McLellan Receives New Uihlein Professorship to Expand Research; Named UWM Distinguished Professor

Sandra McCellan at sewerage tank

Sandra McLellan, professor in the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, has received the first Lynde B. Uihlein Professorship in Ecosystem Health. The four-year appointment will allow McLellan to expand her lab’s exploration into new research on the evolution of bacteria living in urban water infrastructure.

“I first became aware of Sandra’s expertise when her research on the shores of Lake Michigan clarified the sources of bacteria that were found in our beaches. I have followed her trajectory with interest as she delves deeper into the locus and impact of bacteria and microbes that co-habit with human systems,” Uihlein said. “It is my great pleasure to support her work in the field of ecosystem health.”

McLellan, who came to UWM in 1998 and joined the School of Freshwaters Sciences in 2001, has been collaborating with colleagues in Australia and Hawaii to study microbes living in urban sewer systems. In spring 2023, she spent six months on a Fulbright Future Scholarship in Australia where she worked with colleagues to isolate 100 different bacterial strains and began sequencing their genomes to see how the strains have adapted to urban environments in Wisconsin, Hawaii and Australia.

“In the course of my research, we’ve seen interesting bacteria that are colonizing city water systems. These microbes have adapted over a very short period in evolutionary history,” McLellan says. “This professorship will allow us to dive into the next generation of questions about these bacteria. It launches us into a new area that explores not just what travels through pipes, but the biological water infrastructure of our cities. We want to know how we can enhance this microbiome for our benefit and reduce its detrimental effects on our water infrastructure.”

This direction is an evolution in McLellan’s own research program. Since 2001, she has brought in more than $15 million in external funding, including funding from the National Institutes of Health that helped her to develop better indicators for identifying serious contamination concerns in water, such as sewage, agricultural runoff and other sources that can carry waterborne pathogens and cause illness.

Those indicators have been used in collaboration with Wisconsin Sea Grant and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to help fill in scientific gaps needed to create effective management plans for beaches designated as areas of concern. This work was also instrumental in the cleanup of Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach and remediation plans for South Shore Beach. The McLellan lab is now fine-tuning the indicators to develop specific risk-based criteria for beach closures.

In 2020, McLellan’s work put Wisconsin at the forefront of testing wastewater for COVID-19 through a collaboration with the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene. She was named one of only 14 members to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ad hoc committee for wastewater surveillance. The surveillance techniques used in her lab will be used in the future to track COVID variants as well as other disease pathogens and antibiotic resistance in the future.

In May 2023, McLellan was named a UWM Distinguished Professor, an honor that has been bestowed to only 66 faculty members since 1973.

“Professor McLellan has been a consistent star researcher in the area of environmental health in the School of Freshwater Sciences since the beginning — from helping MMSD, USGS and US EPA identify and track sources of bacteria contamination in our local waterways and Lake Michigan, to identifying the necessary steps to cleanup bacteria pollution on Bradford and South Shore beaches, to most recently figuring out how to identify COVID-19 outbreaks in our community during the pandemic;” said Rebecca Klaper, dean of the school. “In addition, Sandra is very involved in teaching and inspiring the next generation of freshwater scientists through advising graduate students and teaching in our new undergraduate program. We are very lucky to have her on our faculty and in Milwaukee contributing to science that solves our freshwater problems.”

Lynde B. Uihlein ’68, ‘71 is a long-time supporter of the School of Freshwater Sciences and UWM. Her support established the school’s Center for Water Policy and its first Lynde B. Uihlein Endowed Chair for Water Policy in 2011. She regularly supports the work of the Center for Water Policy, funded research focused on the potential impacts of the Waukesha Great Lakes water diversion request, and the Innovative Weather program. In addition, Uihlein’s past support to UWM has allowed the Architecture and Urban Planning programs to explore the redevelopment of Milwaukee’s Inner Harbor, efforts that directly and indirectly led to the establishment of Milwaukee’s Harbor District, and she continues to support WUWM’s environmental reporting.