Growing up amid the lakes and woods of northern Minnesota, James Siems developed an appreciation for the benefits that accrue from time spent outdoors.
“I just feel more at peace,” said the Bemidji High School graduate, who will be a senior at Saint John’s University this fall. “I have a better understanding of myself whenever I have the opportunity to spend more time in nature.”
The double major in environmental studies and economics is getting plenty of chances to do that this summer.
Thanks to a research position made possible through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholars at the College of Saint Benedict and SJU, Siems is taking part in two projects under the direction of Troy Knight, an associate professor of environmental studies.
The first involves regular walks in the Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum, a span of 2,944 acres of abbey-owned land on the SJU campus that features a mix of prairie, oak savanna, oak and hardwood forest, conifer forest, lakes and other wetlands.
Siems’ task is to record which species of wildflowers are in bloom and at what stage – a project Knight launched five years ago.
“It’s a chance to see which plants are successful and which aren’t and that can really help with long-term management,” Knight said. “But I’m also interested in the impact climate change can have on bloom times and abundance change.
“So the hope is to keep this study up over 15 years and see how it goes.”
Hearing frogs and toads
The second project involves listening to the sounds of frogs and toads on recordings made at night from four recording devices placed in different locations throughout the arboretum.
“The idea is to listen to them and see how the breeding season may be changing over the long haul,” said Siems, who can identify the breeding calls he hears. “But also to compare it on a night-by-night basis to see if there are certain nights – maybe if it’s warmer or it’s rainy – when breeding is more or less likely to occur.”
Putting passion to use
Siems is one of 60 CSB and SJU students taking part in undergraduate research programs this summer in departments ranging from chemistry to theology and nutrition to psychology.
“A research experience allows students to take initiative by generating ideas that expand their existing knowledge and skills,” said Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch, the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholars at CSB and SJU. “It helps them become good problem solvers and get comfortable facing challenges that they might encounter during a project. They’re becoming innovative thinkers when they propose a new research question that will contribute new knowledge to their field.
“They’re learning how to develop meaningful, strong relationships with faculty mentors who are experts in their fields. And research provides the opportunity for our students to think holistically about how (it) connects to other experiences in their lives – like their coursework – and ultimately helps them deepen their understanding in their own field of study while also broadening their own perspectives … which is what we really love to see at liberal arts and sciences institutions like CSB and SJU.”
For Siems, it’s a chance to put his passion for the outdoors to practical use.
“You don’t have to be able to identify a flower to appreciate it,” he said. “But when you have the understanding that this plant is almost done blooming, or this plant is really rare, you gain an even better appreciation for everything you’re seeing out there. I love having the chance to be on campus in the summer and to get outside and explore.
“My future plans are to go to graduate school in some area of environmental studies, and I know research is an experience graduate schools really value. So that’s a real benefit to this as well.”
“He’s getting first-hand experience and working independently,” Knight added. “Labs in class give you a taste of what primary research might look like. But that’s only for a few hours each week. This summer, James is getting that experience every day. He’s out in the trenches building his skills and gaining perspective into how much time and effort goes into collecting data for projects like this.”
Cranes and skunks
Siems said his walks have already yielded memorable moments unrelated to his areas of study.
“You get to see some really cool things out there, especially when it comes to wildlife,” he said. “Earlier this summer, I was out in the back wetlands and there were two sandhill cranes about 10 feet away. I was able to observe them up close without them knowing I was there.
“Then, one night, I went around a corner and came across a skunk. I don’t know if she had babies or not, but she chased after me. I ended up having to go a different direction because that skunk was not going to let me pass.”
Siems said those are the kind of experiences that make studying at CSB and SJU so unique.
“Coming from Bemidji, I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of outdoors opportunities,” he said. “That’s something I was afraid of losing coming to college. But when I visited Saint John’s and saw the arboretum, I realized I wouldn’t lose that here. In fact, I’d have the opportunity to be even more immersed in it.
“That made (SJU) an opportunity that was pretty hard for me to pass up.”