LLO Strategic Plan

Strategic Plan of the Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth


Freshwater is one of humanity’s most important resources, but its availability across the globe is extremely unequal.  Just a small handful of large lakes contain most of the accessible freshwater that society requires.  Most of these large lake ecosystems are under severe threat. Society therefore has a pressing need for improved understanding of the past and present of these large lakes systems, while managing them into the future to promote both human welfare and environmental sustainability.  The Large Lakes Observatory provides new foundational knowledge to help fulfill that need. 

LLO’s Mission:

The Large Lakes Observatory is dedicated to performing innovative, cross-disciplinary research, education, and outreach that advance scientific understanding of Earth’s large lakes for the benefit of society and the sustainability of freshwaters. 

LLO is a unique academic unit being the only university research group in the world dedicated to the study of the large lakes of Earth.

Intellectual scope

Scholarship is increasingly interdisciplinary, bringing many tools and perspectives together to advance science and address problems.  LLO is a model for how universities can best support interdisciplinary scholarship.  LLO has steadily broadened its scope from its early emphasis on geophysics and paleoclimate, areas where LLO was and remains a global leader.  Today its faculty represent all the major limnological disciplines: Biology, Chemistry, Geology, and Physics.  Interdisciplinarity is a hallmark but some crucial areas still are missing.  Further, modern scholarship builds upon new, transdisciplinary connections across even wider spans of scholarship, and LLO needs to grow even more in breadth in response.  With an explicit global mission, an international impact also is vital to LLO.  Earth’s large lake systems are located across the world, and experience working in remote or politically challenging areas is necessary to conduct research on these systems. 


  • To respond to the increasing complexity of modern scholarship, LLO will continue to broaden its scholarship.  Priority natural science areas for growth are (1) remote sensing and (2) air/water exchange.  In addition, expansion into social sciences would add entirely new perspectives and bring in much-needed human dimensions perspectives.  Other areas where expertise would add significantly to LLO’s ability to address its mission are atmospheric science, engineering (e.g. sensor development) and optics.  
  • Through efforts by individual faculty and teams, LLO will continue to pursue globally distributed projects on large lake environments, working with international partners and seeking opportunities to enhance research and education that expose UMD students to global perspectives.


LLO’s faculty are deeply involved in undergraduate education through their respective tenure-granting departments.  Undergraduate participation in research is active and continuous, and some undergraduate researchers go on to careers that were shaped by their work with individual faculty at LLO.  Given these successes, it seems likely that even greater opportunities for undergraduates would come from an expanded focus on LLO-wide undergraduate research programs that would add value to the individual attention that students receive from faculty. 

Research at LLO goes hand in glove with graduate training; one cannot be strong without the other.  The health and vitality, particularly of PhD training but also of MS training, are a vital interest.  Consequently, LLO works to provide a highly attractive graduate training program.  To achieve these goals, student support is a crucial resource.  UMD-supported GTA lines are vital and LLO advocates for these to be increased in number and in funding level, increasing our attractiveness to prospective students.  Interdisciplinary students may not always have comfortable fits within single academic departments so ways to support such students are vital.  Fellowship support is the ideal means for fostering graduate student success, and this is one of the top development priorities for LLO. 


  • Continue to offer impactful research opportunities to undergraduates. Consider and then build ways to foster a community among these students, keeping them in touch with LLO as they progress in their training and careers.
  • Maintain a focus on cutting edge, attractive and effective graduate training programs in water science that serve the state of Minnesota and have a national and international impact.  Seek additional intra- and extramural resources to develop interdisciplinary graduate training programs and opportunities.  Grow support for students pursuing non-academic careers in science.  Advocate for graduate education within UMD.  Refine marketing of graduate training programs so that all prospective students are aware of opportunities at LLO. 


Key assets supporting LLO’s mission are its building, its ship and dock facilities, and the scientific equipment it maintains.  LLO occupies the Research Lab Building (RLB), which is far and away the oldest building on the UMD campus.  The co-location of almost all LLO faculty offices on one hallway in this building adds immeasurably to the interdisciplinary advances that are part of LLO.  But RLB’s age and its available square footage are serious shortcomings.  Lack of connection to the rest of the campus also is a detriment.  Due mainly to its age the building is not well suited to modern science: Lab utilities, counters, benchtops, etc. are very dated with some labs being a hodgepodge of hand me down furniture and climate control is poor. Student offices are crowded and few in number.  As time goes on, conducting modern science in an ancient building becomes ever more difficult. 

Research on the Great Lakes requires a vessel capable of undertaking multi-day excursions while maintaining comfort and safety and supporting a variety of scientific activities.  LLO’s mission is enhanced immeasurably by the presence of the R/V Blue Heron, the only member of the US oceanographic research fleet that is based in the Great Lakes.  The major components that make this asset work are: the ship itself, docking facilities, a capable and dedicated crew, and institutional arrangements including some base financial support and membership in UNOLS.  All of these ingredients are in place and are functioning well; priority is on maintaining them while growing the user base.  The ship itself would be at the end of its useful life were it based in salt water, and though it has been well maintained and has constantly been upgraded, the time has come to begin consideration of what a new vessel would be.  The docking arrangements whereby space is leased from the US Army Corps of Engineers is functioning adequately, but lack of ownership of docking space puts LLO in a vulnerable position.  Further, dockside support space is far from adequate; an enclosed work area at the dock is needed.  The personnel assigned to the ship both onshore and on the vessel are well trained and dedicated but there is strain and uncertainty associated with filling some crew needs with on-call temporary staff and year to year fluctuations in ship usage create managerial challenges. 

State of the art environmental research depends more and more on high-cost instrumentation.  LLO has been a leader in use of environmental sensors in the Great Lakes. It has also maintained a suite of analytical equipment including mass spectrometers that put it on peer with some of the best environmental research units in the region.  Further investments in autonomous instrument systems, genomics and other kinds of sensors are crucial for LLO to stay at the forefront.  Modernizing LLO’s analytical facilities is an ongoing priority. A small but dedicated and capable technical staff support this wide diversity of facilities, but project-by-project funding makes some of them vulnerable to variability in funding. 


  • Work with UMD toward long-term building plans.  A commitment to investing in RLB while longer terms plans involving a new building are developed is urgently needed. It is crucial in the near future for UMD to prioritize modernization of the lab spaces, improve air handling, improve access between parking lot and storage/work areas, and support some reconfiguration and remodeling of office areas.  UMD must soon prioritize a commitment to a permanent space solution for LLO.  Separately or together with new building plans, high-bay workspace suitable for maintaining and repairing large outdoor equipment such as buoys is critical; this space would need to be part of a new building or a separate dockside facility developed.
  • Explore alternative docking arrangements that would involve University ownership and capability of developing dockside enclosed work areas.  Promote the use of the Blue Heron across the Great Lakes research community.  Hire one more full-time (seasonal) crew member.  Develop a conceptual plan for replacing the Blue Heron.  Develop long-term institutional arrangements for base funding from UMD and from NSF. 
  • Prioritize institutional investment in applying new technologies to solving scientific challenges.  Make use of all opportunities to fund expensive infrastructure.  Explore ways to involve the technical staff more fully in the operation and use of shared resources. Enhance external sales as a way to support technical human resources and infrastructure.


LLO is in a unique position within UMD to promote higher education and scientific research in a highly visual and participatory way to strengthen public support for research and broaden impact.  LLO has indeed made continuous efforts to build a strong community outreach program. LLO scientists are frequently in the public eye, giving lectures and responding to news media queries.  The LLO Science on Deck program is the largest single component of LLO outreach and one of the best known at UMD.  Science on Deck attendees are invited to explore science, engineering, technology, or mathematics topics while on board the research vessel Blue Heron, seeing firsthand how large lakes science is performed.  Outreach within the Twin Ports has been very strong and potential for increased exposure especially exists outside of that community.


  • Build and improve on Science on Deck, further increasing the number and diversity of individuals it reaches and locating it outside of Duluth-Superior at least 2x/year. 
  • Increase the volume of material sent to the broader public through news releases, social media and others.  Begin to build a video library that can be used for outreach and other activities.

Role in the University and Beyond

LLO is a visible cornerstone of UMD’s recognized strengths in water programs and a key research unit within the Swenson College of Science and Engineering.  LLO functions within this set of programs as a local leader in foundational and forward-looking research while benefiting from other UMD programs that focus on outreach or on industry-directed research.  Connections among the various water-centered units at UMD can and should be strengthened. LLO faculty are active participants and often provide leadership in cross-cutting university initiatives like the Institute on the Environment, the Water Council, and others. 

LLO also serves as a model for a focused, research intensive unit within UMD.  The split appointment model (50% tenure-granting unit, 50% LLO research) is a key ingredient in LLO’s success.  It creates an environment where faculty are committed both to the success of their disciplinary department and to the interdisciplinary work at LLO.  One weakness of the model is that critical dimensions of faculty development including annual merit review and the promotion and tenure process are almost entirely driven by the disciplinary units, leaving little opportunity for rewarding directly contributions individuals make to LLO.  The process relies on the continued willingness of departments to accept LLO input to inform their processes.

As one of the largest collections of university scientific expertise focusing on lakes in the US or indeed the world, LLO has a role to play in stimulating research and enhancing research networks.  Being recognized as a leader in this community burnishes LLO’s reputation and brings further prestige to UMD.


  • Contribute to, and continue to help lead UMD and system-wide initiatives in water and environment.
  • Engage more with researchers outside of science and engineering. 
  • Increase participation in the innovation pipeline that connects basic research to benefits to society.
  • Work to enhance the split appointment model to give LLO a more explicit role in faculty development issues such as pay, tenure, and others. 
  • Continue to play an active role in Great Lakes-wide networks (e.g. CIGLR, ACARE).  Advocate for Great Lakes research through publications, conferences and news releases and by communicating with decision makers.

 Adopted March 27, 2018