on experience in the physical sciences. But Hallie was up to the task.

“Her growth has been phenomenal.”

When Hallie started working at Willow Creek she barely knew what the equipment was. By the end she could dismantle it, diagnosis problems, repair and put it back together.

Hallie has defended her thesis and is now working as a hydrologic technician for the Bureau of Reclamation in California.