research

Marian R. Byrnes Park, Chicago IL

For students

I'm a teacher first, but also an urban ecologist interested in plant adaptation to human-modified environments. In particular I have a small research program investigating the ecology of vegetation in "unused" spaces (e.g. post-industrial, vacant lots, brownfields). This is my 'ecology in cities' research.

I'm usually able to hire one research assistant during the summer, but I do not run a lab and am not able to advise biology independent student research (high school, BS, MS, or PhD) at this time. In addition, there is sometimes an opportunity during the school year for me to hire a research assistant, but again, not for an independent project.

Even more interesting to me is the intersection of these urban spaces and folks who currently, or aspire to, use them. To that end, I advise students working on their BA thesis for environmental and urban studies, so if you're a UChicago student with project ideas I'd be happy to talk to you. If we're not a good fit, I can recommend other amazing faculty on campus, or elsewhere in Chicago, for you to work with.

For research or other collaborations in general, I'd love to have coffee and talk about your ideas and how we may be able to work together.

Plant communities on slag and other industrial waste in the Calumet

The main research I make time for is with two brilliant collaborators, Laura Merwin (Concordia University Chicago) and Lauren Umek (Chicago Park District). We are generally interested in how spontaneous plant communities assemble in novel urban ecosystems, management strategies for conservation and restoration in these non-wastelands, habitat analogues (to dolomite prairie and Alvar) and the potential of using these spaces as rare species refugia, new possibilities for use of public open spaces, and connectivity to other urban habitats. We focus on the Calumet Region of NE Illinois and NW Indiana.

My personal interest in the Chicago slag ecosystem was sparked by my experiences on Stora Alvaret on the island of Öland, off the coast of Southeast Sweden. When I recognized that vegetation on slag on the South Side of Chicago shared lots of visual characteristics with the Alvar, I was hooked.

To this end, we are focused on characterizing the novel urban ecosystem that persists on the industrial waste that comprises huge swaths of the Southeast Side of Chicago and Northwest Indiana (specifically slag, a byproduct of steel production). These are really fascinating habitats that allow us to address questions motivated by classic ecological theory (about community composition, ecological succession, and environmental filtering), habitat restoration and construction (what the heck can you do with slag at a Park? Are the plants that grow there on their own sufficient? What soil amendments need to be made to apply a typical seed mix?), rare habitat analogs (slag is quite similar in many respects to Alvar, and the rare local ecosystem, dolomite prairie – can we use this unconventional substrate as a refuge for rare plants from these rare habitats?), and basic knowledge acquisition (which plants actually persist across the region? Why do we find rare sedges and orchids at some sites and not others?). This is a long term monitoring project that should be able to support an undergraduate research assistant each summer.

Urban dune ecosystem construction at Rainbow Beach Dunes

Rainbow Beach Dunes is an amazing project of the Chicago Park District at Rainbow Beach Park, just on the border of South Shore and South Chicago neighborhoods. The beach at Rainbow has been around since the early 20th century, was named after the WWII Rainbow Infantry, and was also the site of the 1960 Rainbow Beach wade-ins, to protest the continued unofficial racial segregation of Chicago beaches.

Rainbow Beach is not a remnant beach nor is the natural area/dune ecosystem a remnant of a previous habitat except lake water - it's all sand on top of construction and steel industry fill (including slag), which characterizes the majority of Chicago's lake front. In the early 2000s when local native species (like marram grass) began colonizing part of the beach on their own, the Park District included it as part of its burgeoning Natural Areas program and planted more marram grass (the foundational plant for Great Lakes dune ecosystems) and other native prairie and dune species. This site now hosts rare and endangered plants, monarch butterflies, and loads of bird species on their trip north or south on the Chicago flyway.

I've been a volunteer steward at RBD for over ten years. My role these days includes leading nature walks and class field trips, advising on restoration and history, and a little bit of research: we monitor the robust and resilient prickly pear cactus population (Opuntia cespitosa).

Preserved ridged-field systems in WI via old photos, LIDAR and current aerial photos. from McLeester and Cassana 2021, American Antiquity.

Vegetation assessment of prehistoric subsistence gardens

In collaboration with archaeologists Madeleine McLeester, Jesse Casana (Dartmouth University), David Overstreet (College of Menominee Nation), and forester Jeff Grignon (Menominee Nation), we are working to quantify observed vegetation patterns in prehistoric subsistence gardens in Wisconsin. Given known archaeological sites, McLeester and Casana (2021) have shown that LIDAR imaging can identify potential remnants of garden plots. Once the location of gardens have been verified, we survey the vegetation in former garden plots at these known archaeological sites, as well as control sites of similar habitat managed by both the state of Wisconsin, and the Menominee Nation. What is the legacy of these human managed vegetation assemblages and how does that differ from assemblages on other land managed by humans? That is, to what extent did these Menominee ancestors shape the ecosystem we see today? Paralleling research on Chicago slag: what are the quirks and habits of plants that grow on human modified landscapes?

Early members of the Ecological Society of America

As part of a project of the History Records Committee of ESA I investigated the close relationship of UChicago and the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in the early formation of ESA; in 2014, these formerly distinct entities reinforced their early collaboration when UChicago took on management of the MBL.

Work in collaboration with Julie Mulroy (Denison University) focused more generally on the early membership, and with Bill Reiners (University of Wyoming), we published a paper summarizing the session we led at ESA in 2013.