Biology Snapshot of Success

Name: Phil Sontag

Hometown: Altoona, Wis.

Title: Ph.D. graduate student, environmental science

Business: Rutgers University

Some large, predatory fish contain dangerous levels of mercury, and if consumed in large enough quantities, they present risk to humans.

But how does the mercury get into the fish? How does it work its way across the food web? Why does its concentration increase with each move up the chain?

Those are some of the questions Phil is trying to help answer through his intensive graduate research.

“When someone talks about mercury poisoning from eating fish tissue, 95 percent of that is methylmercury, which is what I’m studying,” Phil explains. “I’m focusing on the base of the food web, the concentrations in ocean water and how it enters phytoplankton and algae.”

Eventually, Phil would like to be a professor at a large university, so he can continue his research while also teaching. But before then, adventure awaits. Next year he’ll board a research ship bound for Antarctica, where he will study trace metals.

When Phil came to Lakeland, he started as an Exercise Science and Sport Studies major, but when he took a required general biology class, he quickly thought, “all right, I’m changing majors.”

“I was introduced to phytoplankton, and everything just took off from there,” he says. “Professor Paul Pickhardt is a really great guy who met with me to discuss papers, clarify things and explain things to me when I needed help. I got so much personal attention. You’re not going to get that one-on-one treatment at a big school.

“I definitely think Lakeland prepared me for generating research ideas, and the critical thinking was a huge thing there. Lakeland was just a really good place for me, a place where I was able to imagine what I could do in the future.”