Alysia Berns: Iowan Sense of Place

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“Education” does not end at the name of the bird or the physics of flight. The kind of education that shimmers offers a sense of place: during her time at Lakeside Lab, Alysia developed a first-hand, intimate knowing of bones, fish, birds and plants. While sinking deeper into the landscape around the Iowa Great Lakes, she grew closer to her peers, many of whom move through the world as informed as she is by their time at Lakeside.


If you’re lucky, education may take you deeper in addition to farther. When Alysia refined her college major from biology to conservation, Lakeside’s courses offered her a launchpad into an applied world of conservation. As Alysia’s passion took root at Lakeside, she also dug deeper into herself, relationships, and life within Northwest Iowa. Her roots tangled with long prairie roots as she learned new names of plants, animals, and her human peers alike.


“I feel very connected to Iowa, and I’m very passionate about Iowa conservation. The natural landscape here is minimal compared to agriculture or anything else. … When a lot of people think about prairie, they don’t automatically think of it as beautiful, but it really is. It is beautiful. Iowa has great farmland and that’s why it is all agriculture, but a lot of that is thanks to the prairie we had here before to make the soil so great.”


It’s true: on a state level, in a landscape that is 95% altered, schooling Iowans in this Northwestern gem of biodiversity affects the state at large. The Iowa Great Lakes area offers a case-study look at a slice of remaining native prairie land, just across the highway from monoculture agriculture, just across the footpath from lakes surrounded by housing development.


Pair the Iowa Great Lake’s unique ecological context with its history of discourse between conservationists, farmers, and people who enjoy lake recreation: the Iowa Great Lakes serves as an outstanding model of natural (and communal) health for the state of Iowa at large.


Alysia’s education roots reach back to the Iowa Great Lakes, having grown up in eastern Iowa. She is now based in Cedar Rapids, not so far from a landscape pitted by prairie potholes and the feel of family. Like different species of grasses growing from the same soil, she did not grow her interest in science alone. She speaks proudly of the cohort of students now in various occupations around the world. As a laboratory scientist who conducts medical research beyond her realm of conservation, she hubs a network of new-age Lakeside-alum scientists whose impact reaches around the world.


Near or far, the Lakes Area’s model of conservation, research, recreation, community involvement and place-based education is one worth sharing. Like many other alums, Alysia returns to the Lakes Area to visit Lakeside. Recently, she texted her Lakeside group chat to recruit participants for this “Lakeside Magic” alumni story project. Everyone – at least, virtually – responded immediately, coming home in an instant.


By Josie Hoien



“Artists and scientists are both asking questions about the world, they’re just doing it in different ways”
Alex Braidwood
Director, Iowa Lakeside Lab Artists-in-Residence Program
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