Forest Ecology students sharpen fieldwork skills at U-M Biological Station

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Dr. Jill Witt brought her Forest Ecology class to the University of Michigan Biological Station to put their research skills to work.
Dr. Jill Witt brought her Forest Ecology class to the University of Michigan Biological Station to put their research skills to work.

Two vans and a truck pulled off to the side of a busy highway in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The day was cold, rainy, and cloudy. The ten UM-Flint students, along with their professor, weren't focused on that. They were here to see a swamp.

Assistant professor of biology Dr. Jill Witt, her undergraduate teaching assistant, and the nine students in her forest ecology class spent an October long weekend analyzing trees, soil, and overall ecosystems throughout northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

At this particular moment they were studying a conifer swamp in Brevort Township. To get there, they had to leap over a three-foot wide creek, and push through dense brush. Some students became wet and muddy.

The crew navigated through a wall of Northern White Cedar trees. Yards away, vehicles sped by. But they were zeroed in on the peat, conifer trees, and clear waters of a brook. The students gathered around Amanda Zuelke, Witt's teaching assistant, as she presented on the unique terrain. Zuelke had conducted research on the swamp this past summer.

Moments later, the crew was back on the road. They would study Jack pine trees, dunes, and a host of forest features throughout a 12-hour Saturday work session.

What had just happened wasn't lost on Witt. The students were on day three of an intense weekend of fieldwork. They had already spent their morning in a lecture. But at this swamp, they were picking up leaves to evaluate.

"They were all grabbing leaves and smelling them," Witt said in her truck. "Even though it wasn't an assignment, they were still looking out there. That is the type of thing that really pleases me. When you have a day like that, so wet and chilly, with us in the mud, and the students are still smiling. That's pretty cool. And they are asking questions. And wanting more."

The home base for Witt and the students on the long weekend was the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) in Pellston. The research facility is run through Ann Arbor but open to students from any of the three university campuses. Witt is a professor at both the station and UM-Flint. The station includes a campus of 100 cabins, a dorm, a research lab, library, and more. Much of the land is designated for research. The area, including beyond the station, includes fields, meadows, wetlands, rivers, streams, plains, and forests.

"UM-Flint has a really awesome wildlife biology program," Witt said. "Bringing them up here for the weekend, they have an opportunity to explore another unique area. It is an extra layer of depth to the field experience they are already getting."

Shelby Lane, an undergraduate wildlife biology student on the trip, said the four-day weekend was filled with moments like the swamp visit. And she said it's emblematic of the forest ecology class overall, which is about 75 percent fieldwork.

"It is classes like this one that makes you a better biologist. You can sit in a classroom and talk about terminology and methods but when you actually do it, you actually learn it," she said.

Lane tried several fields of study before finding her professional passion in wildlife biology. Studying at UM-Flint has allowed her to work at the biological station, around Flint, and other sites in Michigan.

"I have never been happier in my life," Lane said. "I am finally doing what I was meant to do and love to do. I am never to going to work a day in my life because this is what I want to do in my free time anyway."

Witt's class includes seven undergraduates and two graduate students. They are current professionals, including an aquatic biologist, and chemistry lab coordinator; and aspiring conservation officers, academics, researchers, and more.

Throughout the semester, the group has been learning the intricacies of identifying and measuring trees, analyzing data, and evaluating changing forest landscapes. They have done fieldwork at Centennial Park in Grand Blanc and Flushing Township Nature Park. They shared their knowledge with the public at the For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum. During the trip up north, they studied how forests and forest ecosystems regenerate after disturbances such as fire, heavy winds, and disease.

They have worked in windy and rainy conditions, and have had to merge physical labor with intense academic study.

On the trip to the Upper Peninsula, some aspects of fieldwork had to be cancelled due to washed out roads. The group improvised and studied dunes and wooded areas along Lake Michigan's northern coast.

Throughout the weekend, Witt applauded her students' stamina and enthusiasm, and willingness to be flexible. These are skills essential for a wildlife biologist. The class therefore helps prepare students for their future careers – or advance their existing careers.

"Jobs in the wildlife field are very competitive. You have to be dedicated," said Witt. "Our students have the smarts but they also have the life experience that tells them you have to work really hard to get where you want to go."

The students proved their professor right each morning on the trip. By 8:30 a.m. every day, they were either in lecture or preparing together for a day in the field. After twelve-hour work days, they hung out together in a lounge area working on team projects.

Amanda Zuelke took a break from one of the long days to talk about what working with Witt as a teaching assistant meant for her. Her sentiments echoed those of many in the class, who praised Witt's enthusiasm and support.

"She is very hands-on, which is awesome because that's often how people learn," she said, adding that being able to contribute as an undergraduate teaching assistant has enhanced her leadership skills and improved her resume.

"It's huge. It opens a lot of doors," said Zuelke, who also studied at UMBS this summer.

Zuelke had previously taken Witt's UM-Flint class. An avid hiker, Zuelke said the forest ecology class has given her context to what she encounters.

"You can see so many aspects of what makes up the ecosystem, and how animals relate to that and how it's all connected."

Beyond the course work, several students said the trip allowed them to see parts of Michigan that they hadn't experienced before. The group spent time in Mackinac City and the Tahquamenon Falls State Park.

At the state park, wildlife biology senior Michael Lake marveled at the scene.

"This is awesome. I have been to the U.P. but I've never been here."

Lake said Witt's class tied together what he has learned in other classes, such as how forest health impacts wildlife and vice versa.

"This class really connects everything," he said. "I never thought trees would be so interesting. I never knew them well enough to learn all the fascinating things about them until this class."

Working and staying at UMBS was also memorable to Lake.

"It is awesome. I have heard about it before but I didn't realize it was almost like a village within itself."

The biological station allows students to see research being done by experts in an array of fields.

"The biostation already has these well-established locations to run labs. It's a wonderfully set up field lab environment," Witt said.

After completing some final forest measurements, Witt gathered the students around her. The weekend was nearly over and they needed to talk about an assignment due later in the month.

"Talk with each other. Talk to me. You know my cell phone. You can text me or call me anytime with questions. I trust you all."

It highlighted a point Shelby Lane made about what makes UM-Flint special to her. The faculty care and they constantly prove it.

"Dr. Witt is amazing. The faculty at UM-Flint are astounding," Lane said. "They are all super-passionate and they want their students to achieve. They instill enthusiasm in you. You can come in enthusiastic and leave even more enthusiastic."

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