Scientist Elizabeth Fensin presents a poster on phytoplankton.

DWR Algal Ecologist Helped Collect Data on Phytoplankton. Now She Wants People to Use It.

The DWR Algae Lab has compiled a database containing more than two decades of information on phytoplankton in North Carolina.

Author: Laura Oleniacz

Whenever Elizabeth Fensin, a scientist who studies algae at the DEQ Division of Water Resources Algae Lab, gets a chance to “geek out” about algae, she takes it. Now she wants other scientists to geek out about algae too – using her data.

The DWR Algae Lab has been monitoring algal blooms across North Carolina since 1984, including blooms containing phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic algal plants that live in water. From that monitoring work, Fensin and her team have compiled a database containing more than two decades of information on phytoplankton in North Carolina.

Fensin has presented information at scientific conferences about the database to try to encourage other scientists to use it. Or, as she phrases it, she wants them to geek out with it.

“If somebody can use it to learn more about the ecology of North Carolina, that would be wonderful,” Fensin said. “We do a lot of monitoring, but scientists could use this data to understand the trends in phytoplankton growth in our waterways, and how that connects with nutrient pollution.”

We sat down with Fensin to talk to her about her work helping to identify algae collected from around the state, the data she’s gathered and her work to share it with the scientific community.

First of all, what are phytoplankton?

Fensin: Phytoplankton are a type of algae. They are plants and make energy from sunlight, but they don’t have stems, leaves, roots or specialized tissues. They are just kind of goopy. Under the microscope, phytoplankton look very art deco, especially the dinoflagellates and diatoms. 

How did you get interested in studying algae?

Fensin: I got my first look at algae in college, when my professor took my class on a boat in the Chesapeake Bay to take samples. I got a look at the algae we found under the microscope. I went on to study algae at NC State University. 

What are you doing now for DWR?

Fensin: Water samples from around the state are sent to our lab, and I look at them under the microscope to identify the algae collected in those samples. When I started, I was identifying algae collected near the coast. I later did algae identification work for samples collected from all 17 river basins, and for monthly samples collected at Jordan and Falls lakes. 

What are some surprising facts you’ve learned about algae?

Fensin: We’ve seen water bodies that have been eutrophic for years, meaning they are rich in nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphorus, which can contribute to the growth of algal blooms. The presence of an algal bloom doesn’t necessarily mean toxins are being produced. An analytical test needs to be performed to determine if toxins are present. However, NCDHHS advises the public to take practical precautions around algal blooms. 

What is unique about the database you’ve collected?

Fensin: Our phytoplankton database has information down to the genus level, at least, with corresponding information about the conditions the blooms occurred in. This is valuable information that could help ecologists study algal blooms in North Carolina’s waters.

For more information, contact Fensin directly at, or contact Dan Wiltsie at Learn more about the DWR Algae Lab at

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