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 (

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. 

Posted in alumni, biodiversity, cities, conservation, ecology, education, fellowships, museums, parks and public land, research, Roosevelt, science, students

Growing Chicago: Food Access and Urban Agriculture

By Nikki Braus for SUST 350

My friends frequently brag about the convenience of living within the heart of Chicago’s densely-settled urban landscape — everything is so close together, and everything you need is within walking distance or just a bus ride away! But some of them rarely bring home fresh produce from their travels, as the nearest grocer supplying them is far enough away that it is deemed an inconvenience to bring home regularly. Cooking from home or having fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on is viewed as a treat or chore, or passed up for processed foods found at the Dollar General a half block away.

When an urban community finds itself over a mile away from any grocers selling fresh produce, it is considered to be residing within a food desert. This means that while convenience stores full of dry goods and salty snacks may be clustered around their residence, most of anything considered nutritious and health-conscious is far out of reach. This is a problem that affects more than just a handful of my college-age friends, it can impact entire neighborhoods and communities — particularly those on the South and West Sides of Chicago. When supermarkets and grocery stores cannot be convinced to settle down in these areas, those within said communities have very few options for finding an affordable way to support their diet with healthy and fresh food.

RU students worked at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm for SUST 350 Service & Sustainability
(M. Bryson, May 2012)

There is one option, however, that seems to be gaining more and more ground as the years go by. Urban agriculture—whether it be through community gardens, planters full of tomatoes on balconies, edible landscaping, or full-fledged urban farms—is taking root in Chicago. It is a solution that at-risk families in impoverished neighborhoods within the city limits can look forward to as more and more examples of urban agriculture production are popping up from out of the ground (and out of roofs, too!). When a family cannot afford to travel long distances to purchase fresh goods–which are usually priced higher but of lower quality—they can count on the outputs of local community gardens to provide fresh produce. If more community gardens open to the public in these neighborhoods were erected, inhabitants in need of nutritious sustenance could leave with more than a handful of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Urban agriculture not only provides benefits in the kitchen, but also in schools. Instilling the desire to garden and educating children in nutrition through hands-on experiences have proven to be effective ways to increase their fruit and vegetable intake throughout the course of their lives. If implemented in all schools, especially those in at-risk communities, we can give youth a better chance at living healthy by giving them the training and tools they need to create a self-sufficient and sustainable future for themselves through gardening.

Susan Richardson’s short article entitled “Food Gardens Help Revitalize Chicago’s Englewood” profiles the community gardens that have sprung up in and throughout the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. She describes the benefits beautifying these formerly-vacant lots has had on the community and public safety, as well as identifies Englewood as a food desert that could greatly improve from the presence of food-bearing community gardens. Her account of the restoration taking place in Englewood provides a first-hand look at urban agriculture in action at the heart of Chicago’s most at-risk populace—the disenfranchised, low-income residents of what has been characterized as a “failing” area.

Englewood Heritage Station comm garden

Englewood Heritage Station community garden in Chicago IL (source: Englewood Heritage Station)

Community gardens aside, there are other ways to incorporate food security into our landscape designs, some of which are almost strictly decorative. I’ve recently seen this first hand at Randhurst’s outdoor mall, where edible greens and colorful peppers were planted amongst fall flowers. Darrin Nordahl, author of the book Public Produce, suggests using medians and lining our sidewalks with productive plants (such as replacing current city trees with fruit-bearing ones), taking urban agriculture to a level of widespread edible landscaping.

Dotting our concrete jungle with copious amounts of produce-bearing plants may not happen in Chicago within the next few years, but it would be an effective way in giving some citizens a small amount of food security through foraging. Additionally, it would give children in the community much more exposure to seeing food grow, which can be helpful even in a passive setting (as with medians or planters in front of businesses). Nordahl also does a great job of addressing food deserts for urban areas and using plants in schools with our children as a way to learn about food.

Geanna Pecaski McLennan, author of the article “’Ready, Set, Grow!’ Nurturing Young Children Through Gardening,” shows us that children from in low-income urban areas could learn so much from sowing seeds, tending sprouts, and eventually harvesting the fruits of their labor. Exposing at-risk children to the joys of nurturing a plant not only gives them a sense of accomplishment; it also makes them more likely to consume a higher amount of fruits and vegetables.

Such was the case with McLennan’s students—it even got many of the parents involved with growing and eating healthy food, which most likely would not have happened otherwise if the opportunity had not risen in the classroom. McLennan’s hands-on experience with the positive effects gardening has on children (and by extension, their families) in low-income urban areas is vital in grasping how beneficial and far-reaching the introduction of urban agriculture can be in our schools.

I’d love to see the greenery in Chicago grow exponentially in my lifetime, as I know our citizens and children will grow with it. Closing the gap left by food deserts, revitalizing empty lots and purely-decorative landscaping into being beautiful and practical sources of nourishment, and teaching our children how to turn a patch of dirt into dinner are all admirable ways for greenery to take root in our city, as well as in others. There is so much to gain and nothing to lose by implementing urban agriculture throughout the Chicago cityscape. We gain food security, small-scale sustainability, social justice, and beauty by moving towards a future that helps ensure our and our children’s education, environment, and overall health. So, go out and grow!


  • Nordahl, Darrin. (2009). Public produce. Washington DC: Island Press.
  • Pecaski McLennan, Deanna. (Mar 2010). “Ready, Set, Grow!” Nurturing young children through gardening. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(5), 329-333.
  • Richardson, Susan. (19 July 2010). Food gardens help revitalize Chicago’s Englewood. Seeding Chicago. Demand Media.

Nikki Braus is a senior Sustainability Studies major and Environmental Studies minor at Roosevelt University in Chicago IL.


Posted in agriculture, cities, courses, education, food, Roosevelt, students | 3 Comments

Oxfam Hunger Banquet @RooseveltU this Thursday, Nov. 16

Issues of food insecurity and homelessness are present on university and college campuses worldwide. Roosevelt recognizes that we are not exempt from the concerns of those students who identify in this way, and are dedicated to providing resources, support, and advocate for those in need.

Sponsored by the Black Student Union and the RU Counseling Center, the Oxfam Hunger Banquet provides a chance for us to address the severity of food insecurity and starvation as it relates to our community, and will assist in fostering a community of care that will allow us to join in the fight against inequality, injustice, and oppression. Oxfam is a global organization working to end the injustice of poverty.

On Thursday, Nov. 16th, 1-4pm in the Congress Lounge, come join us for a surprise dinner party, where the biggest surprise is learning your reaction to what’s on the menu! This event is free and open to all Roosevelt University faculty, staff, and students. Roosevelt IDs will be checked upon entrance to the event.

Please come and engage in a meaningful conversation about how food insecurity is prevalent and relates to our community while you learn more about issues of hunger, sustainability and how you can help. Please register for the event here.

If you are allergic to chicken or salmon, and/or have other dietary restrictions, please email

Posted in activities, community, education, events, food, Roosevelt, social justice, students

SUST 350 Service Team Tackles Fall Projects at Eden Place Nature Center & Farm

By Emma Vuillemot for SUST 350

Our SUST 350 Service and Sustainability course this fall at Roosevelt University takes place at Eden Place Nature Center for another season of working on Fuller Park’s very own nature center and urban farm. Thus far this fall season, a small but mighty team of students and faculty have worked at both the Nature Center and Eden Place Farm.

Eden Place Farm, 2017Sept (photo: E. Vuillemot)

For those who are new to the SUST Blog, Eden Place Nature Center and Farm is a non-profit urban farm and community green space located in Fuller Park on a plot of land that was once used as an illegal dumping site. Michael Howard, passionate community member and Executive Director of Fuller Park Community Development, once bemoaned this trashed site as an example of environmental racism and municipal neglect in a community plagued by violence and lead contamination. His family inspired the whole community and more to clear the site about 20 years ago,and since then it has transformed into a unique Nature Center that functions as an urban oasis: a nutrient-rich, tree-covered landscape that features native prairie grasses, animals, even a pond.

Cultivating microgreens at Eden Place Farm, Sept 2017 (photo: E. Vuillemot)

Eden Place Farm is where their vegetable crops are cultivated. Located about six blocks south of the original Nature Center site, several types of crops are produced and sold at their Saturday Farmers Market throughout the farming season. In addition to growing and harvesting crops and microgreens this fall, EPNC has their hands full hosting school field trips, day camps, and community events, one being Octoberfest — an annual fall family event for the community, featuring activities like a straw bale mountain, a pumpkin patch, and face painting at the Nature Center. All of the events and grooming of the grounds are the product of faithful and intrepid community members and volunteers. People from all walks of life can use this community asset to educate others about nature and conservation in an urban setting.

This semester’s SUST 350 offered a Chicago section as well as an online section for those who could complete an independent service project on a more flexible schedule. With this opportunity to spread sustainability and equity to other communities, registration resulted in six students enrolled in the online section and two students in the Chicago section. Professor Mike Bryson and students Daniel Krejsa and Emma Vuillemot take on the endeavor of prepping for EPNC for events like Octoberfest. Though they are merely three people strong, they have been able to complete several tasks at the Nature Center and Farm with the help of EPNC volunteers and employees.

Our straw bale pyramid (photo: M. Bryson)

One of their feats was creating the straw bale pyramid for children to climb at the Nature Center. On October 11th, the team tackled setting up the seemingly easy three-tier pile, but was first confronted with 20 ft. high walls of bound hay bales. This didn’t deter their power and determination to complete the project. Taking up to 11 bales at a time, Daniel, Emma and Mike carted over the bales to the site over the uneven terrain.

Hauling straw bales at Eden Place Nature Center, Oct 2017 (photo: E. Vuillemot)

Pound for pound, the strongest straw-hauling students at Roosevelt! (photo: M. Bryson)

Another one of their heavy-duty farm tasks was to help Troy Howard, managing director of EPNC and son of Michael Howard, and EPNC staff Benote Evans transport an industrial kitchen-sized refrigerator through one doorway, out and around the property, and back into the main doors with only centimeters of clearance for movement. Also at the Farm, the 350 team participated in harvesting of produce for the weekly farmers market, flipped large compost piles, and cleared extensive areas of weeds and invasive plants. One of the difficult tasks there was clearing a few rows of the soil for more vegetable crops. What made the tilling a bit more tedious and physical was the lack of heavier machinery, a common drawback for a non-profit urban farm that is as small as EPNC. On the other hand, the manual labor is excellent exercise!

All of the work to maintain the farm and animals has been solely managed by the Howards, bare bones EPNC staff, community members and volunteers, many of whom work behind the scenes of EPNC. Though this year’s SUST 350 group is considerably smaller than previous seasons, their presence is equally valued by EPNC members. Service learning and volunteership are key components to the function of the Nature Center and Farm because Eden Place can then thrive on the nourishment and care.

Emma Vuillemot is a junior Sustainability Studies major and Math minor at Roosevelt University in Chicago IL.

Posted in agriculture, courses, education, faculty, food, Roosevelt, service, students

Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program

The University of Michigan just announced that applications are open for undergraduate students interested in conservation science to do research over two summers supported by the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. Accepted scholars complete two 8-week summer sessions (in 2018 and 2019) and earn stipends of $4,250-5,200 plus expenses. Applications are due 31 Jan 2018. The following info is taken from the DDCSP website, which also provides links to opportunities at four other universities.

More than ever, organizations and government agencies that work to conserve land, water and wildlife need to attract and employ individuals from racial and ethnic groups that are largely absent in today’s conservation workforce. Launched by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in 2013, DDCSP responds to this need by increasing the number of undergraduate students from underrepresented groups who choose to pursue coursework and careers in conservation.

In this highly selective multi-year undergraduate research program, students will:

  • Experience extraordinary places such as the Grand Canyon, the Cascade Mountains, the California coast, the Everglades and the Great Lakes
  • Conduct research with and be mentored by leading academics in the conservation field
  • Build valuable research and leadership skills
  • Gain in-depth knowledge of land, water and wildlife conservation issues and challenges
  • Be exposed to exciting career options in the conservation field
  • Meet leading conservation thinkers and professionals of color
  • Gain a deeper understanding of the value of diversity
  • Form lifelong bonds with peers from across the country
  • Become a part of a growing lifetime network of Scholars

Students who have a passion for nature, or are driven to increase the diversity of students and professionals in the conservation field, are encouraged to learn more and consider applying to be a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar.

DDCSP is administered by five universities:  Northern Arizona University, University of California at Santa Cruz, University of Florida, University of Michigan (also see this pdf announcement) and University of Washington. With the exception of the program administered by the University of Florida, all DDCSP sites recruit students nationwide to participate in DDCSP.  The University of Florida partners with Cornell University, North Carolina State University, University of Arizona and University of Idaho to serve students recruited from those five institutions.

The Foundation encourages potential applicants to take a look at all five programs, as offerings and activity locations differ across DDCSP sites. For more information about the offerings at each DDCSP site, and to apply, please click on the links in the paragraph above. If you have questions, please contact the designated representatives listed on each university’s DDCSP webpage.

Posted in conservation, ecology, education, fellowships, research, science

Register @RooseveltU for Spring & Summer 2018 Classes

SUST alumni & students on the WB Rooftop Garden during Service Day 2017. (photo: M. Bryson)

Here’s a cheerful autumnal thought: advising and registration are now ongoing (since Nov 2nd) for the Spring & Summer 2018 semesters here at @RooseveltU. The Sustainability Studies program is offering a wide range of courses and we’re planning two exciting semesters of learning, research, and campus outreach projects!

Undergraduate students, please look over the Spring 2018 schedule using this coursefinder, check your remaining course requirements, and email or call your assigned academic advisor with your planned schedule and any questions you have about your upcoming classes. Your advisor will help you craft your schedule and provide you with an RU Access registration code so you can register.

Sustainability Studies courses offered in Spring 2018:

ACP 110 Primary Texts (MW 11am-12:15pm, Bryson)*
SUST 210 Sustainable Future (TTh 11am-12:15pm, Pickren)
SUST 220 Water (12-week online, 1/29-4/27, Jones)
SUST 230 Food (W 6-8:30pm, Gerberich)
SUST 240 Waste (8-week online, 3/12-5/14, Gerberich)§
SUST/ACP 250 The Sustainable University (M 2-4:30pm, Bryson)◊
SUST 310 Energy & Climate Change (T 2-4:30pm, Pickren)
SUST 320 Sprawl, Transportation, & Planning (12-week online, 1/29-4/27, Pickren)
SUST 330 Biodiversity (8-week online, 1/16-3/9, Hoffman)§
SUST 340 Policy, Law, & Ethics (Th 2-4:30pm, Hoffman)
SUST 395 Sustainability Studies Internship (by arrangement)

* First Year Seminars are open to new full-time undergrads with 12 or fewer hours in transfer credit.
§ These 8-week accelerated online courses are open to all students and synced with the Flex-Track adult degree calendar. They may be taken back-to-back.
◊ Students may register for either ACP 250 (Grounds for Change credit) or SUST 250 (Sustainability Studies credit).

Sustainability Studies courses offered in Summer 2018:

SUST 210 Sustainable Future (8-week online, 5/29-7/25, Pickren)
SUST 360 Writing Urban Nature (1-week intensive, 5/21-25, Bryson)
SUST 390 Special Topics: Rooftop Garden (on-campus + online, 5/29-7/25, Gerberich)

We know November is a super busy time of the academic year, but be sure to make a little time to get in touch with your advisor to sign up for the classes you need! For additional useful info, see this Advising Resources page on Prof. Mike Bryson’s faculty website.


Posted in courses, education, faculty, Roosevelt, students

Sociology, Environmental Justice, & Sustainability: Reflections by SOC Grad Student Shanti Brown

by Shanti Brown

As a second-year graduate student in sociology at Roosevelt University’s Chicago campus, my connection to sustainability and environmental justice stems from my longstanding interest in studying poverty and social justice. Sadly, the inequities of the poor also include inferior natural resources. Through my own personal experiences, and interest in the promotion of social justice, I have learned that poverty is and has long been a very complex phenomenon on both the domestic and global fronts. Specifically, I have learned that this phenomenon, combined with continued deep segregation, often means unhealthy communities for Blacks and Latinos in Chicago. Moreover, this city has long overlooked the depth of impact of harmful environmental factors which plague its residents.

From scholarly and community conversations about poverty, I am learning that poverty is not simply an economic crisis, but one which includes the compromise and degradation of environmental resources (exemplifed in places like Flint, Michigan). The complexities of poverty force us to examine the historically harmful environmental conditions of the poor. Even more, it is increasingly difficult to overlook antiquated city planning which continues to leave Black and Latino populations in Chicago at an environmental disadvantage. Polluted soil, toxic water supplies, and lack of access to fresh food on Chicago’s South and West Sides have long been a generational dilemma for many residents. Who decides who should have clean air and water?

As a sociology scholar and citizen, I’m interested in examining how urban and environmental planning has joined other failing institutions (education, criminal justice, employment) of the city to negatively impact many predominately Black and Latino communities in Chicago, the legacy of systematic racial segregation. The term environmental racism explains the current environmental injustices of many underserved communities in Chicago. Native Chicago author and activist Haki R. Madhubuti expressed his thoughts on this matter in his 1994 book Claiming Earth:

This book is not an investigation of the environment; rather, it is about questioning our noninvolvement in the environmentalist movement. Why is it that many urban children think that the source of all food is the corner grocery store or the chain supermarket? It is obvious to any thinking person that part of the health problem in urban areas is closely tied to fast-food restaurants, bad water, the over-consumption of processed foods, the non-availability of fresh fruits, vegetables, and up-to-date health information. Environmental racism is partially manifested by toxic dumps, incinerators, and landfills located to Black communities. It is also about the exploitative use of land and its resources to benefit the few at the deadly expense of the less powerful and less informed.

The recent merging of Roosevelt University’s Sustainability and Sociology programs in the new Department of Sociology, Sustainability, and Community Development is exciting because I believe that environmental injustices have taken a back seat in the critical dialogue about poverty. The interaction among these programs will allow for the intersections between sustainability and social justice to be more pronounced in the classrooms of Roosevelt. It is incumbent upon all of us to further understand the relationship between social justice and environmental justice theories and practices in building healthier communities for all.

Shanti Brown is a second-year graduate student at Roosevelt University working on his MA degree in sociology in the Department of Sociology, Sustainability, and Community Development. His research and writing interests include the impacts of poverty and racism in urban communities and their relation to environmental justice issues such as food access and toxic exposure.


Posted in cities, education, ethics, Roosevelt, social justice, students