Hanke Faculty Achievement Award-Winner Lisa Carlson Dreams Big

The world is full of wonderful and mysterious things. Centralia College Botany and Biology Professor Lisa Carlson knows this first-hand. Her environmental research has taken her into the far reaches of the Alaskan wilderness and beyond, adding depth and insight to her scientific understanding.

Botony Program Photos - Outdoor lab -8Carlson wants the same experience for her students. To this end, she applied for and was granted spring and winter quarter sabbaticals. During this time, she will work on a variety of curriculum development projects – including research for a future student study aboard. “I’ve been wanting to develop a study abroad trip for Centralia College students to go do tropical ecology,” she said. “I really wanted to do it in college myself but to do it now in a way that I can share with my students would be even more fulfilling.”

Carlson wanted to travel to the study abroad site to lay the program’s foundation. Now, thanks to a Hanke Faculty Achievement Award, she can.

This award supports noteworthy activities, projects or equipment that enhance programs or professional development. Carlson’s award will do both. “Lisa’s plan to enhance current natural sciences curriculum and develop several new courses are great benefits for our students,” said Centralia College Foundation Executive Director Christine Fossett. “She plans to also explore and determine new locations for study abroad travel that will focus on local environments, botany and natural resource programs. Lisa’s instruction programs for our students are extremely valuable and her willingness to grow and enhance programs that benefit the instruction for our students makes her stand out as an extremely qualified recipient of this award.”

After a great deal of research, Carlson narrowed her destinations down to either Puerto Rico or Costa Rica. “Plants in both those places are totally amazing,” she said. “Both are tropical and they’ve got environmental variability in both.”

Carlson is looking forward to exposing her students to exotic plant life and showing them how it differs throughout various ecosystems and elevations. “Even within a tropical forest, you’re going to have layers of vegetation,” she said. “Things up in the canopy are very different than things on the ground. I want students to recognize that biodiversity in the tropics is a lot different than biodiversity in the temperate regions in which we live.”

During her sabbatical, Carlson will use her Hanke Faculty Achievement funds to travel to one or both locations and assess opportunities. She’s looking for locations with pre-existing infrastructure like canopy cat walks that allow students to observe ecosystems up close. “There are a lot of places that have field stations geared toward receiving groups of students for doing study, long term or short term,” she said.

Both Costa Rica and Puerto Rico have great potential. “Costa Rica is very well known for some of the best ecosystem preservation on the planet,” Carlson said. “A big part of their economy is eco-tourism so they have a lot of incentive to preserve their unique environment. They also have a lot of variation on what a tropical forest is like, including cloud forest. Puerto Rico is of strong interest to me because it’s one of the few true tropical places in the U.S. and there’s a few research stations there, including one branch through the U.S. Forest Service.”

No matter the destination, Carlson is planning a strong service component for the trip. “I want to do something to give back in appreciation of letting us come to visit,” she said. “It’s not just about seeing amazing plants and ecosystems – we’ll learn what it’s like to live in these places and how locals are interacting with the ecosystem.”

Carlson is considering assisting hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, which would also educate students on the socio-political side of ecology. “From an environmental side of things, social justice would be a good thing for students to learn and take home,” she said. “For example, hurricane recovery in Houston vs. Puerto Rico; it happens a lot faster in a place that’s more recognizably part of the lower 48. And it’s not just the hurricane, but climate change. How resilient are these people and ecosystems to our changing climate? Any place that has coastal regions will be severely impacted. In either Puerto Rico or Costa Rica, we’ll definitely spend time in coastal ecosystems and communities.”

Carlson completed her PhD research in Alaska, where she traveled extensively exploring everything from tundra to boreal forest. Once, she found herself on a small float plane, journeying to inaccessible reaches of terrain to assist her advisor with research. “It was just three of us: my advisor, the pilot and myself,” she said.

Carlson’s advisor wanted to explore a small lake in an especially remote area. Unfortunately, the plane couldn’t access it with the current weight load. “That meant they left most of the gear and me in the place we camped overnight,” Carlson said.

This happened to be on the extremely isolated North Slope. “I said, ‘Why don’t you write a note as to where you left me and leave it on the dashboard; that way, if the plane crashes, they’ll know where to find me,” Carlson recalled with a laugh. “That’s the most alone I’ve been in my entire life and the most alone I’d ever expect to be. It’s an example of the kind of totally different experience you can have when you go to a totally different environment.”

Carlson is eager to provide these kinds of thought-provoking and perspective-shifting experiences for her pupils. “There’s just all sorts of cool stuff in the world,” she said, “amazing and different than what we have at home.”

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