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Think Tanks
Laboratory Meets Museum At New Lake Champlain Center


The plump sturgeon, brown as a pond bottom and knobby as a mountain bike tire, loops through its tank, propelling itself through complex whorls with a shimmy of waist and tail. The four-foot fish brakes sharply and tips its nose to the admirers behind the glass, revealing an ancient, alien face with a dangling soul-patch beard and a flat white proboscis surprisingly reminiscent of a pig’s snout.

In a 1960’s classroom science film, this glimpse would inspire the narrator, resplendent in his buzz cut and knife-pressed white shirt, to deep-voiced grandiloquence: “Here we gaze into the unfathomable face of the depths of prehistory...”

But that’s not the way things go down at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, a waterfront glass-and-steel temple celebrating the past, present, and future of New England’s greatest lake. (“ECHO” stands for ecology, culture, history and opportunity.) The flashy $14.5 million center, which shares walls and a common spirit with the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory, aims to get kids excited about the natural and scientific splendor all around them, and on this Tuesday morning, it is hitting the mark.

“Dude!” yells a kid with an unruly shock of bleached hair, gesturing at the thick glass. “Look at that! Hey, ugly!” Receiving no answer, he looks away from the fish and, somewhat remarkably, begins to read an informational plaque near the tank. The writing has the attitude to complement the kid’s hair: Sturgeon, it explains, are “armor-plated vacuum cleaners.”

Beyond another sheet of glass, this one catty-corner to a 20-foot waterfall sculpted of black Vermont limestone and just across from the gift shop with the rain sticks and key floats and good old Vermont Grade B, two University researchers bustle around tanks in the Rubenstein’s wet culture lab, adjusting mysterious equipment.

The inevitable plaque explains what’s going on. The flow meter and auto-sampler in the foreground are continuously monitoring the amount and toxicity of run-off from the city street outside. The tanks and aquaria beyond it, supplied by a web of tubing and pipes, are simulating the conditions of streams with and without agricultural chemicals to see how the pollution affects invertebrates. Another set of equipment is investigating predators of lake trout eggs. Another study is examining zebra mussels, an invasive, fast-breeding species that is altering Lake Champlain’s ecology.

“I was just down in the wet lab, and there was a whole class of preschoolers pressed against the glass, staring at us,” says Mary Watzin, the lab’s director and an associate professor of natural resources. “It takes some getting used to, but we’re not self-conscious — we want people to see what we’re doing.”

Combining a science museum with a busy research laboratory and plopping the whole shebang on the gently lapping shores of the object of study is an idea so obvious that it has almost never been tried.

“There aren’t many — or, really, any — facilities around the country that link exhibits with ongoing research with the community in the way we do,” says Phelan Fretz, ECHO’s executive director. “Having the Rubenstein here gives us incredible depth, and brushing shoulders every day with world-class scientists is going to give us more opportunities in the future.”

The depth Fretz prizes comes from the confluence of several streams of dreams and dollars at a two-acre patch of prime land at the base of College Street. The site, the long-time home of a Naval Reserve facility, is now the Patrick and Marcelle Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, after the powerful senator and lake advocate who secured more than half of the funding for the aquarium and who also helped the University find federal grants to complete funding for the Rubenstein Lab.

Reclaiming the plot of prime land from its superannuated federal use required more than a decade of public meetings, planning, fund-raising, and construction. The overriding goal was to ensure public access to the public land and, in the process, to make a key portion of Burlington’s waterfront a compelling and beautiful destination. University officials had already realized that lake researchers needed easy access to the lake, and that a few trailers next to a landing for UVM’s research vessel wasn’t going to cut it. Alan McIntosh, professor of natural resources, among others, advocated a new lab to the community board in charge of planning uses for the parcel, and found a receptive audience.

“Incorporating university-level research was an absolute core element in the site plan,” says Sarah Muyskens, a Burlington resident and environmental activist who served on the first advisory board and is now chair of ECHO’s board of directors.

UVM’s lakefront research center opened in 1999, supported by a gift from Beverly and Stephen Rubenstein ’61 that was then the largest in the School of Natural Resources’s history. Simultaneously, a fund-raising campaign for the neighboring Lake Champlain Basin Science Center, a popular but cramped lake aquarium and educational space, was building momentum. As architects designed the center’s new home, which is now the ECHO center, their prime commandment was to honor the site.

The architects created a space open to both the lake and the city above it. The back of the building is a wall of windows framing portraits of the lake and the Adirondacks; coming down from Burlington, the gleaming building is like an exclamation point at the end of one of the city’s central streets. The builders honored the setting in other ways. Water is everywhere: Steaming like wave foam over Vermont lake slate next to the entry, dropping down a two-story limestone waterfall in the entry atrium, bubbling through tanks and pools and a lifelike beaver dam in exhibitions.

The idea of treasuring the lakefront location is expressed in ECHO in other, more practical details. The structure was built to conform to a stringent and comprehensive environmentally friendly building standard, which increased costs but put the facility’s money where its mouth was in terms of environmental stewardship. And planners and builders took the idea of partnership with the University and expressed it with rebar and concrete. They joined the two structures, letting the two separate entities share walls to complement their shared sensibility.

Mary Watzin of UVM puts that common goal into a phrase: understanding and stewardship. “That’s the hope over the longer term, that people will walk away knowing a little more about this wonderful lake and basin and thinking a little more about their everyday activities,” she says.

Knowledge is power. Understanding the lake — its complex internal dynamics, its fragility in the face of human chemicals and waste, its vulnerability to fast-breeding species from far away, its cultural and physical pull through fanning tributaries on agriculture and life throughout the 8,200-square-mile basin — is the first step to preserving it. On the UVM side of the complex, the tools of understanding and, eventually, action are tanks, careful measurement, and statistics. On the ECHO side, the tools are computer “Eco-Detective” kiosks, bikes plastered with Zebra mussels, a shipwreck replica, a stream teeming with fish, and, yes, the ever-present opportunity to kibitz with an armor-plated vacuum, er, sturgeon. That repertoire is required because, in the aquarium at least, fun is essential to education.

“My teaching philosophy is, if you don’t hook ’em, you don’t have ’em, no matter what,” says Julie Silverman, the aquarium’s long-time head of educational programs. “They shouldn’t even know they’re learning half the time… If people are entertained and engaged and interested, they are more likely to make good decisions about their behavior. We’re not doing dogma here.”

Silverman’s intellectual but unserious sensibility (she is a master of something called the “mussel dance,” of which she says, “This job is great, where else can you whoop it up like a bivalve?”), informs every exhibit in the space. The emphasis is on participation — visitors can “erode” rocks with sandpaper, stick a head into a turtle tank, watch a rollicking six-minute video compressing the tectonics of 800 million years, pick different everyday activities (mowing the lawn, painting the house) to reveal their effects on the lake. Little kids can play with sponges and boats in “Watershed Way,” splashing their way to a lesson about basin drainage.

As with any aquarium, the animals are stars. But at ECHO, through conscious choice, the 2,200 critters are selected for their place in the landscape, not their bright hues. And so they tend toward unexhilirating shades of silver and brown, a tonal range that may not provoke many gasps from visitors but suits Phelan Fretz just fine. “We could have tropical fish,” he says. “But the power of this place is that it is about this place. We’re not interpreting all the lakes of the world, we’re interpreting Lake Champlain.”

With that, Fretz starts talking about depth again. Visitors can tour exhibits interpreting research, or they can peep in on real research. If touring the museum leaves them wanting more, they can sign their children up for a series of classes, or visit the Lake Champlain Basin Program Resource Room upstairs for lake information or maps from the federal, state and local consortium charged with preserving it. The museum’s ties to LAKENET, an international group directed by Lisa Borre ’86, will help bring world-wide lake issues to the Lake Champlain center.

Fretz freely admits that some of this, at the moment, is ambition — like the direct kayak put-in he covets on the dock next to the research ship. In ECHO’s first two months, the organization has focused on training its 200 volunteers, shaking down the new building and exhibits, and accommodating a crush of visitors that far exceeded projections. The potential of the Rubenstein partnership, he allows, has hardly been tapped.“But there’s an absolute commitment on both sides to nurture this great opportunity,” he says. “We are very excited.”

So far, the alliance has generated mostly just positive publicity for both the lab and the aquarium. This promises to continue, as Fretz tells reporters about the rare collaboration and as all of the center’s estimated 100,000 annual visitors walk past the Rubenstein’s façade and sign as they approach ECHO’s foyer. But both sides expect significant amounts of grant money and new programs as well. “Grant-givers are very interested in ways science, and research science in particular, can be made accessible and novel to the public,” says Watzin.

Meanwhile, the collaboration is expressing itself in smaller ways. University researchers have already helped train ECHO volunteers, shared their expertise with comments on current and future exhibits, and appear in some of the museum’s multi-media programming. The aquarium is beginning to tap its volunteer network to provide Rubenstein researchers with a comprehensive network of “lay monitors,” trained to observe and report lake conditions. Water-quality monitoring and public notification of conditions are already areas in which the Rubenstein is pushing for national leadership; more volunteers would take those efforts even farther.

And, of course, there is the window into the lab, a literal and figurative look into the daily lives of researchers, available daily to hundreds of passersby. Watzin imagines a kid strolling up and seeing something in the window or in the exhibits beyond that starts something lasting. She remembers growing up decades ago hardly aware that there were any women scientists; her career grew out of her curiosity and love of the outdoors. Watzin’s happy that ECHO’s young visitors will have a little more help.

“To get the next generation of scientists, we have to get them excited about science, asking a kazillion questions and generating even more,” she says. “A place like this puts you out there.”