Sara is a third year MS student in NRES, working at the Illinois Natural History Survey in the Molano-Flores lab. Her research focuses on rare plant conservation, species distribution modeling, and conservation horticulture. Currently, she is working on a species distribution model and reintroduction / conservation plan for a rare Florida endemic mint, Macbridea alba. Additionally she has worked with Thuja occidentalis (Northern White Cedar) in the Chicago region.
What I’ve been up to this past week:
This past week I have started the analysis and writing stage of my thesis! I was unable to do field work this past summer/fall due to the pandemic, so I am going through a bit of a restructuring of questions and goals. I also am trying to keep some Macbridea seedlings alive that I grew from seed during germination trials earlier this year. I have been working on a collaboration to get them in an ex-situ collection at a botanic garden next summer. Lastly, I have been working on a manuscript for a lab project on the decline of a Thuja occidentalis population up in the Chicago region. This is my first manuscript so I am starting early and taking my time with writing.
Most importantly, I have been trying to savor the last bits of summer. Matt and I went to one of our favorite botanizing spots, Henry Allan Gleason Nature Preserve last weekend. It’s a sand prairie created by glacial deposits and is home to a lot of unique flora as well as prairie kingsnakes and badgers!
This past weekend, I went on a socially distant overnight camping trip with a couple of friends. We did some kayaking, which is one of my favorite things to do this time of year as the trees turn colors.
Are you a member of other student organizations?
At UIUC, I serve as the President of the Society of Wetland Scientists chapter which I have been part of for the last year. We are currently trying to navigate programs in the time of COVID and plan some for the fall semester.
I also serve as the Vice President for the Champaign County Audubon Society of which I have been very active for the past 5 years. I am so proud of all of the work we have done as a group, to provide funds for ornithological research and conservation projects, as well as provide an outlet for the community to get outside and learn about birds. So many people take for granted the nature around them and it’s been a great way for me to become a part of this community during my time here.
How do you unwind after a long day of work?
I spend a lot of time photographing and putzing around in my garden where I grow lots of native plant species, vegetables, and flowers. I love watching the diversity of wildlife – birds and insects – that we’ve seen expand incredibly in the 5 years we have lived here.
I also am trying to make sure I squeeze in time to bird as the fall migrants come through town. This is a perfect time to get out into natural areas as the fall-blooming asters are starting to go off. I love the palette of the season. Purples and yellows and all the neutral tones of grasses and decaying plants. Its cliché, but my garden is my sanctuary, and I’m not sure what I would have done without it this past year.
Do you have any pets?
We are both allergic to most fuzzy creatures, but we do have 3 beloved dart frogs, Rorschach, Tripod, and Lil Dude, and a crested gecko named Broccoli. Lil Dude came all the way to IL with us in the back of my car over 5 years ago! I never thought I could love frogs so much but they are endlessly entertaining.
What are your hobbies?
Other than gardening, hiking, and birding, I switch to a lot of indoor hobbies during the winter like knitting, sewing, and carving. I picked up carving linocut again last winter for the first time since high school and love the entire process. I also find cooking very zen and like trying new techniques and recipes.
This past summer, I started a gardening zine called “Midwest Explorer” as a creative outlet during the quarantine. I see a need and want for more information on science-based gardening in the community and local garden centers aren’t picking up the slack. People want to know more about how to create gardens for wildlife that are healthy for both people and the planet. The first issue was released in July. You can find more info on twitter and Facebook at @MidwestExplorer, Instagram: @sylvatica_midwestexplorer or on my website www.saraannjohnson.wordpress.com
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Working in Florida has been an amazing experience. Florida gets a bad reputation but is honestly one of the most diverse and beautiful parts of the country. It is a hotspot of biodiversity and the bits of nature that are protected are like a dream. The pine flatwoods are stunning and the proximity of forest to beach is unrivaled. I love exploring the tideflats in my off-time and have really fallen in love with the region.
The most rewarding part of my work is seeing actionable change. Often I feel like research in ecology can feel nebulous, but the cool part of working in applied ecology is that the questions and goals are often species and management specific. My thesis project is centered on the potential delisting of a threatened and endangered species, and it’s incredible to know that my findings can directly contribute to the management of areas where this species persists, and create future conservation of lands to protect it in the future. I also love how collaborative and multi-faceted it is. We are always working with multiple organizations to make the most informed decisions, and every day is different. I love that I spend equal parts in the field as I do in the office.