WE SAT DOWN WITH MATT GLADFELTER, A PHD STUDENT IN THE COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE SCHOOL OF FISHERIES, AQUACULTURE, & AQUATIC SCIENCES. 

Matt Gladfelter, a Ph.D. student in the College of Agriculture School of Fisheries, Aquaculture & Aquatic Sciences, is a natural educator and bright young scientist. Through his research, Matt hopes to share his passion for aquatic resources with students, citizens, and stakeholders across Alabama.

Gladfelter completed his B.S. in Biological Sciences at Rowan University in New Jersey. From an early age, he always enjoyed being immersed in the outdoors. Whether it be flipping rocks in creeks or hiking through the woods, he was certain that he would enjoy a career in the aquatic resources field. This passion was confirmed when he decided to apply for a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduate Students (REU) program with Dr. Patrick Crumrine (Rowan University) in 2017, where he was able to explore his curiosity and appreciation of aquatic ecology even further.

Undergraduate Research at Grand Valley State University

Matt setting a hoop net to capture turtles during his 2017 REU Program (Photo credit: Matt Gladfelter).

During his summer at the University of Virginia’s Blandy Experimental Farm with Dr. Crumrine, Matt assisted with mark-recapture studies of eastern freshwater turtles; working mainly with painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) and red-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans).

It was with this REU experience that Matt realized he may have a knack for teaching. “I was exposed to so many opportunities throughout this time, including scientific outreach with visitors to the State Arboretum of Virginia on property. Each time a visitor passed by our group, I would take some time to explain our research and the goals of our study, which gave me great practice with scientific communication,” said Gladfelter. He was further encouraged by this REU experience to explore a future in aquatic research, which inspired him to apply to graduate school at Auburn University, where he ultimately completed his M.S. in 2021 under the mentorship of Dr. Alan Wilson.

When asked about his decision to choose AU for his graduate studies, Gladfelter stated that it was the opportunity to serve as a Teaching Assistant (TA) that really attracted him to the program. “Being able to TA was important to me since I enjoyed the teaching aspect of my REU program, so I was thankful that I could be given that opportunity with Dr. Wilson.” The charm of AU’s campus and premier access to the ponds at the E.W. Shell Fisheries Center additionally influenced his decision.

Undergraduate Research at Grand Valley State University

Matt had the opportunity to teach summer school children about eastern painted turtles while he completed his REU program (Photo credit: Blandy Experimental Farm).

When discussing why he was drawn to researching aquatic resources and harmful algal blooms, Gladfelter explained his appreciation of the interconnectedness of water quality with our lives and how it involves such diverse groups and stakeholders. “We all want clean water for swimming, fishing, and drinking. I study Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and I need to communicate with researchers, water utilities, zoos, catfish farmers, and other stakeholders about matters that are important to them.” He further elaborated that each situation requires a slightly different viewing lens, and the technical experience gained in communicating with various groups has been invaluable to his career progression.

While his M.S. research was concentrated on nitrogen utilization in cyanobacteria and how different forms of nitrogen may influence the frequency and intensity of algal bloom events, Gladfelter’s doctoral research is focused on investigating different trace metals in freshwater phytoplankton. “I am evaluating how micronutrients and trace metals are moving throughout the water column in reservoirs at various times of the year” he explained. He does this through analytical techniques and intensive field sampling, with field sites in Opelika, Auburn, as well as Lake Martin. Matt also mentioned the Wilson Lab is always looking for new, innovative ways to conduct research and recently started working with a new electrochemistry-based approach to measure metals.

Gladfelter setting up limnocorrals on a pond at Auburn University’s E.W. Shell Fisheries Center (Photo credit: Matt Gladfelter)

“The Southeast has more of a water quality rather than a water quantity concern,” said Gladfelter when asked about the role his research plays in our state. “Our water quality is heavily impacted by how we treat the watersheds we live in; therefore, it is important to conduct this research to see our impacts on the aquatic environment and how different practices on land can influence HAB occurrence.”

Gladfelter shared some insight when asked about advice for aspiring students: “I would encourage undergraduates to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. Go to conferences, present your research, and meet as many people as you can. Build your network early on, get some experience in outreach or teaching, and always try new things (even if you are not sure you will like it). Always try to learn and be open to feedback.”

Microcystis scum from Auburn University’s E.W. Shell Fisheries Center Pond (Photo credit: Matt Gladfelter)

When asked about the highlight of his time as a graduate student at AU, Gladfelter recounted his weeklong trip to Lake Erie with the Ohio State University Stone Laboratory with fondness, stating that it was an incredibly rewarding experience. “I was able to take samples and run micro-experiments alongside some of the top researchers in my field. It was such a full-circle moment to be able to meet the individuals who have written so many of the papers that I have read throughout my academic career.”

REU student Isabel Bela adding micronutrients to her microcosm containers as part of her REU project (Photo credit: Matt Gladfelter)

REU student Olivia Montoya checking the water clarity before collecting samples as part of her REU project (Photo credit: Matt Gladfelter)

Gladfelter also had the opportunity to participate in another REU program, but this time in a different capacity. Recently, Matt mentored two students during a summer Warm-Water Aquatic Ecology REU program spearheaded by his AU advisor, Dr. Wilson. Gladfelter described the program as rewarding because it was an opportunity for him to grow as a mentor and continue to help young scientists understand the experimental design process as well as carry out those experiments. Mentoring one student can be challenging enough, but mentoring two students with different research goals and work styles pushed Gladfelter as a leader because each student had a different understanding of aquatic ecology and HABs when entering the program. “I believe taking a “one-size-fits-all” mentoring/teaching approach does not get the best results from the students and my REU mentoring stint really reinforced that” he remarked. Furthermore, it was fulfilling for Gladfelter to contribute to the same NSF-funded program that inspired his own path in science that ultimately led him to AU. “I would not be here without my REU experience so being able to contribute to the program was incredibly rewarding” he expressed.

When discussing plans after graduation, Gladfelter mentioned his semesters as a TA taught him a career in teaching might be in his future. Matt is also looking forward to getting married in October and to getting as much research done as possible during the remainder of his Ph.D. experience.

Check out the Wilson Lab website or Instagram to keep up with Matt and his lab mates!