Story courtesy of the Dickinson County News

Mary Skopec used to spend summers at her parents’ home on Big Spirit Lake when she was in junior high, admiring the natural landscape of the Iowa Great Lakes Area.

Now she will have the opportunity to teach others about this landscape and how to protect it.

Skopec has been appointed executive director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, with her first day being on Dec. 20. The organization has operated under interim directors since Peter Van Der Linden retired from the position in 2013.

A board of regents with members from Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa owns and operates Lakeside Laboratory. It is located on 147 acres near West Lake Okoboji and offers environmental classes ranging from biological to earth sciences.

“Lakeside Laboratory is such an amazing facility,” Skopec said. “I am very honored to step into a role that I know has played a very important part in the state of Iowa. I want to see its mission continue to grow and flourish.”

Skopec grew up in Cedar Rapids. She attended the University of Iowa, where she obtained her bachelor’s and master’s in physical geography. She earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in environmental science from the university in 1999 as well.

Skopec began working at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources following graduation from college. She helped monitor water quality across the state.

In her more than a decade with the DNR, Skopec has held a variety of positions in the watershed monitoring and assessment section of the organization. She currently coordinates the beach monitoring program and the Iowa Water program.

“Over time, I have worked on stream monitoring, nutrients and helped develop a wetland program,” Skopec said. “I spent a lot of years developing water quality programs.”

Skopec will have a multitude of duties as executive director at Lakeside Laboratory, from research to administrative.

Skopec said she wants to develop and expand the academic curriculum the organization offers. She also hopes to draw more students from surrounding universities to come learn at Lakeside Laboratory.

She plans to continue to grow the organization’s relationship with younger students as a STEM outreach as well.

“Lakeside Lab is an immersive laboratory,” Skopec said. “Kids come to Lakeside to really be immersed in nature, whether it is biology or geology or what have you. We want students to come here and understand the Lakes Area and get to know it. There will be some distance learning components, because not everyone can travel that far and stay away from home weeks at a time.”

Skopec wants to grow research opportunities at Lakeside Laboratory. Her goal is to use the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network, or GLEON, buoy in West Lake Okoboji to bring researchers from across the nation to the area. The buoy collects a myriad of data on lake conditions.

Skopec said she applied for the executive director position because it gave her the chance to return to an educational environment.

“In my opinion, a facility like Lakeside Laboratory is really important for students as we start to think about the complex issues that are facing us in terms of nature and environment,” Skopec said. “These are challenges that really require students to be nimble across several disciplines. Lakeside allows students to see all the complexity at once and see the big picture.”

A panel with members of the board of regents and a representative of Friends of Lakeside Lab interviewed Skopec for the position. She presented her vision of Lakeside Lab at a public discussion in October to complete the hiring process.

“In terms of an interview process, it was extraordinarily participatory,” Skopec said. “The challenge of Lakeside is trying to have multiple organizations with ownership in Lakeside. It is a bit of a balance to make sure everyone has a voice. I think the interview process did a great job of giving all those different institutions a voice in the future direction of Lakeside.”

For more information about Lakeside Laboratory, visit or call 712-337-3669.

“We are on campus at Lakeside Lab, and we are interested in having people come visit us,” Skopec said. “If you live in Dickinson County and you have never been, we hope to get you on site. We want people to come out to Lakeside and get to know the campus. We welcome people to come see what we are all about.”