November 23, 2009

Ecology-related internship program growing

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A program providing internships for students interested in ecology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is growing and paying off, with two undergraduates winning a national award for their research this year.

The Center for Ecology, an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students at SIUC who focus on research examining the relationship between organisms and their environment, coordinates the internships with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said David Gibson, professor and distinguished scholar in the Department of Plant Biology. Both IDNR and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation provide funding for the program, which amounts to about $5,000 per student.

The interns, under the guidance of SIUC faculty mentors, work at various sites around the state alongside IDNR professionals, conducting research and management duties. They earn a wage, receive expense funding for research projects and travel and earn class credit.

Six students participated in the nine-week program this year, Gibson said.

“The is to get these students some real-life experience in their field outside the classroom, said Gibson, who helps lead the Center for Ecology at SIUC. “We want them to learn what it’s like to work with these agencies, and also give them the experience they need to get a job with these agencies after they graduate. Getting this actual field experience helps them stand out in that pile of applications.”

Students come from a variety of majors that touch on ecology, including plant biology, plant and soil science, geography, zoology and others. While doing the internship, they maintain contact with SIUC faculty mentors, who help guide their research methods and provide other support.

Working in pairs, the students conducted research at several different IDNR sites and agencies. Wade Bloemer, a senior in forestry from Effingham, and Dane Goble, a graduate student in forestry from Charleston, worked at the IDNR’s Prairie Ridge State Natural Area near Newton. They conducted management duties, such as spraying for invasive plant species, conducting bird surveys and capturing and banding geese. They also researched a 30-acre woods near a creek, examining the various trees and vegetation present there.

Another pair, Kim Elsenbroek, sophomore in plant biology from Kingston, and Radonna McKinney, a senior in plant and soil science from Carbondale, worked with the IDNR’s Division of Natural Heritage near Charleston. The two performed a variety of land and wildlife management tasks. They also studied the effectiveness of using a mist blower applicator to spray herbicide on invasive honeysuckle plants in certain areas.

“The internship had a wide variety of work situations,” said Elsenbroek, daughter of Kenneth and Marguerite Elsenbroek. “We got to do restoration work, wetland ecology work, fisheries and wildlife biology work.”

Elsenbroek said the internship enriched her education beyond the classroom experience.

“It’s definitely different seeing something change over time rather than studying it (in class),” she said. “We took results and explained what happened and why it happened.”

Following their internships, the students attended an ecology conference in Vancouver, Wash., sponsored by the Natural Areas Association. Elsenbroek and McKinney won the top prize for their poster explaining their research, beating out the rest of the field made up mostly of graduate students from across the nation.

“When they announced our name I was really surprised,” Elsenbroek said. “We worked on it really hard, and we thought it came together really well but I just never expected to win.”

Gibson said the accomplishment shows the program is making strides.

“It’s terrific recognition for the University and for the program,” Gibson said. “They were able to do some top class research.”

Gibson said he and the other faculty members from the Center for Ecology hope to maintain funding for the internship program, which he sees as a valuable offering for up-and-coming ecological researchers.

“There are very few programs like this nationally,” he said. “We’re one of very few universities that have a program just like this.”