Oceanography course started woman on environmental journey


When she entered U-M four years ago, Olivia Mathiesen knew she loved science but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a living.

That began to change when she took an introductory oceanography class her freshman year.

Today, Mathiesen is poised to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in earth and environmental sciences, the culmination of a college career that included a 4.0 GPA, an internship with the U.S. Geological Survey and important research on an under-studied bacterium found in harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.  

Mathiesen hopes to one day help companies reduce the impact they have on the environment.

Olivia Mathiesen
Olivia Mathiesen

“I want to work as an environmental consultant because it will help me guide businesses and companies toward a more sustainable future,” she said.

Mathiesen grew up near the ocean in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. She loved the introductory oceanography course at U-M, and subsequent classes she took with Gregory Dick, professor of earth and environmental sciences, and of ecology and evolutionary biology, helped her narrow down her field of study.

Last year, she joined Dick’s lab studying bacteria in Lake Erie water samples. Her research looked at novel biosynthetic gene clusters in the cyanobacteria Dolichospermum, also known as Anabaena. Dolichospermum are part of the green algae blooms that grow quickly in the summer as they feed off fertilizer run-off, causing parts of the lake to have a pea-soup-like appearance.

Many researchers have focused on Microcystis, a different, more-common bacterium that can produce toxins that make the water dangerous to swim in or use for drinking. But Mathiesen learned that the less-studied Dolichospermum are making harmful toxins, as well.

“As the climate continues to change and human populations continue to grow, harmful algal blooms will likely worsen and become more frequent, and I think it’s important to understand the toxins and other secondary metabolites that these cyanobacteria can produce so that we can try and predict the potential toxicity of the lake and better prepare for it,” she said.

Mathiesen’s research also took her to the desert. During an internship with the U.S. Geological Survey, she searched parts of Nevada and California for biological soil crusts, which consist of small organisms in the topmost layer of the desert soil.

“Although hiking through the desert in the middle of a hot Las Vegas summer was not always the most fun experience, I was able to hike in remote desert regions that were absolutely beautiful,” Mathiesen said. “It was also interesting to work with cyanobacteria in the soil when so much of my research at Michigan has been on cyanobacteria in lakes.”  

Mathiesen said she believes her major has prepared her to tackle both current and future environmental challenges.

“When studying the Earth, it can be really easy to feel small and insignificant on this planet, but I think a career as an environmental consultant will help make me feel like I am a part of something bigger,” she said. “If I can help others understand the impact that all of us have on the lifespan of the Earth and actively do something to reduce that impact, I will feel better about the direction that our world is headed.” 


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