After Four Decades Studying Northern Wisconsin Lakes, Susan Knight Calls it a Career

Susan Knight leans over the side of her “little baby jon boat” to identify plants in Allequash Lake. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer
Susan Knight leans over the side of her “little baby jon boat” to identify plants in Allequash Lake. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

by Adam Hinterthuer

Anyone who has had even a passing experience with TLS has probably had the pleasure of meeting Susan Knight. Perhaps they were a student living on station for the summer during one of her two stints as the interim director. Or maybe they were a spellbound visitor at our annual Open House watching her enthusiastically share her immense knowledge of aquatic plants. Or they might have heard her voice on the radio on WXPR’s monthly “Field Notes” program, sharing stories with listeners about her adventures (and misadventures) on our Northwoods lakes.

Whatever their introduction, it’s safe to say that they walked away sharing some of Susan’s excitement about Wisconsin’s invaluable freshwaters.

Which is why it is with great appreciation – and a little bit of sadness – that everyone at Trout Lake Station and the entire Center for Limnology community wishes Susan good luck on her retirement. After four decades conducting research on everything from Eurasion watermilfoil to wild rice to “fairy rings,” Susan is calling it a career.

Susan first came to northern Wisconsin in 1981 when her husband, Tom Frost, was hired as director of TLS. “We were thrilled beyond belief to be embedded in this place with all these lakes,” Susan recalls.

She began work on a graduate degree in botany studying jewelweed, also commonly called “touch-me-nots,” an orange-flowered plant that grows alongside many Wisconsin waterways. However, she soon found herself drawn more to the plants out in the lake rather than those on the shoreline. The carnivorous plant called bladderwort was her “gateway to aquatic plants,” Susan says.

Susan Knight and her legendary impersonation of a carnivorous bladderwort plant. She has her lips puckered out and is holding her two index fingers up her cheeks.
Susan Knight and her legendary impersonation of a carnivorous bladderwort plant. Photo: Kelly O’Ferrell

Not long after earning her degree, Susan was hired by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR) to conduct surveys of Wisconsin lakes and look for endangered aquatic plants. She spent her days in what she calls her “little baby jon boat” paddling around with a snorkeling mask strapped to her face so that she could stick her head underwater and look for plants. “I was sort of self-taught and had a couple of guides from the 1930’s or 40’s and would spend hours and hours keying stuff out,” she says.

That DIY education in aquatic plant identification was the best job she ever had, Susan says, and it led to a long career in plant identification, resulting in her “pride and joy” – an assortment of 1,500 aquatic plant specimens that she collected, identified and preserved.

Susan hopes that the Wisconsin State Herbarium, which is run out of the UW-Madison botany department, will add her aquatic collection to its current catalog of 1.37 million mostly terrestrial specimens.

But that collection of pressed plants is just a small part of Susan’s amazing legacy. She has mentored countless students and colleagues, taught thousands of Wisconsin residents to better appreciate their aquatic plants and shepherded TLS through many changes, including the transition to new director, Gretchen Gerrish.

Gretchen arrived on station just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to upend everything. Having someone like Susan on hand was invaluable. “Susan has probably spent more time in person connected to the facility than anyone in its history,” Gretchen says. “She is always the first to volunteer and will readily drop everything when someone needs help. Her humble and kind approach to mentoring and leadership are evident in the multigenerational connections she has maintained with people in agencies and academic institutions throughout the United States.”

Watercolor artwork of Susan and Erin working from jon boat with reflection in water of Susan and Erin.
Susan Knight and Erin Matula on Aurora Lake, Watercolor by Catherine Nelson

Steve Carpenter, who worked with Susan for decades as a professor and director of the CFL agrees. “Susan has given us an exemplary career, tremendous public service, and leadership at a time we needed it,” he says. “Someone once told me that our jobs as scientists have three components: truth, compassion, and responsibility. By these criteria, Susan Knight has shown us how to be scientists.”

The good news is that Susan isn’t actually leaving TLS. “I’ll still be going out in my little baby jon boat [and pitching in on all sorts of projects],” she promises.

Which begs the question – what does retirement mean if you’re still coming into work? Perhaps, we suggested, she can at least find more time for her two favorite hobbies – biking in the summer and cross country skiing in the winter? “Well,” Susan says, “you got that right!”