Learn more about the recipients of Arboretum Research Fellowships:

2020 Research Fellows


Katherine Charton
Department of Integrative Biology
Advisor: Ellen Damschen
Effects of management and precipitation on woody encroachment in tallgrass prairie

In an era of rapidly changing climatic conditions, anticipating the rate and extent of ecosystem change will help inform conservation priorities and adaptation efforts. Tipping points largely determine the rate at which changes in ecosystem components, including biodiversity and ecosystem services, occur, and they can result from seemingly small changes in environmental variables. Woody encroachment is one such globally occurring change thought to create tipping points reinforced by positive feedbacks and considered irreversible past certain critical thresholds. Managing these ecological thresholds in order to prevent unwanted encroachment and intervene before communities transition to an alternative stable state requires an understanding of the multiple environmental variables, and their interactions, that drive state change.

This project will examine the effects of management, climate change, and their interaction on woody invaders in tallgrass prairies. Specifically, through field work at Arboretum, outlying, and non-Arboretum properties, I will ask how established woody plants respond to the interaction of management and precipitation across a gradient of tallgrass prairie habitats and if recruitment success of woody plants differs under variable management and precipitation conditions. Results will be highly relevant to the conservation and restoration of prairie communities and to our basic understanding of disturbance and community stability. Integration with subsequent research may also provide insight into the utility of plant functional traits in determining competition outcomes between prairie and woody plants, the role of positive feedbacks in woody plant dispersal and colonization into grasslands, and the differences in ecosystem function under competing stable states as prairies move from grassland to wooded systems.

Katherine began her Doctor of Philosophy in Integrative Biology at UW–Madison in 2019. She received a Bachelor of Science in Conservation and Resources Studies from University of California, Berkeley in 2017.

“Scientists have the platform to profoundly empower people and communities to become advocates for their land through sound science.”


Erin Crone
Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology
Advisor: Dan Preston
Ecology of urban herpetofauna in Madison, Wisconsin

Urban herpetofauna face many challenges to survival and reproduction. The proposed research will investigate two common urban threats to herpetofauna: stormwater pollutants and invasive species. Urban stormwater contains various pollutants that have been known to harm amphibian larval development. Previous research suggests amphibian taxa differ greatly in tolerance of stormwater pollutants. We seek to explain observed patterns in occurrence and distribution of amphibians around Madison, Wisconsin, by testing larval tolerance to stormwater ponds. Our research will use laboratory trials to compare survival and growth of six species of local amphibian larvae when exposed to stormwater pond sediments. Additionally, we plan to address a knowledge gap in community ecology regarding native urban predator responses to novel invasive prey. Little is known about the role of invasive Asian jumping worms (Amynthas spp.) in natural food webs and whether native predators potentially contribute to biocontrol. Our research will examine diet composition of four terrestrial amphibian and reptile predators in and around the UW–Madison Arboretum via nonlethal stomach contents sampling. We will quantify effects of jumping worms on herpetofaunal diets by comparing prey consumption in sites with and without jumping worms. We hope studying widespread threats to urban herpetofauna will provide information to support management for herpetofauna habitat.

Erin began her Master of Science in Wildlife Ecology at UW–Madison in 2019. She received her Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science from Bellarmine University in 2018.

“I believe that promoting urban coexistence with wildlife and creating natural habitats within urban areas is vitally important in our rapidly developing world, both for the persistence of species and to encourage appreciation for ecology within urban communities.”

Anna Skye Harnsberger
Department of Entomology
Advisors: Claudio Gratton and Karen Oberhauser
Effects of local and landscape characteristics on native prairie butterfly communities

The dispersal abilities of butterflies might affect the degree to which they are affected by landscape heterogeneity, habitat patchiness, and isolation. The abundance of very mobile butterflies at a site could be determined by landscape characteristics, especially if the butterflies have a metapopulation structure or are migratory. Less mobile butterflies might be more affected by local characteristics. My experience studying monarchs on Arboretum land and throughout Wisconsin has given me the skills to assess native floral communities, evaluate pertinent landscape metrics, and interpret their relationships to butterfly abundance. I aim to apply these skills to assess butterfly diversity and abundance at Arboretum sites containing native prairie, as well as other sites in southern Wisconsin, and relate these metrics to butterfly life histories and site and landscape characteristics. Butterfly community surveys on Arboretum lands will add to current efforts to assess biodiversity.

Skye began her Master of Science in Entomology at UW–Madison in 2018. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Occidental College in 2016.

“We have a moral responsibility to document and conserve native insect species on some of the last remaining tallgrass prairies and new restorations that humans are putting in place. We also have a moral responsibility to do restorations correctly and evaluate our success in supporting insect habitat.”

Nick Hoffman
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Advisor: Sara Hotchkiss
Stormwater history: A fifty-year reconstruction of the runoff-mediated disturbance load to Curtis Pond and Curtis Prairie

The restoration of Curtis Prairie depends, among other things, on managing its vegetative response to the salts, nutrients, and pollutants to which it is subjected. Likely, the major source of these disturbance loads is the surface water dynamics associated with the outflow of water from Curtis Pond and Coyote Pond, which receive large annual influxes of stormwater from sewersheds encompassing the Madison Beltine highway and residential developments. We propose to collect sediment cores from Curtis Pond and Coyote Pond in order to reconstruct the loading of salts, nutrients (N,P,S), and pollutants (PAHs, microplastics, and an ensemble of metals) into these ponds over the past fifty years. We will also collect a set of soil samples along transects down-gradient of the pond to understand how these pollutant loads have migrated with surface water into the prairie over the past fifty years. Knowledge of the magnitude of these disturbance depositions and their spread into the prairie will provide context for the historical response of Curtis Prairie’s vegetation to reed canary grass invasion and other ecological changes.

Nick began his Master of Science in Environment and Resources at UW–Madison in 2019. He received a Bachelor of Science in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2018.

“Ecology means studying the household. Ecological management then can be considered housework. . . . I simply want to help with this housework.”

Carson Keller
Department of Zoology
Advisor: John Orrock
Do invasive species modify small mammal trophic interactions and generate predictable behavioral changes?

Invasive species dramatically alter ecosystems through the creation of novel habitat, competition and consumption of native species, and generating reductions in biodiversity. Currently, there is limited understanding of how invasive species mediate ecological interactions and generate indirect effects; this limits our ability to predict their impacts on native species and the factors leading to invasion success or failure. In particular, evaluating the effect of invasive species on plant-herbivore and predator-prey interactions are vital, as changes in these relationships alter plant and animal species distribution, abundance, and behaviors.

Recent work has demonstrated that individual behavioral traits can be a primary mechanism driving differences in ecological interactions within invaded and uninvaded habitats. However, focusing on singular behaviors ignores mounting evidence that animals exhibit correlated suites of behaviors called behavioral syndromes or “animal personalities.” Correlated behaviors (e.g., boldness and neophilia) may facilitate differences in the exploitation or avoidance of invaded habitats, potentially redefining the existing ecological interactions in the context of rapid environmental change. For instance, bold neophilic individuals may exploit invaded areas more quickly, modifying trophic interactions through changes in consumer pressure on native species, ultimately shifting species distribution, abundance, and behaviors.

Using two invasive species, buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and jumping worms (Amynthas spp), I will evaluate: 1) if predictable suites of behaviors characterize the animals within invaded and uninvaded habitats, and 2) if these behaviors generate variation in rodent-worm interactions that promote biotic resistance or invasional meltdown. I use experimental site-level manipulation of buckthorn and sites along a gradient of Amynthas-invaded habitat within the UW Arboretum. Trophic interactions will be quantified by measuring small mammal foraging of native and invasive species. I will measure behaviors essential for individual survival and fitness, such as habitat selection, activity timing, boldness, stress physiology, and anti-predator behaviors. Activity timing and foraging will be measured using camera trap boxes and live trapping followed by behavioral assays to determine individual and population level distribution of personalities. If predictable suites of animal behaviors exist across different types of biological invasions, this may help us better understand how ecosystems and the organisms within them may respond to future invasions. Determining how invasions alter ecological interactions will allow for informed management efforts that have direct local and global impacts on the restoration and conservation of native species.

Carson began his Doctor of Philosophy in Zoology at UW–Madison in 2019. He received a Master of Science in Biology from California State University, Northridge, in 2018 and a Bachelor of Science in Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology from California State University, Fresno, in 2013.

“I believe that some of the most effective management and conservation strategies are derived from not only research but from the investment and fostering of community engagement. As an instructor and researcher, it has always been my priority to make science understandable, accessible, and engaging in order to spark student and public interest.”

2019 Research Fellows


Jared Beck
Department of Botany
Advisor: Don Waller
Contagious trees? Characterizing spatial patterns and ecological factors influencing the local distribution of trees in southern Wisconsin

The composition and diversity of ecological communities depends on complex interactions (both biotic and abiotic) between organisms and their community. In forest communities, there is strong evidence that light variation and neighborhood competition shape local forest community dynamics, though recent studies suggest that soil microbes may also play a significant role in shaping local distributions of trees. This project will explore spatial patterns of trees in 12 Southern Wisconsin forests to assess the influence of soil conditions, light availability, mycorrhizal associations, and plant-soil feedbacks on distributional patterns of trees, as well as provide baseline data for monitoring long-term forest community dynamics. Through this study we aim to learn: 1) how the density of tree seedlings and distribution of tree saplings reflect variation in local environmental conditions and proximity to neighboring trees and 2) if differences in the distribution of trees among species or between life stages are related to variation in the strength of plant-soil feedbacks. The findings of this study may offer important insights into the ecological processes driving local forest dynamics by linking spatial patterns of trees to environmental variation and differences among species in the strength of plant-soil feedbacks, supplementing ongoing research and management focused on creating conditions that favor natural regeneration of specific tree species.

Jared began his Doctor of Philosophy in Botany, with a minor in Quantitative Methods, at UW–Madison in 2016. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Carleton College in 2014.

“I enjoy working with students and take my role as a mentor seriously. I encourage students to take ownership of the project, assist with data organization and analysis, and pursue their own ideas. . . . Apart from scientific training, I also try to foster a sense of curiosity and an interest in natural history.”

Erin Crone
Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology
Advisor: Dan Preston
Interactions between non-native earthworms and native amphibians in the UW–Madison Arboretum

The introduction of non-native species to an ecosystem often results in a number of interactions (both positive and negative) with native species. With the introduction of both European and Asian earthworms to Wisconsin, questions have been raised about the impact they have on native amphibians. This project aims to study the overall herpetological diversity in and around the Arboretum, as well as interactions between native amphibians and non-native earthworms. The goals of this project are to survey aquatic and terrestrial habitats within and around the UW-Madison Arboretum to characterize the diversity and abundance of herptofauna and to conduct an outdoor mesocosm experiment to understand interactions between non-native earthworms and native amphibians. Through these projects we aim to learn: 1) which native herptofauna occur within the Arboretum and adjacent urban habitats in Madison, 2) how non-native European and Asian earthworms affect the survival, growth, and habitat use of native amphibians in terrestrial habitats, and 3) how European and Asian earthworms interact with one another. The findings of this study will result in a better understanding of Arboretum amphibian populations and interactions between native amphibians and non-native earthworms, creating a framework for future studies aimed at promoting declining amphibian species in urban environments.

Erin will be starting at UW–Madison in 2019, pursuing a Master of Science in Wildlife Ecology. She received her Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science from Bellarmine University in 2018.

“I have a deep compassion for people, animals, and nature, and I practice this trait with even greater enthusiasm. . . . Compassion is the driving force behind my educational, research, and career goals.”

Rachel Jordan
Department of Botany
Advisor: Kate McCulloh
How will Wisconsin’s native conifers respond to winter warming?

Under current climate change projections, most short-term warming in Wisconsin is predicted to occur in winter. As a result, cold-adapted trees, especially conifers, may be threatened by more frequent freeze-thaw cycles. Large fluctuations in winter temperatures can be disruptive to the physiological processes of trees, which can then cascade to ecological or community-level consequences. This project seeks to address the ways in which midwinter freeze-thaw cycles may affect the physiological function of native Wisconsin conifers in the seedling and mature stages. Through this project we aim to learn: 1) the potential impacts of an increase in the number of annual freeze-thaw cycles on seedlings, 2) how species of differing geographical distribution are influenced by changes in freeze-thaw cycle, and 3) how relative position of a species within its native distribution impacts physiological function. The findings of this study will be used to better understand and directly compare the potential response of major WI conifers to increased midwinter thaws, as well as predict species-specific physiological costs and/or benefits to this warming, which will assist in future planning for those industries (Christmas tree, timber, ornamentals) that rely on the success of these conifers.

Rachel began her Doctor of Philosophy in Botany at UW–Madison in 2018. She received her Bachelor of Science in Biology/Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology from Appalachian State University in 2018.

“I am passionate about the incredible conifer-dominated ecosystems at stake due to climate change, and I plan to do everything in my power through collaborative and independent efforts to understand and communicate their fates. I have always conducted my research for the simple love of trees, yet my broader goal is that I may be able to inform and assist the industries that shaped me – those whose livelihood depend on understanding how their forests and trees may change.”

Theresa Vander Woude
Department of Life Sciences Communication and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Advisor: Bret Shaw
Opinion leaders: Activating the Arboretum’s “Neighborshed”

The Arboretum receives millions of gallons of stormwater runoff from nearby communities each year. Decisions made on private lands surrounding the Arboretum (termed its ‘neighborshed’ for this project) directly impact the quality and quantity of stormwater runoff. To this end, community engagement has been identified as one of the top priorities of watershed management. This project aims to study how to empower neighborhood “opinion leaders” to become champions for urban water issues. Through this project we aim to learn: 1) who are “opinion leaders” regarding targeted urban stormwater behaviors, 2) what resources would make opinion leaders feel more empowered to conduct outreach about stormwater management in their neighborhoods, 3) what barriers exist that prevent opinion leaders from performing desired behaviors, 4) what psychological factors mediate opinion leaders’ intent to perform outreach behaviors regarding stormwater within their social network, and 5) what message frames are most effective to engage opinion leaders in stormwater outreach. The findings of this study will be used to complement existing local efforts working to achieve behavior-change outcomes around stormwater, geared towards encouraging residents to make water-minded decisions.

Theresa began her Master of Science at UW–Madison in 2018, working on a joint thesis in the Department of Life Sciences and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies,. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies and International Studies from UW–Madison in 2013.

“Locally and globally, the intense rain events that accompany climate change are forcing many communities to rethink ‘business as usual’ behavior. Human factors will be key to successful stewardship of restored lands and building climate-resilient communities into the future.”


Liz Anna Kozik
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Advisor: Caroline Gottschalk-Druschke
Public Engagement Focused on Restoration Ecology

Works that tell stories about restoration ecology to audiences other than restorationists are rare, but an important gap to fill. This project will serve as a test-case to inform practitioners and environmental organizations on how to most benefit from visual science communicators. It is my goal to turn my research into a shareable, accessible “how you can make an impact” for conservation organizations large and small. Through this project we aim to: 1) share why the work that the UW–Madison Arboretum is doing is important, using a variety of communication techniques, 2) generate increased public engagement in conservation and restoration, and 3) generate materials that will help researchers share their work with broad audiences. Within the environmental studies fields, there is an urgent interest in interdisciplinarity. Prominent scholarship reaches across sciences and humanities, trying to find ways to talk about the tangle of interests in our environments. As a part of this, science communication, public humanities, and digital humanities are all rising fields to bridge academia to publics.

Liz began her Doctor of Philosophy in the Environment and Resources Program, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, at UW–Madison in 2018. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Design Studies at UW–Madison in 2017 and her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking from Rhode Island School of Design in 2011.

“I believe that restoration ecology is an essential part of building a healthier relationship between people and the environment, as well as a vital step towards saving our disappearing species. However, we will never be able to get the work done unless we recruit more of the public to help out.”