When a farmer and/or farmland owner decides to install prairie strips on a field to reduce erosion and improve water quality, a few questions can arise. For instance: How should the prairie strips be designed, and where should they go? How much benefit I expect? Elise Miller is looking to provide answers.
In the 1850s Iowa’s land cover was composed of about 80% grassland. Due to the increase in agriculture, Iowa’s grasslands have declined to about 20% and Iowa’s land cover is now composed of about 63% corn and soybean fields. This habitat loss has contributed to the degradation and fragmentation of remaining Iowa grasslands that many animals rely on. The impact of this large scale habitat change has not been well studied for snakes, amphibians, and small mammals. We're seeking to fill this gap.
During the summer of 2017 I worked as a field technician on the STRIPS project. This position provided me with valuable experience that will help with the transition to a professional career as a wildlife biologist. Throughout the course of my employment with the STRIPS project I learned important skills related to field work, data collection and management, data entry techniques, and how to follow a scientific methodology related to a large scale wildlife study. In this blog post, I will discuss a basic overview of processes and protocols of field work, data collection, data management, data entry techniques, and what I learned throughout my summer employment.
Grassland birds, such as dickcissels, meadowlarks, and upland sandpipers, have declined by almost 40% over North America between the late 1960s and today 1968–2011. This decline is being driven by loss or degradation of grassland habitat continent-wide, including replacement of grassland with agricultural land, fragmentation of remaining grasslands, degradation of rangelands in the western US, and re-forestation in the eastern US. Stopping and eventually reversing the loss of grassland habitat will be necessary to halt the decline of North American grassland birds. To learn more about an innovative approach to restore grassland habitat to protect at least some species of grassland birds read on.
Maintaining Iowa’s highly productive agricultural landscape demands high inputs of fertilizer. When fertilizers run off the landscape in rain events or snow melt, negative consequences for water quality may arise due to enrichment by nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Developing strategies to sustain high levels of agricultural productivity while reducing nutrient runoff and its harmful consequences for water quality is a major concern of conservation science.
I’m a programmer on PEWI, a simple web-based learning tool designed to help people understand human-landscape interactions and ecosystem service tradeoffs (see figure below). One day, while working on PEWI’s code, I got pretty curious about whether there were other, similar tools out there. Also, being somewhat competitive by nature, I wondered what ‘the other groups’ were doing. I figured creating watershed tools is probably the vocation of a few, with groups working in this area just a small subset of the scientists and stakeholders interested in the impacts of human decisions on the environment. You can imagine my surprise when I set out to find a few oases in the software desert and, instead, found myself inundated with applications. The good news is that, among the flood of wonderful tools, PEWI still holds a unique place. Here are the results of my exploration.
Learning has been a central part of my life for as long as a I can remember. As a youngster, I learned basic skills, like how to tie my shoes, the colors and alphabet, and how to share with my sister. As a student, I sat in countless classrooms with dozens of teachers and faculty members, learning theories, concepts, facts, and skills. I learned how I learn, and I began applying what I was learning to ask scientific research questions. As a graduate student, I continue to learn and grow as a research scientist, but I’m also experiencing learning in a new way: as an educator.
Each year, Iowa State University’s Natural Resource Ecology and Management (NREM) Department publishes a collection of articles designed to provide a slice of what has been happening in NREM over the past year. The graduate student publication, called Field Notes, highlights undergraduate and graduate research, catches up with recent graduates, and welcomes our new faculty. This past year, I wrote an article for Field Notes detailing part of my doctoral research. The article, titled “Learning how to have our cake and eat it, too: Identifying opportunities for co-production of commodities and ecosystem services in Iowa,” explores how tweaks can be made in agricultural land management to jointly expand economic and environmental opportunities for farmers to co-produce agricultural products and desired environmental benefits (e.g., enhanced water quality).
Any branch of science comes with its own unique challenges. For landscape ecologists such as us in the LESEM lab, one of these is the question of how to survey wildlife across broad spatial extents, especially with limited time, money, and personnel. Over the years, various technologies have been employed to aid researchers in maximizing results with minimal resources. For decades, animals as diverse as sage grouse, wolves, and manatees have been monitored via aerial surveys using small planes. Secretive species can be tracked using telemetry, and tiny geolocators have been used in countless studies to determine the paths of long-distance migrants. One area of research which has been steadily growing involves using sound recordings of animals to monitor their presence over widespread areas. With this type of monitoring, wildlife species that are inherently difficult to track and study become accessible to scientists.
Two months ago, I was fortunate to attend the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management (ISSRM) in Charleston, South Carolina. This year’s ISSRM, which serves as the annual conference for the International Association for Society and Natural Resources (IASNR), was attended by over 450 scientists, government agency managers, non-profit employees, and private consultants from numerous fields, and served as an opportunity to engage with one another on research embedded in social science and natural science pertaining to the environment and natural resource issues. The conference theme this year, “Understanding and Adapting to Change,” provided a relevant lens to examine many pertinent human dimensions of natural resource challenges, including climate change, the food system, urban centers, etc.
Did anyone else read Saki’s short story The Interlopers in high school English class? If not, you can google it; it’s quite short. Here’s a summary: two men, who have feuded their whole lives, are out hunting each other in a forest. Suddenly, a tree falls and traps them both. First, each angrily swears that his group of friends, who are elsewhere in the woods, will kill the other when they arrive. But gradually, as they wait, they decide to end their lifelong feud and become friends. This idea brings them great joy, and they talk of plans to publically declare their friendship. Then they see figures coming over the hill, and eagerly strain to see whose group of friends is coming to free them at last. But the approaching figures are not their friends. The story ends with one chilling word: wolves.
For those of you not lucky enough to be a graduate student in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State, you should know that one of the major strengths of the program is the class SUSAG 509: Agroecosystems Analysis, or simply “509.” After being admitted to the program last spring, I was thrilled to find out that I would get to spend a week in August driving around Iowa for credit: “You mean I get to meet Iowa farmers, talk cover crops, soil quality, and corn production?” Maybe that isn’t everybody’s idea of a dream vacation, but as a newcomer to the Midwest and long-standing ag nerd, I was definitely pumped. Since not everyone is lucky enough to be in my program or to have taken this class, I thought I’d share some of the major insights I gained. Spread over two posts, I’ll first discuss nutrient cycling and its role in agroecology, and then examine a couple of the sites on our field trip from the lens of ecological economics.
Last summer, I was lucky to be involved in Iowa State University’s Office of Precollegiate Programs for Talented and Gifted (OPPTAG) Summer Exploration Program. The Exploration Program offers students entering grades 8-12 the opportunity to discover new and exciting areas of study not traditionally emphasized in school curriculums. During the week-long program, students are fully immersed in their chosen study, working from 8:30 am to 4 pm, with an additional hour of homework each night. Though there is certainly time for meeting new friends and fun evening activities, the students’ primary focus is academics.
As a graduate school student, keeping up with relevant journal articles, books, and other publications requires not only scheduling time to read, but also attention to content management. By content management, I mean tracking, storing, organizing, and referencing publications. The importance of one’s content management process comes to the forefront during the writing process. While manual citations may familiarize a writer with his or her chosen citation style, such as APA or MLA, other compelling factors have led me to implement a more automated citation process. To name a few factors, these include switching citation styles, reusing the same citation in multiple papers with different citation styles, in-text citation dependencies on other citations within the same paper (for example, multiple papers by the same author or by two authors with the same last name), and most importantly, saving time. The dynamic nature of references and in-text citations throughout the writing process can lead to time staking revisions in a manual process. The intricately detailed rules also make it easy to make a citation mistake. Let’s fix that.
As a graduate student researcher, I have a million things on my mind. Putting this in the context of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, grad school and all of its meetings can contribute to cognitive strain, leaving some of my day-to-day conversations, decisions, and action items to disappear just beyond reach. Taking effective meeting notes is one of my favorite strategies for combatting forgetfulness. Plus great notes have the added bonus of providing other attendees a concise summary of the agenda, topics, discussion, and outcomes. Here are a few of my tips.
It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I am exhausted, and I have a headache that I can’t seem to shake. It started slowly creeping along my forehead around noon, trying to elude my usual my mid-morning coffee. But today, like the last six days, it had nothing to fear, nothing to slink away from. I haven’t had coffee or caffeine in seven days because I can’t afford it.
Last year, the state of Iowa harvested 13,100,000 acres of corn and 9,240,000 acres of soybeans. Yet, this article recently published in National Geographic Magazine, reports that 1 in 8 Iowans are going hungry. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, in Story County where Iowa State University is located, the number jumps even higher to 1 in 6. Here, nestled within the dark, rich soil of vast agricultural success thousands don’t know where their next meal will come from. This seems slightly counterintuitive, especially if you’re not familiar with the agricultural production system in the U.S. Cornbelt region. For many, it seems strange that in one of the most agriculturally productive states in the country, we aren’t able to meet the food needs of the population. But there’s more to this story.
I am a runner. I have run 5Ks and marathons. I have run on icy winter afternoons and I have run on humid summer mornings. I have run through grief and pain, through joy and triumph, and through calming stillness. Running has been a consistent part of my life for as long as I can remember, and though my commitment to running sometimes wans and falters, I always come back to that rhythmic and welcoming sound of my feet hitting the pavement. You see, running is a methodical progression for me, a path forward. Sometimes this path forward is marred with obstacles, and just lacing up my shoes is a feat that initially feels insurmountable. Days like these the miles drag like weights, and the progress, the path forward, is difficult to see; the progression feels like it has all but stopped. But, even in those darkest of days, when I feel like hanging up my running shoes and bowing my head in defeat, I always return to the way I feel when I’m running – the way I am methodically and systematically progressing, moving forward toward a goal, no matter how small or how large.
On April 1, 2014, I attended a speech by Ray Archuleta—NRCS soil heath guru—at Iowa State University, titled Soil Health and Sustainability. Ray promotes conservation on agriculture land and encourages ideas such as no-till farming and cover crops. He has held a number of conservation positions throughout his career in the Natural Resources field and is currently traveling the country to present his Soil Health and Sustainability lecture to students, farmers, natural resource professionals, and many other conservation enthusiasts or critics.
I took a trip this last weekend up to Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota with two of my girlfriends. The winter in Iowa was long and cold, and the pressures of completing my thesis this last spring had forced me to spend most my days deep in the depths of my cinder-walled basement office. Almost all I experienced these last six months were the bone-chilling darkness of the morning and night when I came and left my office, and the flickering of fluorescent above my desk. I was craving the woods. As I left my house, I quickly grabbed one of many journals sitting on my bookshelf.
Gazing into the fiery green eyes of a wolf, Aldo Leopold felt the power that he and all humans have to alter our ecosystem. He felt the fragility of the earth beneath his feet. Though technological innovations have increased many societies’ abilities to produce food, increase efficiency, and exchange knowledge, it has also given power to the hand that once turned over the soil on its own. Our interactions with the environment—direct and indirect—wield far more power now than Leopold’s musket did in 1909. With such agency comes a responsibility to protect and nurture the lands that bear our livelihoods.
Exacting the large-scale, meaningful behavioral changes required to reduce humanity’s effect on climate change has eluded scientists for the past two decades. However, increasingly, tools and frameworks are being developed to help scientists recognize the importance of and methodologies for helping the public understand the realities of climate change, and the need for behavioral changes to combat it. One such framework is explored in the popular book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. The framework outlined in the book emphasizes the duality of human psychology, specifically the human desire to be rational and the human propensity to be emotional, and provides insight into harnessing this duality to move forward on a clear, action-oriented path. Creating change, the Heath brothers write, can be boiled down to three critical pieces: (1) directing the rider, (2) motivating the elephant, and (3) shaping the path forward. Let’s explore this framework further by returning to the topic of climate change.
After parking our car where the Forest Service road is no longer plowed, I step outside to be greeted by the howling of a nearby wolf pack. We load up our gear, put on our skis, and glide into the woods under the illumination of the Milky Way. An hour later the moon is peaking over the pines, outshining the stars and pouring light into the Northwoods, which I have grown to love. Approaching the glowing cabin window in the distance I am greeted by my friend Thistle, a massive polar husky retired sled dog. I open the cabin door, wipe the fog off my glasses, and warm up next to the wood burning stove. It’s good to be back.
"What's the action of greatest impact?"
This is the question I have taped to the top of my computer screen. As a scientist, educator, and mom concerned with the fate of our planet, it’s something I contemplate on a daily basis. I recently had the opportunity to plumb the depths of my mind regarding this question while on a 500 mile solo road trip through arguably one of the planet’s most altered regions: the U.S. Corn Belt. One of the answers I came up with was to teach my children well, especially regarding the laws of nature and human interactions with them. I try to do so through our everyday activities—some spontaneous, and some planned—in the great outdoors of our local community.
How many times a day does someone ask you if you’re certain: are you certain you want to cancel your reservation? Stay home rather than going out with friends? Bring your laptop with you? Or how many times a day do you internally second guess yourself: do really want to order another beer? Should I have turned left back there? Will I or won’t I need my umbrella? Uncertainty and incomplete information are hallmark characteristics of our daily lives. Though the questions above are seemingly trivial, take a moment and consider how many times you have needed think about a choice.