Sara Johnson is a graduate student in the University of Illinois' Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences who works at the Illinois Natural History Survey in the Molano-Flores Lab. She studies the population and reproductive ecology of a rare Florida mint called white birds-in-a-nest (Macbridea alba) and uses mapping and modeling to better understand its distribution and ecology. The data Sara's collecting will inform best management practices for this rare species and hopefully help it persist on the landscape.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A professional figure skater! (*spoiler alert, I was never good at ice skating). I still struggle with this question and often feel like I still don’t have the answer. I always loved spending time outdoors and was always encouraged to explore a variety of interests. Like many kids of elementary age, I learned about sea creatures and immediately wanted to become a Marine Biologist. I interned at the Niagara Aquarium for a year to learn more about working in the field, but still think it would have been really cool to work on a research ship!
What drew you to your current field of study?
Growing up in a rust belt city surrounded by cancer research institutes, I thought that the only way to make a fruitful career in science was to go into medicine or biotech research. I started as a pre-med student in undergrad and really enjoyed the anatomy and physiology classes, but found a real passion for genetics. My advisor saw my excitement and pushed me towards working in a plant genomics and population genetics lab. I took a field ecology class and it definitely changed my life when I realized there was a whole world of people working on the ground and in the field doing great things for our planet everyday.
What do you love about your work at PRI?
I love the collaboration and support! There are always opportunities to learn, work together on projects, and everyone working at the PRI is friendly and helpful. There are often opportunities to help with outside projects and I love the engagement with coworkers. Some of the best people I have known during my time here have been people I met through the PRI and I am really grateful for all of the encouragement throughout my professional development here.
How will your work impact future generations?
My lab (and my master’s thesis) research focuses on rare plant species in rare habitats. I get the chance to work with governmental organizations making some big decisions regarding policy and land management and I hope the techniques I develop assist them with making management and conservation decisions. My hope is that with collaborative effort, we can gain a better understanding of how to care for unique habitats that are becoming fewer and farther between.