Published: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 by the Office of Public Affairs
Author: Mitch Davis, Director of Public Affairs
DURANGO, , Colo. — Drive a short distance north of Durango and it's still easy to see the evidence of the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire. The husks of dead trees line the mountains surrounding Vallecito Reservoir, for instance. Every year, forest fires like Missionary Ridge burn across the country, which makes Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Julie Korb's research even more important.
For this work and more, she was chosen as the recipient of the Featured Scholar Award for the fall 2009 term.
In 2002, Julie helped create a research project that brought in students from Northern Arizona University and Fort Lewis College to study long-term forest restoration in areas like those affected by Missionary Ridge. Specifically, the research project is looking at ponderosa pine and warm dry mixed conifer forests.
"With forest restoration, the goal is to recreate the structure and function of a forest so that it can be self-sustaining," she explains.
Fort Lewis College Associate Professor of Biology Julie Korb was chosen as the Featured Scholar for the Fall 2009 term.
Forest fires are a natural process in nature and some trees have evolved mechanisms that allow them to survive fires that burn on the surface. However, these survival mechanisms are useless when fires burn as crown fires in the canopy of these trees. It is important to recognize that all crown fires are not bad for nature and that some forest types, such as subalpine forests at higher elevations, actually depend on crown fires for survival.
Julie and her students are looking at a dozen 40-acre plots of forest that have either been thinned and burned or just burned without any thinning. In its seventh year, the project is in its final phases as the results are being analyzed.
Such a large and complex research project would fill the plate of many professors. For Julie, it's only one of many she's currently involved with. She's also working with the Southern Colorado Plateau Network (SCPN) to conduct invasive weed surveys at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument and Aztec Ruins National Monument. FLC students are assisting her with these projects as well.
"We're really trying to look at, not only what invasive species are there, but to correlate what environmental variables are associated with the invasions," she says of the project. "Why are we seeing higher abundances of invasions occurring in different areas of the park and how can we mitigate and incorporate our results into weed management plans for the monuments?"
Julie also has two new research projects just getting underway. One, a study of the epidemic of dying aspen trees, or Sudden Aspen Decline, will be conducted in partnership with Dr. Erin Lehmer, one of her colleagues in the Fort Lewis College Department of Biology. Among the questions for Julie and Erin: what are the ecological effects of the aspen dying and how will this change forest composition and structure?
The second new project is taking place in Pagosa Springs and will be led by a recent FLC graduate. Pagosa Springs is looking at the possibility of using smaller diameter trees-some of the trees that have altered the traditional makeup of ponderosa pine and warm dry mixed conifer forests-as an alternative fuel source. It might be a good idea, but Julie will be looking at any potential problems that might arise, such as changes in soil compaction and understory vegetation with the removal of the smaller trees.
It's a lot of work, but Julie has two overriding goals in her research, in addition to the goals specific to the projects themselves. First, she wants to get her research into the hands of the managers who make the real world management decisions. That way, good science can drive decisions rather than human perceptions alone.
An example of where this goal has succeeded is her work as a consultant on projects such as the Vegetation and Cultural Management Plan for Aztec Ruins National Monument and the Fire Management Plan for Mesa Verde National Park.
Second, good science can drive her students' interests and help her teach more effectively in the classroom.
"If we as faculty aren't doing science, we cannot get students excited and invigorated about doing science," she asserts. "Students want to see how what they're learning ties into the world."
And it's not only students that want to learn how Julie's science ties into the world. She is a regular presenter at conferences across the country. Since beginning her career at Fort Lewis College, Julie has authored or co-authored 17 oral presentations and 13 poster presentations at a variety of conferences.
She also has ten manuscripts and two book chapters to her credit for that same time period. One of her peer-reviewed papers came from data collected by her students as part of a reintroduction Colorado River cutthroat trout study led by the Colorado Division of Wildlife and assisted by FLC's Community-Based Learning and Research Program through her Ecology of the Southwest classes.
"The dissemination of research and attendance at professional conferences is an important way of staying current in one's field of research and allows me to use current research examples in my classroom" she says.
Not surprisingly, it was a research project during her own education that got Julie passionate about science and set her on the path towards becoming a professor.
She attended CU-Boulder where she earned a bachelor's degree in physical geography with a minor in geology and a master's degree in field studies. After taking a year to teach ecology to urban youth with the Wonders in Nature-Wonders in Neighborhoods (WIN-WIN) Program, she went to Northern Arizona University where she received her Ph.D. in forest science, ecosystem science and management.
During her studies, Julie spent four weeks in the Arctic floating down the Hood River studying the region. Despite being surrounded by fascinating animals and geology, it was the plant life that really caught her attention and solidified her passion for plant ecology.
"It was an intensive field ecology class," she says of the Arctic trip. "Today, FLC Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Cynthia Dott and I co-teach field ecology. I love that the class that really hooked me on science-I took it when I was a junior-is what I get to teach now here at Fort Lewis College."
In all her classes, she tries to use her work outside of class to further inspire her students. Proof positive of the success of her efforts is the success her students find in their own research projects and post-graduate education.
"Six of my students that I have mentored for independent research have presented at professional scientific conferences," she says.
With all she does as a teacher and a scientist, one might not realize that Julie has a life outside of her work, but she does. She spends time enjoying all the outdoor activities Durango offers: working in her native plant beds and garden, attending music festivals with her family, reading, dancing or indulging in her love of art and photography. Then there's her most important project of all: her husband, her five-year-old son and her two-year-old twin son and daughter.