The Urban Ecology Field Lab: SUST alum Diana Ramirez Reflects on Her Summer 2017 Fellowship Experience

By Diana Ramirez (BA ‘17)

Diana Ramirez (at right) with fellow students in the Urban Ecology Field Lab, summer 2017

As we have officially moved into the “cooler season” of the year, I can’t help but reflect on what might very well be the most successful summer of my life. The Urban Ecology Field Lab Summer program at the Field Museum — co-founded by Environmental Social Scientist Jacob Campbell and Chicago Region Senior Program Manager Abigail Derby-Lewis, both of the Keller Science Action Center at the Field Museum, and facilitated by Roosevelt’s Assistant Professor of Sustainability Studies, Graham Pickren — served as an ideal follow-up immersive research experience after completing my undergrad at Roosevelt U in May 2017 and working as an intern at the Field Museum during my final two semesters as a student.

2017 Urban Ecology Field Lab students & staff at the Field Museum, Chicago IL (SUST alum Diana Ramirez, 4th from left; SUST prof Graham Pickren, 2nd from right)

I feel privileged to have gained invaluable experience throughout the various training sessions, fieldwork experiences, lectures, and networking opportunities we ambitiously took on. But I am also very honored to have spent my summer with such amazing people, as I had the chance to cultivate relationships and develop inside jokes and nicknames among our small cohort of seven.

Throughout this 8-week program, we spent the first five weeks meeting at the museum Monday – Friday from 9am to 3pm for a very intense amount of fun and learning. A few major highlights would definitely be the two camping trips we ventured on together, the first being at the Indiana Dunes State Park and the other at Northerly Island in the city! Considering how much I personally enjoy camping, I knew I would have a great time with some good people, but the additional scientific work we conducted really made for some unique, memorable experiences.

For instance, while at the Dunes, we had the opportunity to survey areas off Cowles Bog Trail for toads, frogs and salamanders, as well as survey noise and light pollution throughout different parts of the Park for comparison to each other. We also tested water quality by comparing dissolved oxygen levels within three different sampling sites and worked with mobile equipment to monitor air quality, including the presence of ozone.

Another major highlight was our day trip to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, where we had the chance to get involved with prairie restoration work for some real-world impact on Midewin’s evolving landscape. The tremendous ecosystem services provided by the deep-root system of an established prairie site are testament to the importance of ecological restoration work on behalf of this endangered Illinois ecosystem.

The signature feature of the Urban Ecology Field Lab is how it integrates research techniques from both the social and natural sciences, within the context of urban ecosystems. After five weeks of studying and practicing various anthropological methods (ethnography, asset-mapping, and participatory action research) and ecological methods (soil and water testing and plant and wildlife monitoring) as well as visiting local urban natural areas and green spaces (community gardens, oak savannas, wetlands, and prairies), we were finally equipped with the resources and knowledge to design and carry-out our own collaborative research projects.

We divided into three groups to focus on separate sides of an overarching issue in order to reflect the collaborative approach of the work done by the Chicago Park District, which served as both our partner and stakeholder in these projects. So, we essentially worked together for two-and-a-half intense weeks on complementary research projects by collecting our own data and background research as three separate groups, while consistently engaging as an overall team to develop an understanding of the bridges connecting our work.

As members of the Social Survey Team, we conducted intercept surveys throughout the Burnham Wildlife Corridor (BWC), the most extensive site of conserved natural land along the Chicago lakefront within the CPD system, in order to explore the ways in which the public was perceiving and engaging with this new park management style, as CPD aims to shift away from traditional turf areas and introduce more natural habitats as green space within the city.

With a focus on urban green space accessibility as a social justice issue, we also attempted to gauge the level of activation the Gathering Spaces have experienced thus far, which were established as culturally significant sites throughout the BWC intended to serve as respite to urban dwellers who may not necessarily have their own green space to occupy and reflect, as a project by the Roots and Routes Initiative.

Our team’s final report, What are the motivations for usage and challenges for accessibility in the Burnham Wildlife Corridor (BWC) comparing traditional park areas and natural restoration areas?, focuses on discovering ways in which CPD can effectively work to dissolve the disconnect between city dwellers and green space through future efforts for enhanced wayfinding and a sense of inclusion in order to maximize the benefits of green space accessibility provided to Chicago community members.

While also collecting data within the BWC, the two other groups focused on comparing ecological benefits of traditional park sites and restored natural habitat sites throughout the BWC: Beetles in Urban Restoration: A Comparison of Coleoptera in Restored Prairie in the Burnham Wildlife Corridor explored the abundance of beetle biodiversity; and Soil Infiltration Rates of Restored Sites within the Chicago Area explored the comparative quality of water infiltration as an ecosystem service provided by traditional turf vs. restored native prairie sites.

Having been exposed to many on-the-ground efforts for community engagement and social change throughout the city of Chicago, I am without a doubt that this is my life’s work. I hope for many more opportunities to contribute my passion for environmental and social justice towards building resilient communities with cultural inclusivity, environmental consciousness, and an enhanced quality of life for all — but will struggle to make as sweet and long-lasting of memories as I did with my Urban Ecology ‘17 gang.

If you are interested in reading the final report the Social Survey Team produced, or checking out our final presentation which highlights our objectives, methods, results and recommendations, please contact me (dcramirez511@outlook.com).

Diana Ramirez earned her BA in May 2017 at Roosevelt University in sociology and sustainability studies (with honors) and was an active member of the RU Green student environmental organization. This past summer, she worked with fellow SUST alum Moses Viveros as stewards of the WB Rooftop Garden at RU’s Chicago Campus, worked she continued this fall as an alum. Diana completed an environmental science research fellowship with the Urban Ecology Field Lab at the Field Museum in Chicago during the summer of 2017. 

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