Dr. Sarah Johnson stood in Spur Lake with waders on, her hand searching below the surface as part of an effort to revive wild rice. She pulled up what looked like a long white monster the size of her arm. “It’s only a water lily rhizome,” she said, reassuring the shocked faces in front of her.
Johnson, along with three students from the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, assisted the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, and other partners on a wild rice restoration project in Oneida County, Wisconsin.
“As the co-chair [of the Plants and Natural Communities Working Group], I learned all about the Spur Lake project in meetings but had never actually been there myself. It was nice to actually get out on the site and participate and get my hands dirty,” Johnson said. The Plants and Natural Communities Working Group, one of many groups under the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, a state-wide collaboration.
The Northland crew paddled up a canoe-width channel and waded in the water to clear out vegetation restricting water flow and raising water levels too high for wild rice to grow. This plant research and restoration project is one of dozens Johnson has in progress with students.
The Burke Center added Johnson to its list of affiliated faculty, recognizing partnerships with faculty on and off-campus.
“Sarah has been an important and influential member of the Burke Center community for several years now,” said Peter Annin, Burke Center director, “and [this] program allows us to formally recognize those key collaborations that she continues to have with Burke Center students and staff.”
PLANTS ON THE EDGE
Johnson teaches a variety of natural resources courses emphasizing plant ecology and botany. Students have opportunities for research outside of her classes by assisting in various research projects ranging from forest dynamics to herbivore impacts on vegetation.
“I have felt very fortunate that I have the opportunity to engage students with research that is primarily focused on our regional national parks and other regional agency partners. I’ve often attempted to bridge science and applied management… [I enjoy working] with natural resource agencies on applied conservation issues.”
For the past few years, Johnson has been monitoring rare plants in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Isle Royale National Park for a project Johnson has named “Plants on the Edge.”
Johnson often takes students out with her to the Apostles and Isle Royale to look for plant species more commonly found north of the Great Lakes in the Artic. This summer, Johnson took a Burke Center student and a UW-Madison graduate student on an eight-day rare plant survey on Isle Royale.
“Involving students in this project has been very rewarding because these are some of the most charismatic plant species in the Lake Superior region… [it’s] a really great way to get students excited and really engaged in the work,” Johnson said.
Johnson spent her childhood outside growing up on a blueberry farm in rural Mississippi, where her father worked as a high school biology teacher.
“I grew up hiking and camping and canoeing, and so I think I was more in tune with environmental issues,” said Johnson.
As Johnson approached high school graduation, she hungered for a more in-depth environmental study. That hunger is what first brought her to Northland.
It was the time of year when colleges send recruitment mail when Johnson saw a postcard from Northland with a red canoe by Lake Superior.
“It was that postcard that really first captured my attention and imagination about what Northland College would be like,” Johnson said. “I eventually visited Northland with my mom and the rest was history.”
Two experiences from these years stick with her.
The first was her Outdoor Orientation canoe trip to the Sylvania Wilderness Area. “Hands-down the most influential,” she said. “I’m still using camping tricks I learned on that trip, and I’ve seen huge benefits of that program through similar skillsets picked up by my own students who camp for research and jobs.”
The second was her senior capstone research project. As her interest in botany grew, she took natural resources classes that emphasized vegetation with the late Dr. Jim Meeker, a professor of natural resources, that led to a capstone on forest ecology and management.
“I think that independent project was foundational to my decision to pursue plant ecology after Northland,” Johnson said. “Derek Ogle, Gus Smith, and Jim Meeker were mentors to me for my undergrad project. [The capstone project] was pivotal for me in terms of gaining independence and being more comfortable reaching out to faculty for support.”
After earning her bachelor’s in biology from Northland in 2002, Johnson moved out east to study at East Carolina University, where she researched a Federally Threatened dune plant on the Atlantic coastline for her master’s in biology. She headed back to Wisconsin to earn her doctorate in botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing her studies on long-term vegetation change and forest ecology.
Johnson was still finishing her doctorate when she saw that Northland was hiring. She graduated from UW-Madison in the spring of 2011 and started teaching at Northland that fall.
“Being on the faculty at our small college has been insanely rich in adventures with students and colleagues,” she said. “At the core of both time periods is a strong community-oriented student base who bring a sense of energy and commitment to serving the greater good, and they make me want to keep striving to do better.”