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NIU graduate student featured in Canadian documentary

January 15, 2015
Lizzy Mack during filming of the Great Lakes Wild Episode. Credit: Amanda Buckiewicz

Lizzy Mack during filming of the Great Lakes Wild Episode.
Credit: Amanda Buckiewicz

NIU student Lizzy Mack has gained some celebrity status in Canada.

Mack, a graduate student in the laboratory of biological sciences professor Rich King, is featured in an episode of the documentary-style mini-series, Great Lakes Wild, which aired across the Great White North this week and can be viewed online.

Mack is seen throughout the program chasing her co-star, the Lake Erie Watersnake. She also discusses conservation efforts that have brought the snake back from near extinction and the snake’s much appreciated affinity for an invasive fish species known as the round goby.

Professor King and his NIU students have been working on conservation and studying the Lake Erie Watersnake for three decades. The region encompassing the islands and mainland of Lake Erie between the Ohio and Ontario borders is the only place worldwide where the snakes can be found.

When King was contacted by the mini-series producers, he steered them to Mack, who was serving as his point person in the field. Her research, conducted at Ohio’s Put-in-Bay Harbor, focuses on the unusual delayed feeding and growth in newborn Lake Erie Watersnakes.

Mack, a native of Bryan, Texas, says she was thrilled to be involved in the Canadian TV program.

“When you try to explain your research to people who don’t have a science background, it’s kind of hard. So to have them watch this – and get it – it’s been exciting,” Mack says.

Lizzy Mack's research focus is on newborn Lake Erie Watersnakes. Credit: Amanda Buckiewicz

Lizzy Mack’s research focus is on newborn Lake Erie Watersnakes.
Credit: Amanda Buckiewicz

“I’m happy to be able to show the episode to other students and friends. A lot of people don’t understand that conservation work can be a career,” she adds. “My parents are my biggest supporters in the world, and they’re super proud.”

Working on her master’s degree in biological sciences, Mack came to NIU specifically to work with Professor King on the watersnake research program.

“I was interested in ecology and really impressed by his long-term work,” she says. “He’s also a great guy. When I came to visit and met other people in his laboratory, I was really impressed and felt welcomed. It was just a good fit for me.”

She hopes other students who have worked on the watersnake’s conservation over the years will see the Great Lakes Wild episode.

“I hope they know they made a difference,” Mack says. “It is definitely a huge team effort, with a lot of NIU students and volunteers involved.”

King estimates that over the past three decades, more than 20 NIU students have been involved in the watersnake recovery efforts. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service honored both King and his then-doctoral student, Kristin Stanford, for their ongoing work with the slithery serpents.

King and NIU students have sustained countless bites in the name of championing the foul-smelling and cantankerous Lake Erie Watersnakes, which locals have come to appreciate in recent years. The snake itself has become a bit of a media darling, frequently featured in news reports and occasionally on TV, including a 2006 episode of the Discovery Channel’s program “Dirty Jobs.”

NIU biology chair Barrie Bode thinks TV viewers haven’t seen the last of the critters.

“Those snakes are going to hire an agent pretty soon,” he says.