In a sense, we are all connected by water. As the snow melts and spring rains fall across the Midwest, some of that water wends its way through the prairie, into the great Mississippi, and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of that water eventually evaporates into the atmosphere and drops as fresh rain across the Midwest, starting the cycle anew. Like the water cycle, Al Alder – a recent PhD graduate in marine science from the University of Auckland – expects that at some point he too will make the return to the tallgrass prairies, prairie potholes, and great lakes of the American heartland.
So what is it that draws people back to the humble field station in Northwest Iowa?
Al has lived along the Lakeside’s spectrum starting first as a student in 2013 and working his way into internships for the two summers that followed. He now aims to return to lakeside at some point in the future as an educator. I wanted to know what it was about Lakeside that kept pulling him back.
A cheery “Kia Ora, Josie!” started an enthusiastic report on where he’s at in his own cycle and how his time at Lakeside lab shaped his perspective and drove him to seek experiences at other field stations around the world. “Lakeside exposed me to a world outside of the stuffy labs at the University of Iowa’s biology department in Iowa City,” Al explained, “It gave me my first look at what it would be like to be a field biologist.” He now credits the field station as one of the most fundamental places of his development as a scientist and field researcher.
“There’s a tremendous need for people right now – especially [in] the restoration conservation space – that already have real-world experience,” he shared. “Up until my time at Lakeside, all of my education had been based on wrote memory, so I didn’t feel like I had the practical experience necessary to tackle some of the big ecological challenges of our time.”
“Lakeside was the first place where I was able to apply the concepts we learned in the classroom and work alongside and learn from people in the best classroom of all: the natural world.” he said echoing the great Thomas Macbride. According to Al, Lakeside helped him focus on developing himself as an applied scientist whose research would directly support at-risk environments.
“Lakeside was really the only course that gave me practical knowledge, right? That was the only place that I actually was able to learn these techniques and things that we read about but we never really put in practice. That’s why I want to go back: so that I can share my experience of the real-world – especially in restoration and conservation – so that I can arm the next generation of scientists that make their way through Lakeside with some of the knowledge I’ve gained operating in this space across the globe.”
The proximity to both world-class researchers and highly capable handymen at Lakeside was fundamental for Al to understand what practical skills and sets of experiences he needed to navigate both graduate school and the world outside of academics. Al learned that certain things simply need to be done (“like hand-pulling invasive parsnip out of prairies”); actions have consequences; and there’s a reason we research the natural world. With his boots on the ground, he transformed.
“You live in New Zealand and want to return to Lakeside?” I asked.
“I mean, yeah,” he responded, “I just think it speaks volumes that you travel so far and still feel this draw to come back to this place. It’s just kind of, at the risk of sounding totally cliché, magical.”
By Josie Hoien