From the St. Joseph River to the Great Lakes: Ashley Moerke’s freshwater ecology journey

Author: John LeSage

Ashley Moerke

Ashley Moerke, MS ‘00 and Ph.D ‘04 at the University of Notre Dame, has worn many teaching, researching, and administrative hats throughout her professional career. However, it all began under the Golden Dome, where she pursued both a master’s and doctorate degrees while working in Gary Lamberti’s lab.

“I attribute so much of my success to Gary and the lab that he built, and the community that he built for us,” said Moerke, who now serves as the dean of the College of Great Lakes Ecology and Education at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. She also works as the executive director of the university’s Center for Freshwater Research and Education, which she helped create and build.

Moerke’s interest in freshwater ecology indeed developed largely from her time under Lamberti, the Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland C.S.C. Professor of Aquatic Science. He researches the structure and function of freshwater ecosystems to investigate their response to a changing world. Moerke followed suit, publishing her doctoral thesis on stream restoration.

Although the work was rewarding in itself, she described that the connections she developed with her colleagues were the highlight of her time at Notre Dame. She added that her Notre Dame education has furthered her career in ways she could have never imagined when she started.

“Notre Dame has an amazing network of scientists and experts . . . Jennifer Tank was on my committee, Ron Hellenthal was on my committee; they all have incredible reputations in the field. Having them help advise my research had created connections further into my career that I never would have understood until I started to go through it. They’ve all been instrumental in giving me advice, and connecting me to people, resources, and research.”

These connections, according to Moerke, didn’t stop after she left the university. For example, she’s remained in touch with Dominic Chaloner, currently professor of the practice and director of the Environmental Science major at Notre Dame.

“He was a postdoc in the lab when I was a grad student. He was hilarious . . . and he’s a fabulous person and scientist,” she said. “To this day, I think about the people I knew from there and I value them tremendously.”

After completing her doctorate, Moerke moved on to LSSU, describing how she loved it almost immediately.

“Lake State is this little gem,” she said. “It was surrounded by fresh water, and as a freshwater scientist, there’s no better place to be.”

Moerke has been there for almost 20 years and has worked in faculty, research, and administrative positions. Her freshwater research is diverse, encompassing everything from fish-eating cormorant birds to crude oil spills. One of her latest projects involves a major restoration — working on critical fish habitats for spawning — of the St. Mary’s River, the sole outflow of Lake Superior. She described how the project successfully increased the number of sport fish for anglers, creating a major economic and quality-of-life draw to the area.

“A lot of it’s connected to how people use and view the water,” Moerke said, describing her research.

However, making connections with other people is still her favorite part of her job.

“It’s the students who are the most rewarding,” she said. “I never thought that I’d want to be a teacher . . . but I felt like I could provide value to my students here, and that it was something that I became very passionate about — this kind of small, personal undergraduate education. I came through a similar experience, and it just resonated with me.”

She most enjoys interacting with the students who come from first-generation families, helping them identify the college opportunities available to them and future careers they could be successful in.

Moerke also encourages everyone who wants to study environmental science, especially at Notre Dame, to get involved in research.

“One of the most impressive things about Notre Dame is the amount of high-level research activity that integrates undergrads,” she said. “When you get exposed to professors’ research, your world opens up and you see all these career opportunities you may have never known about.”

When she’s not dispensing wisdom to her undergraduate students, Moerke enjoys the outdoor life, especially in LSSU’s unique location close to the Canadian border.

“On any evening after work, I can go mountain biking or cross country skiing with friends in Canada. There aren’t many places where you can recreate that; in two countries in one day,” she said.