Alice Giem: Birth of an Environmental Chemist
by Conna Bond, Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism Intern
Alice Giem, a senior chemistry major and Davidson Honors College student from the University of Montana, worked as a summer lab analyst intern for Adam Baumann, analytical chemist and lab manager for the Freshwater Research Lab at Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS). The FLBS internship program offers paid interdisciplinary positions to students from UM and elsewhere and is philanthropically funded.
Giem grew up in a small farming community in Twin Bridges, Montana. Both of her parents work in business—her mother as an accountant and her father as a stockbroker. She’s the only chemist in the family.
Her father, who attended UM, remembered hearing about FLBS when he was in college. He urged her to check out the bio station’s internships. She had never had any previous lab or research experience outside the classroom.
“This is a first for me, which is really cool and interesting,” Giem said over lunch at a picnic table by the FLBS dining hall. “It’s confirmed. I actually do enjoy doing chemistry as a job and not just as a student. And then we’re also living in such an immensely beautiful place, and I’m around a whole ton of people who feel the same way I do about science.”
She moved comfortably around the lab, wearing a white coat, blue latex gloves, and protective glasses. She quickly mastered the lab’s complex machinery and exacting methods of processing samples.
Giem was on-hand during the annual Bio Station Open House to engage visitors and answer questions about her work in the Freshwater Research Lab.
Baumann even relied on Giem to instruct students on how to analyze their samples from local lakes, rivers, and streams. Most were testing for biogeochemical levels of compounds such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.
“I try really hard to know what I’m doing,” she laughed. “I read a lot of stuff. And chemistry is just something that ‘clicked’ in my brain.”
Her confidence and well-rounded background made her stand out to Baumann from other internship applicants, who were all highly qualified.
“We typically draw folks of her caliber—honors college students,” he said.
Not only was Giem valedictorian of her high school class, but she also had already completed all of her lab classes, was actively involved with her sorority and had spent a year in Spain.
“She had a lot of extracurriculars that led me to believe she was going to be very professional, which means a lot in the lab,” Baumann said. “Integrity goes a long way in the laboratory. There are many times where the tasks can be super easy, but they’re super important. It’s important to understand that even though it’s easy, it has to be done right.”
Giem acknowledged that Baumann had to tell her to slow down a few times.
“I’m kind of an impatient person, and I like to get things done,” she said. “I’m really particular and I like to do it all myself, and Adam was like, ‘Sometimes you’ve gotta just chill and go with it.’ Which is not my favorite thing. But he’s really good at saying, ‘Dude, take it slow. It’s fine.’”
She helped Baumann install a new instrument designed to detect and measure low levels of phosphorus in water samples. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for algae growth, but levels have tended to be undetectably low in Flathead Lake. This has kept scientists guessing with regard to the ongoing productivity of its algae.
Chemistry Lab Analyst Intern Alice Giem stands with her supervisor, Freshwater Research Lab Manager Adam Baumann, on Summer Intern Presentation Day in August.
Giem described with excitement the components of the new machine that now increases the lab’s capacity to measure extremely low levels of phosphorus.
“You can detect as little as 1 PPB in the lake—that’s parts per billion,” she said. “That’s tiny—super, super small. It’s really cool!”
She especially enjoyed the freedom to learn a variety of lab analysis methods and procedures without being tied to just one task for eight weeks, as is often the case with lab internships.
Baumann counted Giem’s responsibilities on his fingers. “She’s done nitrate, nitrite, phosphate, total nitrate, phosphorus, ammonia, silica, organic carbon, particulate carbon, particulate nitrogen, chlorophyll, turbidity, alkalinity—wet chemical techniques that are universal everywhere. But she’s doing all of them using state-of-the-art instrumentation and modern protocols. She’s generating data that has never been generated for the lake before in terms of sensitivity,” he said.
Baumann also entrusted her with overseeing the lab’s collaborative Swim Guide Project with the Flathead Lake Open Water Swimmers and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. That project involved collecting and analyzing samples to monitor water quality and safety at popular swimming spots around the lake.
“What? She didn’t mention that?” Baumann laughed. “It’s all just incredible experience.”
Giem inherited a strong set of conservation ideals from her parents, particularly from her dad.
“I grew up in a really small community that focused on conservation hunting,” she said. “We all fish and do catch and release. I really want to focus on environmental science. Taking care of the world we live in is really important to me.”
Giem sees herself accomplishing that mission in a chemistry lab for the long term.