After earning her master’s degree in environmental science in Indiana, Katharine Hogan worked as a vegetation field technician in the temperate rainforest in Washington, the Great Basin Desert in Nevada, the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, and the sagebrush steppe in Idaho before coming to Nebraska to work in grasslands. Now a doctoral student studying plant community ecology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she finds she is the one who has taken root.
"After graduating from Taylor University, I didn’t know what ecosystem I wanted to work in, so I figured I’d work in as many as possible and figure out, " Hogan explains. "I thought I would find a favorite ecosystem and stick with it. Well, it turns out I stuck with Nebraska because although I did grow fond of prairies, I really liked the people I was working with. "
Hogan worked as a Hubbard Fellow at The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska from 2016 to 2017, and then professor Craig Allen encouraged her to apply to the NRT at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She applied and became part of the first cohort of students. She is now studying how prairies change over time after disturbances.
"I’m looking at plant community data from before and after a severe drought in 2012, " Hogan says. " I want to look at how the species in grasslands fluctuate in abundance before and after such disturbances because that’s a sign of species with similar function compensating for each other and it’s a part of ecological resilience. "
In the past, she has observed that after a disturbance like a drought, more common species in an area may become less abundant and less common species then become more abundant, " compensating " for the more common species until they recover. She wants to look further at this and the plant traits that affect their greater environment and provide ecological services to humans and wildlife. With this information, scientists could better forecast how plant communities and the ecological services they provide to humans will respond to disturbances such as climate change.
Hogan says this information could be especially valuable to grassland managers. Grasslands provide many benefits, among them feeding cattle, improving soil fertility, and cleaning groundwater. Grassland managers maintain healthy grasslands by burning them and grazing them, just as wildfires and bison did years ago.
"Management of prairies is disturbance of prairies, " Hogan says. " So, the question becomes, how do you disturb a prairie so the community responds the way you need it to for your objectives?"
She says this "dynamic" aspect of grasslands makes them more interesting to her than other plant communities, like the forests of Vermont where she grew up.
"Grasslands are maintained by change and disturbance on a much faster temporal cycle than, say, forests are, " Hogan says. " There is something fascinating to me about an entire ecosystem that depends on being burned and grazed to continue existing. "
She hopes these research experiences will help her land a position as a staff scientist at an international conservation organization like The Nature Conservancy. She already is a fourth-generation conservation scientist, following in the footsteps of her mother, who homeschooled her through high school, and her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather.
She says she will not return to work as a seasonal field technician even though she enjoyed her time working in many different ecosystems across the country.
"When you’re doing seasonal work, it’s basically glorified living out of your car, " she says. "I was ready at the drop of a hat to put my stuff in a car and drive wherever, so I don’t really have a strong sense of place, but I also feel like I kind of found it here in Nebraska."
— Ronica Stromberg, National Research Traineeship Program Coordinator