SJR Column: Emiquon, March 2014
Some of the most important opportunities that make up an exceptional university experience occur well beyond the classroom and the campus. For many students who attend the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois, some of the best of those opportunities happen about an hour northwest of Springfield near Havana- at Emiquon.
In 2007, the Nature Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified this 7,000-acre stretch of land along the Western bank of the Illinois River to transform it from farmland back to its natural state – a river floodplain. The intent was to reestablish the ecological diversity that had once sustained generations of plant and animal life. This remarkably successful project represents one of the first and largest river reclamation efforts anywhere in the world.
Recognizing that the reclamation would be a unique opportunity, UIS Biology professor Dr. Michael Lemke, whose research focuses on freshwater ecosystems, proposed that UIS partner with the Nature Conservancy to establish a field station at Emiquon to study and document this immense experiment. Today, Dr. Lemke serves as Director of the field station and, thanks to his leadership and the involvement of many other UIS faculty, staff and supporters, the UIS Therkildsen Field Station has become a thriving, year-round, interdisciplinary teaching and research facility that has hosted hundreds of scientists, teachers, students and interested visitors.
One such student is Logan Benedict. Logan is a UIS graduate student in Biology from Clinton, Illinois. He heard about Dr. Lemke and the field station from a family member and visited Emiquon before deciding where to go to graduate school. “I’d never seen anything like it, “ said Logan about his first visit. “I love the wildlife…and getting my hands dirty. You can’t find a more beautiful place to study.”
For his graduate project, Logan is conducting research on large-scale community shifts (fish, plankton and vegetation) in Thompson Lake and how those populations may have changed since the wetlands restoration began in 2007. His research will contribute to better understanding of the ongoing process of wetlands restoration – a topic of increasing importance around the world.
Scientists and graduate students are not the only regular UIS visitors to Emiquon. The Biology Department offers a popular freshman seminar titled ‘Emiquon Stories’, a course that brings first-year students (most of whom have never seen such a place) to Emiquon to experience the wetlands and hear from experts who offer different perspectives about the region’s past, present and future.
And biology is not the only area of study for which Emiquon and the Therkildsen Field Station is a valuable resource. Faculty in Chemistry, Environmental Science, Ecology, Education, Computer Science and Art have also used Emiquon for teaching and research. Since the location was a major Native American settlement centuries ago and includes the Dickson Mounds Museum as well as 149 known archeological sites, it also provides important study opportunities in Anthropology and Sociology. “Emiquon is a living laboratory,” says Michael Cheney, a professor in Communications who was also instrumental in establishing the field station. “It is an exceptional resource for both the university and the community.”
Major flooding along the Illinois River last Spring has created another research opportunity for the field station team. Dr. Lemke and UIS Chemistry professor Keenan Dungey have recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the impact of the recent flooding on the wetlands restoration project. Part of the grant will provide financial support for UIS graduate and undergraduate students who are studying river ecology. The project will be done in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and with the Illinois River Biological Station and Forbes Biological Station, both of which are Illinois Natural History Survey facilities. Lessons learned from the research will be shared with public, government and private organizations through publications and field-based lectures and workshops for students and groups visiting Emiquon.
Speaking of visiting Emiquon, Thursday, March 27 would be an ideal time to do so. That is the date of the UIS Emiquon Field Station Eighth Annual Science Conference, which will be held at the Dickson Mounds Museum. This year’s conference will feature presentations on wetlands and prairie restoration and the public is welcome. To register and get directions, visit the Emiquon field station website at http://www.uis.edu/emiquon/.