A Summer of Research in the Prairie

Posted on September 3rd, 2012 by

Gustavus junior Biology and Environmental Studies majors Mike Howe ’14 and Mary Patterson ’14 have been conducting research with Professor of Biology Pam Kittelson in the College’s Coneflower Prairie this summer (Photo by Matt Thomas).

Like every college across the country, Gustavus Adolphus College has classrooms, laboratories, offices and studios where faculty and students engage in teaching and learning. But tucked away on the southwestern edge of the Gustavus campus is a unique resource that will serve Gusties for generations to come as they strive for academic excellence.

Within the College’s Linnaeus Arboretum lies the 75-acre Coneflower Prairie. The area was seeded in 2008 and is now thriving. Biology and Environmental Studies majors Mary Patterson ’14 and Mike Howe ’14 have spent many hours conducting research in the prairie this summer alongside Professor of Biology Pamela Kittelson.

Patterson’s research is being funded through a grant the Environmental Studies Program received in 2011 from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation.

“I’m doing an ecological assessment of the prairie to see what has been established from the seeding in 2008,” Patterson said. “We are trying to figure out what percent of the grasses and forbs that were seeded are persisting. We’re identifying and recording all of the species that are out there and so far we’ve found approximately 150 different species.”

Kittelson says that Patterson’s research will help the College determine how to go about managing the prairie in the future.

“The challenge in any prairie restoration is how you control the weeds and invaders and encourage the native species,” Kittleson said. “With Mary’s research we are trying to enhance the habitat for the native species and ensure that they have less competition from the invading weeds.”

Howe’s research is being funded through a Presidential Faculty-Student Collaboration Grant and is designed to complement the research being done by Patterson.

“I’m looking at pollen limitation and specifically how it relates to plant demography,” Howe said. “I’m looking at how many juveniles become adults as well as artificially pollinating them and seeing how their seed set compares to open pollinated flowers to see if they are limited by pollen or not.”

Howe has several plants in the Coneflower Prairie that are bagged with tomato cages covered in mesh tulle. Periodically he visits each plant to collect and count seeds to see whether or not the plant is pollen limited.

“I’m basically trying to get a sense of whether or not the populations are stable, declining, or increasing and trying to model that over time,” Howe said. “By gathering data points I can build a model which will hopefully predict whether or not the population is sustainable in this prairie or not.”

Both Patterson and Howe agree that spending this summer conducting research with Kittelson has been an experience that will benefit them not only in their two remaining years at Gustavus, but in their future professional careers as well.

“Summer research opportunities at Gustavus give students a chance to work one on one with a faculty member which is crucial especially when it comes to learning how to conduct field work,” Howe said. “You get to go through every step of the scientific process and then learn the best way to do everything. It’s more of a hands-on experience and a deeper way to learn.”

“This summer’s research has given me a chance to discover what opportunities might be out there in the future,” Patterson said. “This kind of an experience allows students to see what’s out there and what you can do with an education in the sciences. Having the Coneflower Prairie right here on campus is great because there are so many things you can do out here.”

Kittelson agrees that student-faculty collaboration in the sciences at Gustavus has become an invaluable hallmark of the College.

“I hear from people who are in graduate school or even employers that say ‘you’ve got great students and we really want to hire them because they know how to conduct research, they know how to write, and they know to speak in front of audiences,” Kittelson said. “Our students are getting unique opportunities to do those things. They are collecting data, analyzing data, using state-of-the-art equipment, speaking in front of their peers and speaking at national conferences. I think all of that is really exciting.”

The Coneflower Prairie is not a resource solely for use by the Gustavus community. Plans are underway to develop a parking lot and an Interpretive Garden near the intersection of Jefferson and Nicollet Avenues near the Southwest edge of the prairie. Paths will also be developed for walkers and runners to enjoy the prairie.

“We hope to use the prairie in the future for service-learning projects, community projects with area high schools, and for environmental education programs,” Kittelson said. “We invite everyone to come out and learn to enjoy this resource.”

The Coneflower Prairie will be dedicated at a public ceremony on Sept. 15 at 10:30 a.m. The Linnaeus Arboretum’s Fall Fest will take place that same day. For a calendar of events at the Linnaeus Arboretum, go online to gustavus.edu/arboretum/events.

 

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