A Lifetime Love of Science and Teaching on Flathead Lake
Gary Gagermeier’s relationship with the Flathead Lake Biological Station started early. As a child, his father, a UM alumnus, took him for a visit. It was the first time he had ever stepped into a lab.
“I can remember the tour they gave me, and I thought, ‘This is wonderful,’” he recalls.
He got a job working in the Bio Station’s kitchen as a teenager – age 14, to be precise, which was two years too young to be working there. They had finally hired him after he rode his bike there, resume in hand, every other day for several weeks.
Although he was in a support staff role, Gagermeier learned all he could about the science being conducted at the Bio Station. He would wash dishes in the commissary and then go down to the lab and wash dishes there. He would wander down to the office of G.W. Prescott. Then in his 80s, Prescott was a world renowned algal and water ecologist who wrote numerous scientific papers and books about algae, including a guidebook listing all the algae documented in the waters of Montana from 1891 through 1977.
“Here I was this young kid watching Gerald, sitting there with a great big cigar drawing his algae,” says Gagermeier. “He didn’t have the computer or anything like that. He would draw everything he saw in the microscope. I’d ask question after question and he’d describe the answer after making me think about it. He loved the word ‘why.’”
In this way, Gagermeier deepened his love of science and learning. Under the guidance of Dr. Solberg, he went on to study at the University of Montana, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Botany and eventually a master’s degree in Environmental Studies and teaching certification in science, math and, later, computer science.
He then became a middle school science and math teacher and then a high school science teacher at Hellgate High School in Missoula. He mentored and scientifically inspired innumerable students in an Advanced Problems in Science class (many of whom he is still in touch with) until his retirement in 2014. Gagermeier also served as a caregiver for his parents until they passed away.
All the while, the Bio Station was calling.
"When I retired, I wasn't ready to sit down in the recliner and stare at the TV. So, I asked Assistant Director Tom Bansak if there was anything I could do at the Bio Station.”
Fast forward three years, and Gagermeier is a fixture at Yellow Bay. He has his own desk, chair and bench space and estimates he’s at the station 40 hours a week, all as a volunteer. He works with Dr. Cody Youngbull, a research professor and director of the Bio Station’s SensorSpace lab who invents, builds and tests environmental sensors, including the world’s first portable device that can detect microscopic amounts of DNA in bodies of water.
Flathead Lake is beloved by many Montanans like Gagermeier. It’s one of the cleanest large lakes in the world and a primary driver of the regional economy. Since 1977, the Bio Station’s Flathead Lake Monitoring Program has helped to understand and protect Flathead Lake’s world-renowned water quality.
The sensors that Gagermeier is helping to develop in the SensorSpace lab will help enhance Flathead Lake monitoring. Automated environmental sensors frequently record information about factors such as water clarity, temperature, oxygen, nutrients and pollutants. These newly developed sensors provide more data from more locations around the lake. The DNA detection device, the DNA Tracker, can detect aquatic invasive species, such as mussels, by taking samples of lake water rapidly and inexpensively in the field, providing an additional safeguard for the lake as early detection is crucial in the battle against invasive species.
In addition to the science, Gagermeier takes a strong interest in mentoring the students, undergraduate researchers and interns who are drawn, like he was, to learn at the Bio Station.
“Being a teacher has been a gift given to me,” he says.
To support the next generation of scientists and educators, Gagermeier has funded scholarships to help students, including a local teacher last year, to take summer classes and have their own Bio Station experience. Additionally, Gary has left a provision in his will that will create an endowment to support internships at the Bio Station. It’s his way of ensuring that young people will always have access to this “important, fascinating and intensely beautiful place” that has impacted him so deeply."The Bio Station gave me a tremendous amount. My folks taught me that when you’re given something, you need to give back. I feel like I’ve done the right thing in the right place.”