People hiking near creek and limestone cliff

Together again

In 2021, we resumed some of our public tours of KU Field Station sites, including the fall tour of the Baldwin Woods Forest Preserve. The tour was limited to 50 participants, split up into five groups. Mike Yoder, longtime Lawrence photographer, was along with his camera.

In a typical year, our research center engages in several broad categories of educational outreach activity, working in Lawrence and Douglas County and throughout the state, but Zoom and YouTube are beginning to help take outreach to a new level. After a long list of cancelled plans in 2020, a year essentially limited to one core research activity that doubles as outreach — conducting surveys of land and water bodies for specific species of plants and animals for individuals, private companies, municipalities and agencies — we resumed many of our regular tours, seminars, talks, event attendance, and other activities, though we did so with precautionary measures in place.

  • The pandemic spurred us to new possibilities for our longstanding lunchtime Friday Ecology Seminar series. In fall 2020, we began to hold talks via Zoom and posting them on our YouTube channel. We realized this opened the talks to a much broader audience and also created possibilities for much more variety in our talks, as it did away with the need for speakers to travel. By spring 2021, we had hit a new stride. Some talks were hybrid, but all were recorded and posted on line. Our mailing list for announcements about the talks grew rapidly, and Ben Sikes, associate scientist and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, officially took the reins as coordinator, following long service by Helen Alexander, retiring professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who created the series.

  • The Monarch Watch program, in addition to resuming its May plant sale fundraiser, held two unique outreach events in the spring. On April 13, it partnered with the local Raven Book Store to help author Sara Dykman, outdoor educator and field researcher, with the nationwide launch of her book, Bicycling with Butterflies, which documents her nine-month,10,000-mile trip alongside monarch butterflies on their annual migration. The event reached more than 1,000 people; the replay is available of the crowdcast of Dykman’s conversation with Chip Taylor, Monarch Watch founder and professor emeritus. On April 15, Monarch Watch presented a webinar with Chip to the Missouri Prairie Foundation on monarch population trends, conservation and climate change. More than 300 people attended, and the recording is posted on YouTube.

  • During the first week of June, we hosted the third annual Ecosystems of Kansas Summer Institute, a program developed and overseen by Peggy Schultz, research specialist and a faculty member in the Environmental Studies Program, at the KU Field Station and nearby sites. The Institute, an outreach component of the five-year, $20 million NSF EPSCoR MAPS (Microbiomes of Plant, Aquatic and Soil Systems Across Kansas; see KU News story) grant, brought together 10 high school science teachers from across Kansas to work with KU scientists to learn about current research and methods that link to K-12 science standards. The five-year annual program was not held in 2020, but NSF made an allowance for the Institute to be held an additional year. 

  • Researcher Jennifer Moody managed a variety of activities at the KU Native Medicinal Plant Garden, the Field Station site closest to campus and an even more popular site for visitors than usual during the first 18 months of the pandemic. Volunteers through the Douglas County Extension Master Gardeners cared for demonstration gardens and established a thriving prairie patch. As part of KU Hawk Week, in late August, a tour for incoming first-year students was held in coordination with the KU Common Book, Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer; in anticipation of this event, a stand of sweetgrass plants were planted. The KU Community Garden, a KU student group, grew food at the site to donate to local food banks, and the KU Bee Club was active with new beehives. In addition, gardeners worked with Mary Anne Jordan, a textiles professor in the KU Dept. of Visual Art, to plant and dye fiber plants; her students continued to collect material at the garden. 

  • In late October, we resumed our exceedingly popular fall public tour the Baldwin Woods Forest Preserve. Five tour leaders helped us keep the limited group of 50 participants spread out: Bill Busby (director emeritus of the forest preserve), Craig Freeman (senior scientist and curator of KU’s R.L. McGregor Herbarium), Caleb Morse (collections manager at the herbarium), Ben Sikes (associate scientist and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology), and Ryan Rastok of the Kansas Forest Service.

  • Our scientists had more opportunities to speak to area and national audiences online. For example, Sharon Billings, along with Larry York of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, gave an Oct. 19 webinar addressing the benefits and challenges of increasing carbon stocks in deep soil. Sharon described how global changes in rooting depth could be changing soil development. The webinar was the sixth in a weekly series, “Critical questions in carbon sequestration,” sponsored by the International Soil Carbon Network in partnership with the Midwest, Northeast and Northwest USDA Climate Hubs and the American Geophysical Union. Sharon is a senior scientist and Dean’s Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Ted Harris, assistant research professor, gave a presentation, “Harmful Algal Blooms — Impact on humans, animals, and the environment,” on Nov. 2 at Kansas City One Health Day, the local program for the annual international event One Health Day, which is focused on the interrelationships among human, animal and environmental health. The local event is a collaboration of BioNexus KC, the KU Edwards Campus and the KU Medical Center. Postdoctoral researcher Liz Koziol and Amy Burgin, associate scientist and an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, gave talks through the Red Hot Research series hosted by The Commons at KU.

  • Students working in our labs were involved in outreach efforts of their own, making and winning a bid to host the 2022 Midwest Ecology and Evolution Conference (MEEC), an annual regional conference, at KU. The conference is organized and directed entirely by graduate students. Previous conferences have drawn 250 to 300 attendees. Students also led a local kindergarten Girl Scout nature hike at the KU Field Station, participated in a local Earth grassland restoration activity, and represented our research center at a booth at the KU Natural History Museum’s Baker Wetlands Family Fun Dayin September.