Joe Rabaey

This week’s featured scientist is Joe Rabaey. Joe is a graduate student a part of the Cotner Lab and in the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior department at the University of Minnesota. His studies mainly focus on aquatic ecology, specifically how nutrients and organic material are broken down in lakes and ponds. When organic materials are broken down, there are two byproducts, carbon dioxide and methane, that come out as a result. Both carbon dioxide and methane are potent greenhouse gases. Joe is interested in how small lakes and ponds can emit these gases into the atmosphere.

Image by Ivan Bandura


How did you get into the work that you do?

In college, I was a biochemistry major, as I loved both biology and chemistry and how they complement each other. Aquatic ecology was a perfect blend of my interests, as aquatic habitats have a lot of dynamic chemical and biological processes happening all the time. I also grew up in Minnesota, and I love spending time on our lakes and rivers. Being able to perform research that can help protect and manage our aquatic ecosystems is super rewarding for me!

What is a question people always ask you when they learn what you do? What is your typical response?

A lot of people ask me about the water quality in a specific lake that they or their family visit, where they often have noticed less water clarity or poorer fishing over the years. 

I think that it is always great to see how much Minnesotans care about our lakes. While I often don’t the specifics for every lake, there are many things we can collectively do to sustain higher water quality, including reducing nutrient pollution and restoring degraded shoreline habitat.

What is one of your favorite aspects of your work? What is the most challenging?

Problem-solving is my favorite part of what I do. I get to ask a new question that no one knows, and then go try and find the answer. One of the most difficult things is that when you are trying to answer a new question, there is often no template to follow when you get stuck. But that challenge is what makes it rewarding!

If you could study any one topic or idea, and money/time/equipment/ were not an issue, what would you study?

I think methane formation and emission from lakes and ponds are really fascinating, but equipment and sensors that detect methane are often very expensive and not designed for ecosystem science. It would be really cool to have methane sensors that could monitor methane levels in and above the water constantly, and we could learn a lot about methane emission from freshwaters.

Outside of your scientific studies, what other subjects or interests do you enjoy?

I am an avid fisherman, which is an added bonus to doing much of my research on Minnesota lakes. I also enjoy many other outdoor hobbies, such as running, biking, and Nordic skiing in the winter.

What’s a fun fact that few people would guess about you?

I have two different colored eyes, some people notice right away, other people know me for years and will randomly notice it one day.

Header Photo by Ivan Bandura