“It’s so cool to design a project, collect all the data, not know what you’re going to see, analyze it, and have to problem-solve and troubleshoot the entire time.”
— Mira Ensley-Field ’17
BY | ALEXANDRA McLAUGHLIN ’16
Getting paid to make friends with goats, listen to birds, and conduct groundbreaking research might sound too good to be true. But each summer, Macalester biology students live and work at the Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area, a nearly 300-acre field station located only 17 miles from Macalester.
This summer’s research included gathering soil samples from around woody plants for genetic analysis of the soil microbial community. Andrew Boyer ’17 explained that studying bacteria in the soil can help us understand why some microbial species are successful at invading new habitats.
Another project measured tree diameters for a long-term study of the amount of carbon captured by and stored in trees, a phenomenon thought to possibly help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Students estimated the diversity of the forest’s avian community by listening for ovenbirds and searching for their nests. They wanted to see if these birds nest successfully at Ordway and if the young reach adulthood. Alex Lewanski ’17 explained that racoons likely reduce the ovenbird population at Ordway by eating the young and eggs.
The summer’s main project focused on continuing a six-year study of garlic mustard. Lewanski along with fellow students Cody Dalrymple ’16, Mira Ensley-Field ’17, and Allison Pillar ’17 divided the study site into research grids to estimate the percentage of forest floor covered by garlic mustard. The students investigated why garlic mustard is found in some areas at Ordway but not others. Within the larger study, they designed their own sub-project to see if human and animal traffic on the trails help disperse the seeds. They found that trails have little effect on seed dispersal.
“People spend thousands of dollars trying to pull [garlic mustard] and manage it and get it out of there because it’s invasive,” said Lewanski. “But doing research here, we’re finding that it’s potentially not as invasive as people think.” Conclusions from the six-year study found that native and non-native species in the herb layer of the oak woodland seem to coexist rather than compete with one another.
While gaining valuable experience conducting ecological research, the students enjoyed a lot of independence. Jerald Dosch, biology professor and director of Ordway, aims for students and faculty members to become peers in research.
“That’s probably a major difference between being at a Tier I research institute like the University of Minnesota and being at a small liberal arts school,” said Dosch. “At the U, there are research opportunities for undergraduates, but my guess is that those students are pretty much cogs in the wheel.”
Biology professor Mark Davis likewise depends on students to be active participants and “not just an extra pair of hands.”
In the classroom, there are time constraints and professors may know the anticipated lab results ahead of time. But at Ordway, “We’re just researching with the professors. They don’t know any more than we do what the data’s going to show,” said Lewanski.
“It’s so cool,” said Ensley-Field, “to design a project, collect all the data, not know what you’re going to see, analyze it, and have to problem-solve and troubleshoot the entire time.”
Lewanski said, “In ecology, part of the issue is that we’re not able to control all the variables. We’re not in a lab. We can’t control everything. We have to define the edge of the trail.”
Along with the level of independence, Pillar found the research experience at Ordway unique because “you get to live here.”
The newly renovated field station includes a dorm-style living space and a spacious kitchen with a clear view of the goats, prairie, and forest beyond. With work beginning at 7 a.m., Lewanski enjoyed the convenience of rolling out of bed and taking a few steps to work. When the day’s research wrapped up around 3 p.m., students spent their time canoeing, cooking, reading, running, and making s’mores at Ordway’s fire pit.
Students also cared for three goats. Provided by farmer Don Oberdorfer ’91, the goats’ purpose was to eat the woody plants encroaching on the prairie.
“They eat what we want, and everything else,” said Lewanski. Despite those difficulties, students were fond of the goats and nicknamed them Bossman, Big Fatty, and Little Guy Frederick.
Alum Erin Rupp ’04, founder of Pollinate Minnesota, a honeybee advocacy organization, brought bees to Ordway to educate visitors about the need to protect bee populations. Settled in an intact prairie remnant, the bees thrived.
Dosch calls Ordway a “jewel of Macalester.” Though Ordway was established in 1967, Dosch has run into alumni who graduated decades ago and never knew it existed.
“Now they’ve come out with their children who are students at Macalester and they’ve just been blown away when they hike the land, see the beauty of the setting, and realize what good work we do there,” said Dosch.
Work concluded mid-July. The students will present their findings at Macalester’s annual student research poster session in October. Though pleased with the summer’s progress, they felt a little sad leaving.
“This is such a nice place to live and it’s a really, really enjoyable job,” said Ensley-Field.
Lewanski agreed. “Work didn’t feel like work.”
*Boyer is from Bellingham, Wash.; Lewanski is from Hastings, Minn.; Pillar is from Chicago; Dalrymple is from Berkeley, Calif.; and Ensley-Field is from Appleton, Wis. The students are all biology majors.
August 10 2015Back to top