Success Behind the Microscope
In every nook and cranny, behind every partition and around every corner people peer into microscopes. Some separate clams from worms in samples of Mississippi River water. Others move through sample after sample of saltwater from the Delaware Estuary, separating and identifying all the life in the dish. Yet others tackle microbial algae that makes the tiny aquatic life appear enormous.
Welcome to the largest taxonomy lab in the United States—located discreetly in Moscow, Idaho.
Behind the non-descript door of EcoAnalysts, in a renovated mall space, racks of water samples line the hallways. Dim lighting is split by spots of bright light from high powered microscopes, casting shadows in the quiet lab. This is where the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Environmental Quality, tribes and private entities send their water samples when trying to better understand the overall health of a body of water.
Out of the Basement
Started in Gary Lester’s (Bachelor of Science, fishery resources, ’92) basement in the early 1990s, EcoAnalysts now employs 55 people, and is a leading taxonomy lab, pulling in work from across the United States and Canada as well as more exotic samples from places like Trinidad and Tobago. The lab did a large amount of taxonomy for the federal government after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The lab is currently cataloging thousands of water samples for the Environmental Protection Agency in an ongoing project to monitor and evaluate the ecological and environmental conditions in the U.S. coastal waters.
“Our marine program is growing rapidly,” Lester said. “That diversification of services is what separates us from our competitors.”
New Algae Interest
Oil and gas exploration is a huge driver of taxonomy needs. There is also a growing demand in the taxonomy of algae. The field is young, with new microbial algae still being discovered regularly. The lab is involved in a national project to catalog all the algae, giving the scientists involved in that aspect of the lab a secondary task aside from identifying and cataloging for the client.
Finding a niche and filling the need is something Lester and his original business partner Jody White (BS Fishery Resources, ’92) learned while working with Merlyn Brusven, an entomology professor, on master’s degrees. He encouraged the students to do consulting work on the side. From that the two saw the market for taxonomy and EcoAnalysts began.
Within a few years White transitioned out eventually starting his own consulting firm focusing more on fish and Scott Lindstrom (BS Fisheries Resources, ’92), an early-on employee, bought in as the second partner. Lindstrom serves as the chief financial officer.
“That is one reason we encourage all students to take more business classes,” Lindstrom said. “We all have degrees in fisheries and that is good, but to go into business for yourself, having those business classes is important.”
Starting a business in the backyard of the University of Idaho is great for collaborative reasons, Lester said. At any time several UI students work in the lab. Lester is typically part of a speaker series at UI, talking to natural resources students about working in private industry. EcoAnalysts also has been used for overflow UI research activities.
“It is the stuff that happens organically just from being here,” Lester said.