My family and I came to consensus that of all the potential leadership roles I might play in my life, this is one I should not let pass. I see an opportunity to make a bigger difference and to do so in the wilderness I seek, regularly. I do, however, have enough common sense to know that the vision may be mine, but it is not really about me. To this end, I have used research instead of pure instinct to write this statement, drawing on a collaborative ‘visioning’ document for field stations in the 21st Century, commissioned in 2014 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).¹ I also have included a section specific to attracting research, given challenges specific to Itasca within a college (CBS) maintaining two field stations. Lastly, I have been deliberate in writing a Vision Statement, not an Action Plan — sharing a vision rather than a to-do list will give you a sense of how I can lead and how I might enable Itasca in adapting to ever-shifting human needs, University initiatives, political frameworks and natural landscapes.
Biological Stations – The Road Ahead
Itasca Biological Station is one of ~300 field stations in the United States (~900-1200, globally), and many of its motivations and challenges are shared among all field stations. These challenges were outlined in the NAS report and are echoed in other recent publications, including a 2016 BioScience report led by the Cary Institute.2 The tenor in these reports is one of field stations in jeopardy — in fact, there is a section in Chapter 1 of the NAS report entitled just that, ‘"Field Stations in Jeopardy." The unanimous takeaway is that these stations, particularly remote stations with ‘"inconsistent operational and organizational cohesion," are vulnerable to budget cuts. If a university does not value its field stations, it is a real threat to their viability. This would be a tremendous mistake, and in my opinion could serve to insulate the home institution, not just the field station. University administrators need to view these stations as their future, not their past.
There are key strategies to reduce the risk of cuts and to demonstrate the value of field stations, and I expect that Itasca is ahead of the curve on most if not all of these points — but they bear repeating along with my vision. First, and I think relevant to this Vision Statement for an established position, is that field stations will suffer with abrupt and unplanned changes in directors and other leadership. Itasca may have experienced various ‘eras’ of directors (e.g. the Marshall era), but these were typically not blind appointments. Transferring leadership at a field station must harbor enough momentum to push the new leader along an inevitable learning curve. This would be in my favor as an internal hire and with Lesley and other staff already ‘seasoned,’ but I would have to actively ramp up to my position by engaging with those working at or with Itasca. This is one of my strengths, and it is why I have succeeded in grant-writing — my science is high quality, but I have enabled it with a good sense of timing, an honest passion, and an ability to genuinely listen and to read people.
Second, the strengths of a field station need to be intentionally and regularly revisited, including opportunities to facilitate new collaborations. This includes working iteratively with the Cedar Creek station to provide complementary roles that enhance the diversity and opportunity in CBS and at the U. My first exposure to this ‘convergence’ role for a field station was at Mountain Lake Biological Station in 1999. I was a student in an Environmental Studies program in Virginia and was taking a class in Conservation Biology from Michelle Marvier, a new professor at UC Santa Clara. Michelle is now well-known for her groundbreaking book on Conservation Science (note ‘Science’ rather than ‘Biology’). This textbook, in many ways, reflects my memory of Mountain Lake — it was collaborative, friendly, informal yet engaged, and as much about us as it was about the fungi, birds, bats, pollinators, and salamanders being studied. Field stations have always been places of collaboration, discovery-based learning, and a shining example to the public of the very essence of science as being reality-based, truth-seeking, and distanced to some degree from politics and bias. This role in convergence needs to be on display, and there are evolving inter- and trans-disciplinary ways to boost new brands of collaboration, including citizen science, social science, history, art, and outdoor recreation.
Third, a field station needs to be up to date with infrastructure and data management, with a director who has ‘chops’ for securing funding and managing a diverse portfolio. I hope it is clear from my funding success and Institutional affiliations that this will be one of my strengths. Again, Itasca can tout its own successes, and a wonderful example is the new LEED-certified Campus Center, a modern and useful building that is also a source of pride to a Bemidji construction firm and to other Minnesota companies. "Brick and mortar" infrastructure like this are absolutely critical, along with computing and data management cyber infrastructure to stay in stride with an era of "omics"-based microbiology, remote-sensing, and other "big data" research. Data must be processed, shared, stored, and made accessible. Main campuses also need to be accessible from remote stations, making telecommuting options essential for success. All of the ‘road ahead’ publications outlining this need already sound dated to me, in this respect. To keep pace with upgrades, a key aspect of a biological station Director in the current era will be both to tap data-savvy minds for input and to help secure funding. This starts by making the station visible and keeping it on the radar of administrators at the home institution. It can also be amended in desirable ways with external private, federal, and state funding, and not at the cost of scientific integrity or the mission of the station. As an example, NSF funds Improvements in facilities, communications, and equipment grants specifically for field stations, funding everything from plumbing, electrical, and computing upgrades to cross-cutting collaborative networks.
Finally, the future of field stations involves networks to stabilize, prioritize, and share resources. These stations will not survive as "islands." Itasca has long been affiliated with the Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS), hosting OBFS meetings twice since the first meeting in 1966 (hosted by Cedar Creek ‘Natural History Area’). Itasca, in fact, has roots that date to 1893 in a retrofitted logging camp on Long Lake,3 perhaps the first field station in operation in the United States. If you track Itasca Station through time, you will see that faculty have committed deeply (including financially) to the station, a testament to Itasca’s history as a source of pride for the University of Minnesota and a valued asset to the State. The future of field stations like Itasca, however, will require building new bridges. One of these bridges links to other field stations, and these networks (embodied by the OBFS) will constantly evolve – harnessing these relationships is the key. The other bridge that I feel offers new opportunity extends just beyond the property boundaries of these stations. I know from my experience at Mountain Lake that there can be a tendency for the biological station visitors to harbor in the ‘bubble’ of the station, although I cannot vouch for similar at Itasca. Regardless, there is an opportunity for two-way conversation at the common ground of these stations, away from main campuses. Here, we can work to earn trust in science rather than assume it as default for scientists. I see this as untapped value, and you will see that I can connect across these divides — I am a natural.
Building Research at Itasca
I realize the restrictions on research and distance from the Twin Cities present challenges relative to Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. The drive to Cedar Creek via GoogleMaps is estimated as 38 minutes from my office in Saint Paul — Itasca is 3 hours, 49 minutes, and if you have made this drive, you will agree that this estimate is optimistic. Cedar Creek also allows more manipulative science with research focused on human-induced environmental change, and it is a world-class, warm group focusing their time there. On top of this, if you compare ecosystem types and decide your research needs to be more forestry-focused than what Cedar Creek can offer, the CFANS-managed Cloquet Forestry Center is a 2-hour drive, with a cinnamon roll at Tobies along the way. Itasca has beat the odds of convenience with an excellent staff and facilities, and by using distance in its favor primarily for education efforts, including the Freshman orientation (NOL @ Itasca) and other field courses that are enhanced by the remote experience. Facilities allow a retreat in the prime wilderness setting of Itasca.
I think Itasca can build research activity to match its education and outreach strengths by similarly being a destination for research. This was my experience at Mountain Lake and the same holds for other stations like SUNY ESF’s Cranberry Lake and UAF’s Toolik Field Station. These are not sites of convenience, one with no road access (Cranberry, boat-in) and the other 7 hours north of Fairbanks along Alaska’s pipeline-servicing haul road. Itasca’s position at the Mississippi River headwaters is equally iconic, as a ‘source’ location for researchers tracking dynamics ahead of human disturbance downstream. This inspired the Minnesota Mississippi Metagenome Project (M3P), a CBS-based initiative that fills a critical need and harnesses modern molecular and bioinformatics capacities at the U. Itasca’s location and management history, including the State Park and also in nearby areas such as the Itasca Wilderness Sanctuary, provides important baseline data on natural systems for benchmarking disturbance, both aquatic and terrestrial. This includes old-growth northern coniferous forests where I will be excited to bring my research — old-growth harbors many unique (Red List-ready) fungi. Stations like Itasca are places where we can "take the pulse of Earth’s ecosystems."4 Also, in 25 miles as the "crow flies," you cross two Biome transitions (pineland-hardwood-prairie) heading west from Itasca, situating the Station at an important and well-defined transition zone that is undoubtedly prone to shifts in climate. These unique natural aspects of Itasca are part of the draw for research, and they are part of the continuing story to share with administrators and faculty on the home campus, and beyond.
In addition to the unique systems available to scientists, however, there are other supporting aspects that are key to attracting users, funders, and others. These "perks" begin with a healthy operating budget, and these funds can be leveraged to do more than keep the lights on. Things like the quality of food, Internet, accommodations (aiming for rustic but w/amenities), camping options, ride-sharing, telecommuting, and the often-overlooked draw of solid child care. My father, a Presbyterian minister by way of Yale’s School of Forestry and then Yale’s Divinity School, used to say "filling pews starts with good child care, not good sermons." As a scientist pushing my work into the proverbial stratosphere, this saying is one to remember, and my own children are always there to remind me. Attracting a regular audience means accommodating them, not simply impressing them.
I also could imagine other low-hanging fruit at Itasca, including citizen science. Itasca State Park hosts over a half-million visitors, annually, and 20 percent stay overnight in the park. Compare this to Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, where visitation is half of that at Itasca and where < 5% stay overnight. Visitors commit to their Itasca experience, and this can be harnessed for citizen science efforts that both expand our research reach and enable outreach. Furthermore, I am a big believer in social sciences as a key yet undervalued lever in our ever-struggling environmental efforts — people and our consumption are the root of environmental problems, so we should assess people, directly, and better understand what steers our habits. Itasca offers unique history, aesthetics, recreational opportunities, and natural resources, all at an intentional interface between people and nature. These crossroad aspects of Itasca I think can be harnessed, given that others know about and understand the opportunities.
Window Into My Motivation
Finally, I wanted to briefly share a personal snapshot that is relevant to this Vision Statement. My grandmother Lillian Schilling founded a conservation-focused nature camp for high school-age children in Virginia in 1942. Her idea was radical, she was a woman, and she managed a legacy that remains today. Henry Wilbur, director at Mountain Lake in my time there, was once a camper there, along with an impressive list of scientists over the years. My father was also a camper, and I was, too. This experience propelled my dad into forestry at Yale and later into the pulpit with an interest in social justice — he believed (and he is right) that the church can be a powerful elixir in solving problems, including those related to conservation. As a "preacher’s kid," I of course went in other directions — down the entire 2000-mile Appalachian Trail in 1996, through two environmentally-motivated graduate degrees, and in 2006, into my biology-centric faculty job at the University. So many people have helped me realize my goals along the way, and this collective experience with nature and people has inspired me with a purpose. Sometimes, we need to rekindle this purpose, and the timing for Itasca is serendipitous.
References: 1NAS Press (2014) ISBN: 978-0-309-30534. 2Tydecks et al. (2016) BioScience 66:164-., 3Hodson (1979) http://hdl.handle.net/11299/115633, 4Baker (2015) BioScience 65:123-.