Jennifer Fraterrigo | C-U Women Outdoors

Our C-U Women Outdoors series is all about highlighting the women in our local RuggedOutdoors community who are passionate about the outdoors. Meet Jennifer Fraterrigo, an Associate Professor of Landscape and Ecosystem Ecology who enjoys exploring all the natural world has to offer.

Name:Jennifer Fraterrigo

Associate Professor of Landscape and Ecosystem Ecology, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois

Tell us a little about yourself:
I grew up in a close-knit family in a suburban, working-class neighborhood south of Chicago. My parents strongly valued education and hard work, but also had a streak of adventure. My mom loves the outdoors, and because my parents didn’t have the means for expensive trips, we often drove to Michigan or Indiana to hike and camp. On a few occasions, we drove across the country to national parks, where we camped and attended programs with park naturalists. Those experiences were formative and sparked my interest in environmental science, but it wasn’t until the middle of my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that I became aware of the field of ecology. I went on to earn a master’s degree in Ecology at Colorado State University and a doctorate in Zoology at UW-Madison. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship, I joined the faculty at the University of Illinois. Along the way, I married my husband and had two children, who are now 11 years old and 14 years old.

Why are the outdoors important to you?
Simply put, being outdoors in natural environments makes me feel good. This is just one of the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems. Other benefits, broadly defined as ecosystem services, include the provision of fresh water, food, fuel, and medicine, and the regulation of disease, climate, and pollution. Unfortunately, these services are threatened by human activities that degrade ecosystems.

If the weather is nice on a Saturday, what can we find you doing?
As much as I love being outdoors, the reality is that I often catch up on cooking, cleaning, and laundry, as well as squeeze in some work on the weekends! That said, I’ve been camping several times over the past few months with my kids, who are both involved in Scouts BSA. As a family, we try to carve out time for a walk at the UI Arboretum or Meadowbrook Park, or a hike at a nearby nature preserve whenever possible.

Your research focuses on the cycling of nutrients and the maintenance of biodiversity. In layman’s terms, can you tell us a bit more about what that entails?
My research focuses on understanding what causes vegetation patterns to change and what the consequences are for the storage of nutrients and carbon in plants and soils. Right now, my work focuses on two main drivers of vegetation change: the introduction of non-native, invasive species and climate change. The research that my graduate students and I do helps us to predict how ecosystems may look in the future, where changes are likely to be pronounced and how ecosystem services, like those mentioned above, may shift as a result.

When most of us think of biodiversity, we probably don’t typically think of central Illinois. Is our ecosystem more diverse than we realize?
Yes, I think it is when you consider the diversity of plants, insects, and organisms that live in freshwater and in the soil. For example, there are 50 different species of trees in Hessel Park alone! Of course, most of these have been planted and many are not native to the region, but it is still amazing to think about how many different species can occupy a relatively small area.

Do you have any tips for how we all can contribute to preserving what we do have?
One way to contribute is by supporting land trusts and conservation groups, especially those whose mission is to acquire, restore, and protect ecologically important lands. There are also many volunteer opportunities to assist local organizations like the Champaign County Forest Preserve District with their efforts to manage and restore natural areas. Finally, there are everyday things that people can do to fight climate change. These involve making personal choices that reduce your carbon footprint and advocating public policies that support the development of clean energy and efficient transportation.

Do you get to travel to other places to study their ecosystems?
I have had the great fortune to work in some exceptionally beautiful places, including Yellowstone National Park, northern and southwestern Alaska, western North Carolina, and southern Illinois. I have also worked in less glamorous places, like a freshwater marsh in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, which was home to too many snapping turtles.

Besides field research, what other outdoor activities do you enjoy?
I enjoy hiking, camping, backpacking, canoeing, biking – really anything that allows me the opportunity to experience the outdoors without a lot of distractions.

What is one of the most difficult parts about your research?
One of the most difficult parts is when instruments don’t work as expected and prevent us from collecting data. For example, I deployed several sensors to remote sites in northern Alaska last year to measure how much carbon dioxide is being emitted from the soil. Initially, they seemed to be functioning fine, but, when we visited the sites several months later, we learned that the sensors had stopped working two days after we deployed them due to a glitch in their firmware. So, no data were collected for that entire time period. It was very frustrating.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Go outside and play.

What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Visiting our national parks and other iconic natural areas with my kids.

Is there a project that you are a part of that you're most excited about right now?
I am leading a project in northern Alaska that examines shrub expansion and its effects on ecosystem processes. Air temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as the global average, and the vegetation and landscape is changing rapidly as a result. Our goal is to understand and predict how shrub expansion will feedback to climate through its effects on belowground carbon cycling. I’ve had the opportunity to visit some very remote parts of Alaska and meet scientists from all around the world who are studying Arctic ecosystems.