Steinman Charts New Course

July 24, 2006
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MUSKEGON — For Alan Steinman, coming to Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute was a chance to have the support of a university and the community while steering the institute in a positive direction.

And that direction has plenty of business implications.

Steinman describes the institute as the first major step to a knowledge-based economy in the Muskegon area.

The Annis Water Resources Institute has several purposes, Steinman said, including education, outreach, and the ecological research group.

Steinman said he hopes the research will make a difference in the way community leaders make decisions that affect the environment.

Steinman has been successful in securing federal funding for several projects, such as a $250,000 renovation of the field station that included cosmetic and roof work, fencing and a small boat davit. There is another $400,000 grant for a storage area that will be used to store equipment currently in the field station. An additional $250,000 grant will be used to begin renovations on new labs and offices at the field station because the current space is used to capacity, he said.

After the renovations and construction, Steinman said, GVSU will be looking to hire new faculty members in aquatic molecular ecology and an environmental ecologist.

Steinman was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island and attended the University of Vermont and the University of Rhode Island. He worked as a park ranger for the state of New York and earned a Ph.D. at OregonState in aquatic ecology. After earning his doctorate, Steinman went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in 1992.

He worked as a senior scientist at Science Applications International Corp. in San Diego and then moved to the South Florida Water Management District and worked as the supervising environmental scientist and director of the Lake Okeechobee department. He left in 2001 to come to the Annis Water Resources Institute, which was less than a year old at the time.

Steinman has had a broad range of experiences during his career, studying aquatic botany and stream ecology as well as inter-tidal and marine systems.

Steinman said he got into management for a simple reason.

“We’ve all had bad managers,” he said. “I figured a known evil, myself, was better than an unknown evil as a manager.”

He said his theory on management is to get the best people and the best resources, and then get out of the way.

“I oscillate between tolerating it and there are parts I really do enjoy,” he said of being a leader instead of a researcher.

There are some perks to being the executive director, Steinman admits. “I like having that element of being able to control where we’re going,” he said.

In addition to his responsibilities as director, Steinman continues doing research because of a love for science. “The science is what got me into the business to begin with,” he said.

Steinman’s research projects include studies of WhiteLake, MonaLake and SpringLake to determine where phosphors that pollute the lake are originating.

He is also working with the West Michigan Strategic Alliance to assign a value to natural and ecological resources.

“When you fill in a wetland, nobody talks about the cost of that,” Steinman said. “Right now, the economics are showing one side of the equation.”

The results of that study will be shared with area municipalities in hopes of educating decision-makers about the monetary value of natural resources. The results will be available via a Web-based tool for land-use planners.

“We just kicked it off,” Steinman said of the 18-month project. “It’s really meant to be a starting point.”

The study is being funded by a $65,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Greg Northrup, president of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, said the project is going well.

“They’re the right people to do it because Al is technically very skilled in his work,” Northrup said of the resource center and Steinman.

Steinman’s extroverted personality puts him in a good position to communicate with those within the university and in the community, which can be rare at his level of the profession, Northrup said.

“They sometimes don’t reach out as they could/should to the rest of the public, and I think Al understands that balance,” Northrup said. “He has good people skills.”

Northrup said Steinman also understands the relationship between a university and the community it is in.

“He does understand how to try and connect the university’s resources into the community,” he said.

As Northrup works to connect regional entities through the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, he said Steinman is a perfect example of an expert who can help West Michigan tap into its intellectual capital.

Steinman said he appreciates GrandValley’s commitment to the community.

“There is an expectation of community service,” he said. “We like to think what we’re doing has immediate application.”

Steinman is also the founder of the Café Scientifique in Muskegon. The international program was started in the United Kingdom and encourages informal sessions at public locations to discuss scientific issues. The participants do not have to be in the scientific field, but just have an interest. There have been six meetings so far at the Coastline Deli with 15 to 30 people at each meeting. He said subjects from Mars exploration to stem cell research to alternative energy have been discussed. Though on hiatus for the moment, Steinman said the discussions will start up again during the cooler months.

Steinman said he had an interesting experience entertaining the British Consulate from Chicago who was interested in Café Scientifique and saw similarities between the industrial history and transition of Muskegon and his hometown of Birmingham in the U.K.

Steinman’s wife, Annoesjka, is also active in the community as the director of the Mona Lake Watershed Council and a member of the Norton Shores City Council.

Steinman serves on the Downtown Development Committee, working with area groups on ideas such as green roofs, alternative energy, pervious surfaces and other ecologically friendly solutions.

“I really view that as part of our mission,” he said. “Muskegon needs that information and we are here.”

Steinman said his biggest career break was even sweeter because of what it saved him from. After receiving his degree in 1987, Steinman said the job market was difficult. While he was searching for a job in his field that summer, his father asked him to consider opening a location of Barbizon School of Modeling in Tokyo as a franchising opportunity, as he had done in New York. Before accepting that opportunity from his father, Steinman presented a paper at the Oceanic Society of America’s meeting in August and was offered not one but two positions by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Steinman said the most important aspect of his career is that he enjoys it.

“Every morning I look forward to going to work,” he said. “I never, ever wake up in the morning and dread having to go to the office. I love what I do. It’s really neat knowing there’s always something new and challenging to get done. To me, work is never a sense of frustration; it’s a source of pride.”

Steinman said he wants to make sure others feel that pride too, and started an External Science Advisory Board to critique the center and its programs.

“I don’t mind people’s criticism as long as that criticism is constructive,” he said.

The board visits every two years to critique and evaluate the program.    

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