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If We Build It, They Will Come

student studying the great sale lake

The Great Salt Lake Institute celebrates its 10-year anniversary

by Sara McCaskey (’14)

In April of this year, the Great Salt Lake Institute (GSLI) celebrated its 10th anniversary. Nearly 100 alums, faculty, staff, and students came to celebrate the lake and the success of GSLI as a Westminster institution.

But it wasn’t always that way. Before GSLI was founded in 2008, the lake was a thing of mystery. Despite its prominence in Utah culture, there was very little public understanding of the lake—and very little work being done to increase that understanding.

Westminster professors Brian Avery, Bonnie Baxter, and Paul Hooker began researching the lake with their students. Because the lake was unique and understudied, it presented the ideal opportunity for students to conduct novel research.

As they started digging, one thing became clear: people had a lot of questions about the lake. Soon, the requests for collaboration were pouring in from interested scholars around the world.

The faculty created a proposal: an organization dedicated to studying the Great Salt Lake housed within our very own Westminster College. Their proposal was accepted, and they were given $10,000 from the President’s Innovation Network to jumpstart their work.

Within just four months, the institute had already obtained a $460,000 federal grant to expand its exploration of the lake. The grant not only provided funds to continue and expand research, but to hire a full-time coordinator who would offer the dedicated support this new endeavor needed to succeed: field biologist and Great Salt Lake enthusiast Jaimi Butler was the woman for the job.

At the time, Jaimi was studying the lake for a government agency, cataloging brine shrimp and bird populations. “I felt like I existed in this vacuum,” she says, “like I had this secret that the lake was really cool and important, but no one to share it with.”

The grant only provided enough money to fund Jaimi’s position for two years, so leaving her stable government job was a big risk. But she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to build an institution from the ground up. “It was way cooler,” she says, smiling.

True scientists, Bonnie and Jaimi saw the project as an experiment. Could they create an academic entity for scholarly investigations of the lake? How could the institute facilitate large-scale research projects and tap into funding only available in academia? How would they reach out to the broader community?

They set out without a clear road map, letting their knowledge, expertise, and passion for the lake guide their work. “You think you start an organization with a clear mission and vision on paper,” says Bonnie, “but we didn’t: we never wanted to replicate what someone else was doing.”

Jaimi and Bonnie look back on those years fondly. They were both single moms working full-time jobs and trying to get this new institute up and running. It was a monumental task.

They worked long hours, covered for each other, and supported one another when their lives became overwhelming. “We never felt limited because we were able to combine our personal and professional lives,” Bonnie says. “That is what made GSLI successful: the belief that we could do this together.”

That spirit of support and collaboration provided a foundation that catapulted GSLI forward. Today, those values remain at the very heart of the institute. “If you foster collaboration and support, if you believe you can do anything—that rubs off on the students,” Jaimi says.

And clearly it has. In the 10 years since GSLI began, undergraduate research at Westminster has doubled. Every year, the institute funds more than 20 summer student research projects. And those research projects span the entire Westminster community, involving students from every academic school on campus, not just the sciences.

As the institute continues to grow, its reach has spread into the greater Salt Lake community. GSLI has created resources and training for K–12 teachers, held public lectures, helped develop community education programs like Scientists and Artists Learning Together (SALT), and offered support to programs like Science on Tap.

Ten years ago, it would have been easy to describe GLSI as a research organization. But it has become so much more than that. “It has broken down barriers in science, shown us the value of mentoring and relationships, and taught us to have open arms for collaboration,” Bonnie says.



About the Westminster Review

The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.