Recent Advances in Biology lecture series explores urban ecosystems

On Monday, April 11, Depaul University Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Studies Jessica Vogt presented her research as part of the Recent Advances in Biology lecture series. The lecture was titled “Measuring Trees and Ecosystem Services in Urban Neighborhoods: Tree Survival, Growth, and the Benefits of the Urban Forest,” which took place in Room 102 of the Thomas A. Steitz Hall of Science.

The Recent Advances in Biology lecture series includes talks by Lawrence University faculty and scientists from other universities and is sponsored by Lawrence’s biology department. The series aims to explore new discoveries and address issues in biological research.

As a Lawrence alumna, Vogt earned a master’s degree in applied ecology and sustainable development and a Ph.D. in environmental science from Indiana University Bloomington. While at Lawrence, she studied environmental science and biology while minoring in anthropology. Her current research centers on the relationship between trees and people in urban spaces. When asked why she chose her area of research, Vogt recalled, “I loved how [urban forestry] combined so many of my interests—social/ and natural sciences, management, urban issues, sustainability, human well-being, applied research, interdisciplinary research [and] working directly with practitioners in the urban sustainability and greening field.”

Vogt’s lecture focused on the benefits of planting trees in urban spaces when taking into account factors such as tree maintenance and size. She explained how trees in spaces such as local parks, along streets and lawns provide numerous environmental and social benefits. Environmental benefits include reduction of heat trapped by city surfaces, storage of carbon emitted when fossil fuels are burned and management of storm water run-off. Its social benefits include noise reduction, additional psychological and aesthetic value, increased property values and increased social interactions among community members. One example of social interactions triggered specifically by trees was the case of a volunteer group, watering and planting trees together in their community. Vogt explained how her research included factors such as tree size, climate, housing values in the surrounding community, tree mortality and annual growth to calculate the value of urban tree maintenance. The study accounted for $300 as the average price of planting and maintaining a tree and included five U.S. cities. The study found that tree planting is a net benefit if the trees survive past 15 years. Vogt concluded that maintenance is crucial for the benefits of tree planting to pay back its cost.

The lecture room was filled with students and professors, many of whom study social sciences. Junior and biology major Clarissa Frayn said, “I gained a better understanding of the monetary and social role trees play in urban communities.” She went on to note, “I would like to find out more ways to improve long term water provisions for trees in urban areas and what the optimal and minimal amount of water that a tree can survive and thrive off of [is].”

As a Lawrence alumna, Vogt noted, “It’s wonderful to return to talk to former professors as [colleagues], and to meet with current students [and] see how the campus has changed, but the incredible students have remained the same!”

When asked about her advice for current students, Vogt offered, “[An important skill for students is] the ability to quickly gather information from reputable sources […] and being able to accurately and succinctly summarize it […] particularly for the environmental field where there’s so much misinformation out there.” She went on to say, “as a liberal arts student […] don’t ever forget your compassion for others and curiosity and an honest will to listen and understand. Particularly in the environmental and sustainability field, we really have to be willing and ready to listen to those with different opinions and figure out how to move forward and create an inclusive and sustainable future for all people everywhere.”

Vogt said, “I hope [the lecture] inspires any students thinking of a Ph.D. and joining academia to pursue their goals.” She noted, “I’d love to be a resource for current students and particularly for those seniors thinking about what’s after LU.” She also hoped that her lecture revealed how interdisciplinary contemporary environmental studies research is, and how students do not need to limit themselves to a single discipline for their work to have significant implications for the world.