EcoLab: A Peaceful Natural Area Within an Urban Environment
Assistant professor of biology strives to restore and protect Southwestern’s EcoLab.
February 07, 2023
February 07, 2023
Travel about a mile east from Southwestern’s campus entrance on Highway 29, and just off a single-lane dirt road, there is a secluded piece of land brimming with biodiversity. Known only to those curious enough to explore, the EcoLab is home to flora, fauna, and fungi surrounded by an urban environment that is fast encroaching.
Ecosystem ecologist and Assistant Professor of Biology Jennie DeMarco sees the EcoLab as a space where students can conduct research and enjoy a secluded natural area. It is also the home to her project-based course by the same name. DeMarco, with the help of her students, wants to restore and protect the 19 acres of land to make the space useable not only for Southwestern students and faculty but also for the Georgetown community.
The EcoLab land was historically Blackland prairie; however, in the last ten years, shrubs like Ashe juniper and mesquite have taken over. Before DeMarco could bring students to the EcoLab, she needed to make it safer. In August 2021, she worked with facilities to clear the land of trash and make it more habitable. Then, in the fall of 2022, DeMarco resurrected the EcoLab class, which had been previously taught by another professor but hadn’t taken place since before the pandemic.
“I brought students out here [to the EcoLab], we walked around, we observed,” DeMarco said. “We thought about both the needs of students and classes in terms of using this natural area and what are the barriers to using the space.”
After observing the EcoLab, DeMarco and her 13 students went back to the classroom to brainstorm potential projects and objectives. Students were divided into four groups based on their different interests and goals for the respective projects. As a part of the process, the groups wrote proposals and pitched them to their classmates and professor. The groups decided to create an entrance to the EcoLab, construct a trail system, develop a restoration plan to tame shrubs, and study the biodiversity.
Each group had big plans for their projects. The trail group, dubbed Take a Hike, wanted to create two trails within the EcoLab, aptly named Juniper for the shrub found throughout the area and Paideia for Southwestern’s interdisciplinary approach to education. Juniper, the shorter of the two trails, winds its way throughout the EcoLab, while Paideia would lead from campus to the EcoLab. The group studying biodiversity wanted to highlight the plants, animals, insects, and fungi found within the area through a BioBlitz.
However, only some goals could be met within the one-semester course, so the projects were simplified. The students who constructed trails were able to create Juniper, while Paideia will have to wait for a new group of students to spearhead. The biodiversity group decided to hone in on plants and made an ArcGIS StoryMap of terrestrial plants. This program showcases the plant’s ecological significance, fun facts, location within the lab, flowering period, etc. Marley Kiser ’26, who was part of the biodiversity group, says cataloging their research for other students and faculty to use was crucial.
“What was most important to us in our research was the general location of the plant, its ecological importance overall, specifically towards the EcoLab,” Kiser said. “We collected several plants we found eye-catching, and one of our group members devoted their time to drying out, pressing, and labeling these to be stored for future use.”
DeMarco said her students developed and wrote an extensive restoration plan for the EcoLab and hopes that future iterations of the course will see new students take on new projects and maintain those that were completed. This could include prescribed burning on a smaller scale or introduce grazing to thin some of the Ashe juniper found in the area. She would also like new students to look into animal species, insects, and microbial species because little is known about them.
DeMarco sees the EcoLab as an island habitat nestled within an urban landscape. With Highway 29 mere yards away from the entrance, she wants to ensure the species that call the area home are protected. DeMarco encourages her students to think critically about how the organisms will be affected by urbanization and how to stop the encroachment.
The future of the EcoLab is in the hands of the Southwestern community. DeMarco envisions more than just natural science courses utilizing the space. She would like to see the English and art departments use the area for nature writing or drawing, or the physics department could bring telescopes out for stargazing. Eventually, she would even like to host events to get the local community engaged.
“I think it’s incredibly important for communities, not just universities in an urbanized environment, to have natural areas where they can go and interact with nature,” DeMarco said. “That way, they can escape the hustle and bustle.”
DeMarco will continue to teach EcoLab during the fall semesters, and her work to help protect the biodiversity found there. Not only does DeMarco teach courses within the biology department, but she also researches to understand how restoration activities can be nature-based climate solutions. She recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation for a little over $500,000 for three years to study habitat restoration and its effects on climate change.