Matt Julius: “Lakeside is Where Our People Come Home”

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Before the sun rises and Iowa Great Lakes locals awake, birds take flight over the tallgrass prairies. The bird chorus starts at dawn. Lakeside Lab faculty and students venture where the sky reaches overhead 180 degrees, in darkness, to wait for their greeting songs to a new day. Greatness lives just under our noses and across unlit landscapes.


Like the tallgrass prairie before sunrise, Lakeside Lab’s legacy remains unlit to the community within which it operates. It takes a knowledgable guide – like Matt Julius, unofficial keeper of Lakeside history and stories – to attune one’s ear to a particular bird call or a pattern of daily ritual chorus.


Matt quickly attuned me to Lakeside’s globally-relevant legacy and healthy ecosystem, in which he first participated as a student in 1997. Over the past 25 years, Matt has returned to Lakeside as faculty and for lab retreats with his team of diatomists, or algae scientists, in Minnesota. His stories, alongside Lakeside stories as told by hundreds of alums around the world, survive in the oral tradition. 


Matt himself – a professor & scientist at St. Cloud State University – sat shoulder to shoulder with algae legends and their international following, who first identified Lakeside as a field site hub in the late 60’s. Long days in the lab and long nights partying on the faculty porch produced a tight-knit, skilled group of specialists from Lakeside who returned to NW Iowa summer after summer to further their studies and reunite with their people. Matt slipped  into the Lakeside scene when the experts still led their classes in the stone cottages on West Lake. While reflecting on his community experience at Lakeside, he quipped, “We fail to understand what a pizza and a pitcher of beer can do to build great ideas.”


The power of sharing a meal resonates at Lakeside. Matt warmly recalled a lifestyle where professors and students came together as neighbors: the mushroom class brings home scavenged mushrooms, the algae class picks up a bottle of wine on their way home from their field day, and both converge on the faculty porch on Lakeside’s campus. “And you think, people elsewhere care about the thoughts of these humans, sitting here, looking at [professors] in their flip flops eating a morel on a cracker.” Matt, again using a colorful Lakeside illustration to pack a deeper punch, reflected, “It humanizes these legends, because we do have this tendency as undergraduates to look with reverence to these people and think they’re superhuman. It’s when we idolize these folks that things start to go awry. It reminds them that they were on the other side of the campfire at one time, too. That humanizing thing also makes you aware that you can do it, see it to believe it.” Three things became clear through Matt’s story: the checks-and-balances system at Lakeside was never a top-down concept, everyone is better for sharing insight and knowledge, and those moments happen multiple times a day at Lakeside Lab.


When an educator dares to see another’s greatness, they invite that person into greatness as well. Matt represents a generation of “algae masters” in flip flops welcoming students onto the faculty porch. As an educator whose memory dances in Lakeside landscape vignettes, Matt makes his mark: “I am a better educator [in part] because I have those experiences from Lakeside: to wrap those stories around that knowledge and make them impactful. That, that, is why I have education awards on my wall. That is why I care about research and outreach, because Lakeside is part of my fiber.” Matt continues to make BBQ to share and offers a trove of stories to his students on the West Okoboji shore.



By Josie Hoien


“Artists and scientists are both asking questions about the world, they’re just doing it in different ways”
Alex Braidwood
Director, Iowa Lakeside Lab Artists-in-Residence Program
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