Shaw’s Environmental Education Legacy

by Bill DeVita

Byron Shaw was my mentor. As a professor and researcher, he furnished me with an opportunity in 1982 while I was an undergraduate student at UWSP. I had been on campus about a year and heard tales of Dr. Shaw as the head of the water lab and as a researcher with several graduate students. In January of that year, I mustered up the courage to knock on the door of his notoriously cluttered office and asked him if there were any opportunities to volunteer in the ‘Environmental Task Force Lab.’ This was a venture of his that he began in the early ’70s with a little help from the state legislature. He removed a pile of papers from the extra chair in his office, balanced them carefully upon another pile of papers, and invited me to sit and talk. So we talked – with his classic style, leg crossed, leaning way back in his chair, pipe in hand. During our discussion, the manager of the ‘pesticides lab’ happened by and Byron asked him if he needed any help in the lab upstairs. With an affirmative response, he then asked me, “are you interested in pesticides in groundwater?” “Yeah, for sure, totally,” was probably my response, without any idea of the path that it would lead me down. I just wanted some experience, and an opportunity was there – and I took it. So I cut my teeth on analysis of groundwater for aldicarb using some relatively new equipment. (In university-speak, if it is less than 10 years old, it is relatively new.)

A couple of years earlier, he and his undergraduate students had discovered aldicarb in Central Wisconsin groundwater. This was the first time pesticide residues had ever been detected in the state’s groundwater and it was met with lots of skepticism. I learned about the personal, professional and political struggles that came as a result of that discovery. Byron took the heat from many detractors, but never lost his cool. His passion for groundwater quality lead to passage of the first groundwater legislation in Wisconsin, which was a model for other states to follow. With the lab and field experiences he provided me, combined with a degree, I landed my first gig as a contract chemist with the EPA.

Up to this point, my story is the story of many hundreds of students that have worked in the lab at UWSP, now known as the Water and Environmental Analysis Lab (WEAL). The program Byron began has provided lab and field experiences that are the asterisk on our graduate’s resume. Those experiences are the reason so many of our graduates are employed in the field of water and natural resources. Whether they work as environmental chemists, or as environmental consultants, hydrologists, limnologists, etc., they have an appreciation and understanding of the analytical process, how data are obtained, and interpreted.  Since 1972, the students and staff at the water lab here at UWSP have tested many thousands of private well samples across the state, and provided opportunities for citizens of the state to learn about their groundwater. And that’s all because of the programs Byron started.

My story continues into 1988 when Byron called me to see if I might be interested in applying for the soon to be open Pesticide Lab Manager position. We had been in discussion about my attending grad school, and this position offered me the opportunity to work full-time and attend classes on a part-time basis. I applied, interviewed, and was hired to continue this relationship on a professional level. It was the greatest honor of my career to work with Byron and the other professionals in the College of Natural Resources. And now as the manager of the lab, we are challenged to keep this opportunity available for students to learn and to earn that asterisk on their resume. We are challenged to continue to provide affordable testing and education to citizens across the state. We do our best to keep this piece of Byron’s legacy going here in the WEAL, and give the next generation of students what he gave so many; opportunity and passion.

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