Common Ground 1108 “A Love Letter to Itasca State Park Part 1”: The U of M Itasca Biological Station

Common Ground 1108 “A Love Letter to Itasca State Park Part 1”: The U of M Itasca Biological Station


Lakeland PBS presents Common Ground
brought to you by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens
of Minnesota. Production funding of Common Ground is
made possible in part by First National Bank Bemidji continuing their second
century of service to the community, member FDIC. Scott: Welcome to Common Ground, I’m
producer/director Scott Knudson. In this first of two episodes which symbolized
my love letter to Itasca State Park we visit the University of Minnesota’s
Itasca Biological Station. Lesley: The task of biological station is part of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota.
Sara: The Itasca Biological Station is important to students at the University of
Minnesota because it can really help us study the environment around us and
with global warming and climate change being such a huge issue in the world
right now it really can help us see how humans can impact the area around us and
how we can really mitigate some of the negative impacts we’re having on the
environment. Johnathan: Well this is a an example of a place doing basic science. A lot of the
research action that’s here is to go out and observe we’re in a state park with a
lot of rules in terms of what you can and can’t do. And so we have for a very long
time been kind of a place a center for doing basic research. And I’m a big fan a
proponent of doing basic research because this is information we’re
gathering information about these natural systems that we care about. And we can pretty much all get on board with that. We just need to know more about how
they work so that we can enable conservation of those natural places and
those organisms. So that basic research often when it’s being done doesn’t have
a clear and immediate use and often it’s later that some of this information then
gets harnessed. And so the best things we can do as the biologists out here doing
it is to be thorough and then to share when we share that information we may
never know where it goes. And increasingly it’s not only to land
managers but it’s to people like artists or those that are doing social science
or even just communicating science. It’s how we got where we are today which was
getting a greater grasp on our natural world so that we could then enable
ourselves to benefit from it later as well as to conserve it for the future.
Lesley: I’m Lesley Knoll I’m the station biologist at the Itasca Biological
Station and I’m also adjunct faculty in plant and microbial biology. Right now
we’re at the field station overlooking Lake Itasca behind us. What I do here is
I play a lot of different roles. I do research
myself on lakes so I have an interest in lake research. I also help all of the
visiting researchers that come up here as well as the classes and I help
conduct public programming with the park and community visitors. Sara: My name is Sara Henry and I came up originally as a student to take field classes in May
2017 and I came back this summer to take more field classes and then start a
research project on flying squirrels. I just graduated this spring with a degree
in ecology evolution behavior and environmental science and I’m applying
to dental school right now so my hopes after coming to Itasca I realized that I
wanted to do more rural medicine and focus more on rural areas and so I’m
hoping to open my own practice in northern Minnesota and work with people
up near Itasca. Johnathan: My name is Johnathan Schilling. I’m a professor in the plant
microbial biology department at the University of Minnesota on the St. Paul
campus. I’m also the director of this place which is the Itasca Biological
Station and Laboratories. So I’m a mycologist I study fungi that
is the study of fungi. I came around to studying and teaching about mycology
by studying larger scale system dynamics called it’s called biogeochemistry. I was
interested in large scale nutrient cycling patterns that happen over
ecosystem scales and I began to refine my questions down to very organism
driven dynamics things that happened because of individual organisms. And in
my case often the fungi so that’s where I became knowledgeable about the fungi
and I’ve kind of grown to love them. Lesley: We’re a field station which means we’re
embedded in a natural environment so we’re embedded in Itasca State Park. And
so we support classes for the University of Minnesota or outside the University
of Minnesota. As well as do community outreach so we engage with the public
through various public programming. Johnathan: So my position involves doing research and
teaching back in the city in St. Paul and that’s mycological research and
teaching mycology classes and the director position is mostly a summer gig
at least in terms of contact time up here at Itasca. So this year I was
up mid May and I’ll be here through Labor Day with the family and engaged in
teaching research and I’m also actually engagement. So that’s a job there’s a
little bit involved with sweeping the front walkway and making sure the lights
are on and then there is some in terms of imparting some kind of vision for the
station which is really a location that’s been here for over a hundred
years it’s very much focused on conservation. As a field station we’re
part of a network of field stations so most larger universities will have some
iteration of what is going on at Itasca as a field station. And that’s a place to
go out and be in nature a place to have more benchmark science where you have
less disruption or disturbed habitats so that you can do research to get a sense
for maybe what it should look like if we hadn’t been there to disturb it. So I
usually use that as a description that connects it let more than isolating it
from the cities it connects it to a network of field stations. And I would
describe it as a place per our mission to do teaching research and engagement.
Again at a distance from the city and in a place and that’s the essence of doing
place-based research and teaching. Sara: There are so many different things you can
study up here so you have the lake in back of you and you can research fish and stuff
to do with the water and circulation. Over the environment you can study all
the different organisms we have here from bugs to mammals to birds, bees. You
can do research projects and then when you come back at the end of the day you
can go fishing in your free time go swimming paddle boarding we have kayaks
and just enjoy everything there is about northern Minnesota and how beautiful it
is. I came here because I originally got a scholarship from my college to take
mammalogy and ecology two years ago in the summer and then I came back up here
to work that same summer and then again this summer and do a research project on
my own. I research flying squirrels. Yeah flying squirrels there’s two species in
Minnesota so I research the southern species that we see in Itasca now that
we had didn’t really see in the past and that’s a big change that’s happened in
the environment here and so I’m researching how that’s impacting the
other species in Minnesota. Lesley: We have mostly university
students that come here as well as faculty and their families so the
instructors that are teaching researchers from all over the country
and sometimes world are here. So we have a lot of different visitors we also
welcome researchers or groups from other organizations like we had the Minnesota
Department of Natural Resources here just last week learning about aquatic
vegetation and how to identify it. So we have a wide span of users. A student can
expect I think a lot of things if they come to Itasca State Park to take
classes here. We often get feedback from students as far back as the 1960s that
say this was their most memorable notable experience in their whole
college career. So students might say that they’re you know learning in the
environment and just being able to do science in the real world out in the
field that that’s something very notable for them learning from faculty seeing
faculty do projects out in the field is very memorable. Just getting to know
their cabin mates and the others taking classes there’s a real strong sense of
community that builds at this field station as well as field stations all
over the place. Sara: Along with being a previous student up at Itasca station
and a current researcher here I am one of the senior mentors of nature of
life which is a freshman orientation program we have within the College of
Biological Sciences in the month of July. So we’ll have about 650 incoming
freshman students that are coming to the University of Minnesota. They’ll come up
for a four-day experience with current faculty in our college and then current
students and then we’ll get them more involved in our college so they can get
established before they come in September and actually start their
college career. Johnathan: The station is really set up for students to be able to capitalize
on their free time, me too actually. It’s a great spot if you want to just get in
a hammock and sit by the lake and let the breeze blow across which is done
quite often sometimes in stacks of 3 or 4 hammocks.
So there’s a lot of stuff to do that involves kind of relaxing relaxation and
then there’s quite a bit to do for recreation. And the lake is here all of
the facilities in the State Park are available for students to come up and
have a good time doing biking and paddleboarding and kayaking and things
like that too. So quite often the students will engage themselves and
anything along that range of relaxation and recreation but a large proportion of
it happens outside. So for students who know that that’s what they love it’s a
really special place to do that. Lesley: Outside of the academic classes we actually
offer quite a bit of recreational opportunities for the students to give
them something to do and also let them enjoy where they’re at. So we’ve got
canoes kayaks paddle boards to get out on the water volleyball all sorts of
recreational opportunities on our athletic field. We also have bikes so
they can go along Wilderness Drive or explore the really nice bike paths that
the park has. Sara: As a student up here we usually get up pretty early in the
morning can see the sun rise some days. And have breakfast and then we have
usually classes in the morning and we’ll go out and do field research in the
afternoon and then come back in and then have the rest of the night on our own to
fish or paddleboard and do stuff like that. Johnathan: So the students are in bunk houses
and they are lined up on the lake there’s a bell that rings when the food
is served in the dining hall and the dining hall staff is super warm
a really engaging bunch. It’s going to feel like camp in a lot of ways and at
the same time you don’t typically see this at camp when you’re at the dinner
table people are talking about leech biology or the types of fish that they
guild netted or you know the types of mushrooms that were found on the
Schoolcraft Trail so it’s camp for biology type nerds you know. And it’s one
of the best things about this place and so as people are cruising around they
often look relaxed but they may or may not know it but their brains are usually
pretty engaged in their subjects. And that’s again because they’re sort of
immersed in it so there’s a lot of camaraderie among the students that are
here as well as the faculty. There are a lot of impromptu gatherings and things
that people do together just because. And so that’s a very
easy going kind of environment that again is conducive to learning. Lesley: We have students
who come back to visit all the time. Every summer I am running into students
who took classes here from the 1950s, 60s, 70s up to you know just a few years ago.
And they are so excited to come back and see the cabin that they stayed in or
notice that things really haven’t changed that much, the cabins still look
the same the buildings still look the same,
Itasca is still beautiful. So we have lots of folks that come back
to visit after they graduate and have been away for decades or longer. Sara: As a student we definitely choose to come up here, and it’s not something we have to
do in the College of Biological Sciences but there are I’d say a bit cooler
classes up here. Johnathan: The field biology courses are one of the most special
things that we do here at Itasca station. They’ve been going on as the field
biology courses since 1935 and before then were the forestry sessions dating
back to 1909. These are hands-on experiences for students,
they’re very place focused. So they get outside and learn about the Itasca
region by again getting their hands dirty and their feet wet. These are some
of the most influential courses I think in a student’s career and I can attest
to that myself as having taken field courses at a biological station. These
are moments that you will remember because again you’re immersed in your
study subjects and you get to share that with professors who are relaxed and
enjoying those times as well. It’s a real shared experience and something very
special that we have here. Brian: Ok I think we are ready. We have six pails of sponges
right? So Tom, can you be responsible for the sponges of a pail of sponges for our
team? And so let’s load up and head out. Johnathan: On May 30th Dr. Brian Wisenden took
the animal behavior course out to visit an isolated lake to explore fish brains.
Brian: So I’ve been here since the summer of 2000. Teaching animal behavior to generations of new animal behaviorists. It’s a
good place for me to teach as part of that research arc that I’ve been working
on since I got here in 2000. These are full collaborators when it works,
they are co-authors on the resulting publication. Today we are gonna look at
the responsive fathead minnows to alarm chemicals that are released when a
minnow is attacked by a predator. Lesley: Brian Wisenden is a faculty member at
Minnesota State University Moorhead and he teaches our animal behavior class
every year. Brian’s class really kind of gets off
the beaten path. [This is beautiful Deming Lake right here, that’s it.] So they explore lakes that aren’t as common to get to in the park. Brian: For those of you who haven’t been to
Deming lake before this is a cool lake because it’s meromictic, meaning it
only partially mixes. It is very, very deep for its surface area and the
perimeter of the lake has these steep embankments all with these tall trees so
that the wind action on lake surface is quite limited. Johnathan: So when a students with an expert in the field I think there are a couple things that happen. One is that
the expert is sort of out in the open without a script and so they will see
how somebody thinks through the process of identifying things, understanding why
it’s there, so they’ll see that process. It also has these extra benefits of
being around somebody when they are at their most relaxed. And that is gold. It
is very hard to convince people who have never done a course like that how much
of an impact that can have to not only show students what it’s like to go
through that process of discovery but to share with them kind of the joy. [Yeah
kind of watch your step there’s a lot of little, you know, holes here and there.]
Lesley: In Brian’s animal behavior class they often are trudging through hiking trails
or even sometimes off hiking trails to get to some of the remote lakes that
they go to to do their studies. So students are
prepared, we prepare them well for the bugs that they might experience,
mosquitoes were really bad this year. So they’re ready to go with their head nets
or whatever else we suggest for preparation. Brian’s class does a lot of
really interesting animal behavior activities out in the field. Brian: You guys all see the trumpeter swans? Okay how is everybody’s state of readiness? [Ready] Everyone good to go? Done? Okay let’s set! Yep, pull! Yeah, go! Toss! Okay make sure it’s the
trap is parallel to shore and lying on its side. Yep and then tie it off on a
branch. That’s it, that’s great. Yep, all right so time in was 9:34. I can see there’s something over the trap already. It’s only gonna be there
for an hour so it doesn’t have to be you know a super permanent structure. This
is an alarm trap so they should be smelling that and not going on the trap.
Scott: Now shouldn’t it be double blind so the minnows don’t know what you’re thinking…I’m just kidding. [laughs] Lesley: They also sometimes go out and collect spiders and look at territoriality of spiders and
spider behavior as well as projects with dragonflies, birds all kinds of different
critters that we find up here in the park. Sara: I might be biased but I’d say the
faculty that come up here are some of the coolest people at the University of
Minnesota. They love to be outside, they are funny and interested in so many
different diverse topics whether it’s bugs in the lake to different fruits
that you can find in the area. And they’re really invested in their
students and their learning. So on May 28th of 2019, Dr. Jim Cotner took out the
field microbiology course on the pontoon boat. Jim: Then we get a thermocline
change in temperature over depth and that’s basically the rest of the lake.
Lesley: Jim Cotner is a faculty member at the University of Minnesota in the ecology
evolution and behavior department. Jim: So we’re putting a buoy out here that’s
going to measure all kinds of things. So temperature, pH, conductivity, oxygen so on
and so forth. Lesley: Jim teaches our field microbiology class along with Jeff
Grownic. And he also has been conducting research at Itasca for about 20
years now on lakes in the park. Jim: Julia, would you mind getting that set up? Lesley: One thing that the field microbiology class did with Jim Cotner was going
out on our pontoon boat and they would go out in the field and collect samples
and even got to use some really kind of high-tech water sensors that measure all
sorts of things in real time. So things like how much algae is in the water, how
much oxygen. So they were able to look at that in real fine detail. Jim: So this device
here, the data I was showing in class came from this instrument. So it’s measuring
light levels and then on the bottom here it has lots of sensors. Chlorophyll, so it
was a measure of the amount of algae that’s in the water. Oxygen, turbidity, pH
and I think that’s it. So we deploy this in the water for a long period of time. I
have it set up to take a reading every 10 seconds. And what we observe basically is that co2 is coming out of the water so it’s sort of like the lake is
exhaling just as you and I exhale. In addition to exhaling co2 it’s also
exhaling methane gas. Both of those are important because they’re greenhouse
gases. And so lakes are pretty important in the global carbon cycle because they
play this role in terms of essentially collecting a lot of the material that
comes off the landscape and metabolizing it and sort of poofing
it off into the atmosphere. Sara: When we go out and take samples of the lake we can
use equipment to measure oxygen content and chlorophyll, so see plants in the
water. We can look at the different organism composition and
photosynthesizing organisms and how much oxygen and carbon dioxide they’ll go
through. We can look at sediment samples and see at the bottom of the lake 45
feet down what kind of worms are around or what kind of different bacteria are
doing stuff at the bottom of the lake that we can’t see. We can also look at water
clarity and how conducive the lake is to plant life. Lesley: Joe Whitaker is a professor at Concordia College and he teaches field mammalogy at our field station. His
class not only works with mammals in the park but they also go on several field
trips outside of the park to see different types of mammals that you find
in different biomes in the region. Sara: The Itasca Biological Station and Lake
Itasca are kind of part of the intersection of prairies and then
coniferous and then we also intersect with the deciduous base forests in
Minnesota. Johnathan: The biomes are a short drive in these different directions to go
across the transition both north and south of the park. So the biome
transitions enable you to make comparisons in a short period of time.
Those comparisons can be very clear. One would be birds if you are interested in
birds particularly at that springtime moment for the courses you can see very
different birds in all three biomes and be able to sort of immerse yourself in
them as you go along. The Frenchman’s bluff is actually a cool
example of prairie. It’s a tall grass prairie that’s gradually transitions to
a short grass prairie at the top of the bluff. And it’s a location that is there
as a state Natural Area largely because of some of the efforts of professors
that were working here at the Itasca station. It’s a very special place of
remnant prairie on the bluff and was being threatened to be used as a gravel
pit and so you can still see the remnants of the gravel pit over there.
But through the efforts of the researchers that were here at the
station has been preserved as both an SNA and also a Nature Conservancy site.
So it’s a very special location so they get a little bit of history along with a
very special visit to the Prairie. Lesley: Itasca State Park, were lucky to be here because we’re near different biomes. So one biome is the prairie biome just a
bit west to us. And Joe Whittaker he often will take his class to Frenchman’s
Bluff to explore the small mammals that they can trap there as well as some of
the vegetation and other interesting features of that habitat that we don’t
find in Itasca State Park. [All right.] Sara: Having access to three different biomes makes it really easy to do field research because you can drive an hour
in any direction and have completely different environments that have
different animals, different bugs, different nutrient compositions. So it
makes it really easy to have different research projects and do it all while
you’re up here. Johnathan: And another thing that’s a real advantage for doing research and
teaching up here is also the engagement potential in that is really enabled by
being inside the state park. We have more state park visitors to this state park
than any other state park in the state despite its distance. And so I get the
question a lot is it hard to attract people that distance from the city? And I
say well the state park seems to do just fine. So I think those ecological and
historical components of the park and the region are a real draw. Lesley: Working at Itasca has I think helped me a lot as a scientist not only because I get to
observe the natural world in the natural world but I also get to interact with so
many other scientists. So I might be talking with someone who studies
something really outside of what I do but we can find some common interest or
common ground and talk about some ideas perhaps spur a collaboration. So really
being able to be embedded in the natural environment but also with other folks
that are interested in studying the environment who may have a really
different perspective. It’s really an enriching experience. Sara: My hope for the
future is really finding where I can make the biggest impact on the
environment I can whether that has to do with people or just the natural
environment. I really hope to do more with sustainability and find a way for
humans to live the best lives they can with making the least impact on the
environment possible. Scott: Thank you so much for watching, join us again on Common Ground. If you have an idea for Common Ground in north central
Minnesota, email us at [email protected] Common Ground is brought to you by the
Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund with money by the vote of the
people November 4th, 2008. If you enjoy watching Common Ground
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