Ad Astra Award winner continues research in environmental science

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Professors at K-State not only teach classes, coordinate multiple sections of their courses and provide resources to students — they also conduct groundbreaking research.

One of these professors is Kendra McLauchlan, associate professor of geography, who recently received a grant to uncover the history of ecosystems in the Midwest.

“I really enjoy nature,” McLauchlan said. “I really like looking at landscapes and thinking about how they looked in the past and how they could possibly look in the future. I also hike. So when I hike, I like looking around at the plants and rocks and noticing other parts of the natural world.”

McLauchlan received an Ad Astra Award for her work. The awards honor the top 150 scientists in the state of Kansas.

“Winning the award made me really excited about the work we are doing,” McLauchlan said. “It’s important for people to figure out how they are changing the planet and how these different ecosystems have been changing over time.”

McLauchlan went on to say that the award is a huge motivator for her and her entire faculty on this project. She applied for the grant they are using in July 2009 and heard that she received it on Christmas Eve that same year. She said this award isn’t the end; rather, it is just the beginning.

“McLauchlan is an easy person to get along with,” said Joseph Williams, graduate research associate in the geography department. “She is pushing a lot of boundaries in this field. She is continuing to build a path between paleontologists and modern ecologists, which is not always regularly done. She is also someone who is well-connected with the field she works in.”

Williams is from the United Kingdom and traveled to the United States in October 2011 to work on this project with McLauchlan. He said the possibility to work in the United States and to work on something new and exciting encouraged him to come to the U.S. He also said he was excited about working with McLauchlan on new research methodology on this project.

“I did a fair amount of modern ecological work in the U.K.,” Williams said. “The work I did there was more short-term, like over a 50-year time period. The work we are going to be doing here will be looking over 10,000 years worth of sediment.”

The group of researchers is currently using three sites for their research. Two are forest areas at Comstock Lake and Devil’s Lake, both in Wisconsin. The third site is grassland at Fox Lake in Minnesota.

“We are actually leaving this Saturday to go up there for the initial research,” Williams said. “We will be getting core sediments from all three of the sites and we will be coring into the frozen-over lakes to get them.”

McLauchlan said half of this grant is actually about teaching. She had to find a way to use her findings in her research project in her classes and said that it is a simple way to show how research can be fun. She also said that having to teach about her research has made her more compatible to be able to communicate about her project.

“She is not someone who would ever make you feel inferior,” Williams said. “She is so approachable and so knowledgeable about what she teaches about. A lot of students find her approachable and say ‘hi’ to her when they see her on a sidewalk.”

One of the biggest hurdles McLauchlan faced was being innovative enough to interpret the data. She also said synthesizing the data between the three sites will also be difficult.

“When I won this award, I felt like I am still just beginning this project,” McLauchlan said. “But this also reminded me that we have our work cut out for us.”

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