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Lea Richardson

PhD Candidate in Plant Biology and Conservation

Lea Richardson

Understanding how the plant populations depend on interactions in time and space is critical because climate change alters the timing of life-cycle events and human activity alters where organisms live.”

Lea Richardson is a PhD candidate in the Plant Biology and Conservation program offered through the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Chicago Botanic Garden. She studies how the timing of life-cycle events in plants and the spatial relationships between plants influence their Darwinian fitness. Her research on plant reproductive responses to fire and flowering time in the tallgrass prairie provides insight for conservation practitioners who conduct prairie burns and want to understand how burns impact plants. Lea was recently named a Presidential Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern University.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I'm an ecologist and educator who develops experiments in natural settings to test ecological theory. I examine how the timing of life-cycle events in plants and the spatial relationships between plants influence population growth and reproduction. Understanding how the plant populations depend on interactions in time and space is critical because climate change alters the timing of life-cycle events, and human activity alters where organisms live.

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
I went to undergrad at a younger than average age and I did not focus on ecology within my biology degree. After undergrad, I didn’t know my exact career goals, but I was passionate about education. I pursued a master’s in education and became a high school teacher of biology and chemistry in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until I was teaching about ecology and had an amazing opportunity to do fieldwork that I realized my life passion is to spend my career as an ecologist and educator.

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I admire my advisor, Stuart Wagenius. His research addresses critical questions that advance science while taking an active role in conserving and restoring one of the most imperiled habitats on earth: the tallgrass prairie. He sees everyone on the team as a scientist, including the high school teachers and students he employs as well as graduate and undergraduate students. I know from my teaching background the value of mentors allowing students to develop their own knowledge by providing just enough support to encourage independent learning. Even when I want Stuart to give me a quick answer, he lets me learn on my own while providing enough support.

How do you unwind after a long day?
I engage in practices that I find essential to my well-being. Things I do include playing piano, spontaneous and creative cooking, making art, and swimming. I also love interacting with my dogs, and other friends and family. Focusing on a healthy lifestyle is critical for my day-to-day enjoyment of life.

What inspires you?
Taking a walk outside never fails to inspire me, which is probably why I study ecology. I believe that paying attention and noticing small things can be extremely inspirational. I also tend to get my best ideas when I take a long walk.

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
I would strongly suggest becoming comfortable with certain uncomfortable moments, like asking for support, boldly articulating your ideas, and realizing that disappointing someone else isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s also important to release any fear of either success or failure. I didn't realize until recently how I have associated success with egoism or pretentiousness, and that has held me back from doing my very best. 

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.

I'm currently working in collaboration with North Hollywood Highly Gifted Magnet (the school in Los Angeles where I used to be a teacher) to conduct an experiment integral to my dissertation with high school student involvement. This is the first step in what I hope will be a central theme in my career: to go about conducting my research in a way that includes, educates, and inspires people to realize their own potential as scientists.

Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?

Ecology field research almost rarely goes as planned, but that doesn't mean you can start without a plan! When I was clearing dried invasive plants out of a field in California so that I could lay out my very first experimental plot, I had to rent a giant rear-tine tiller to clear the land. My generous parents were helping me, but we quickly ran into a roadblock: the soil was wet and clay-filled and would cake up on the tines of the tiller, making it dangerous to use. After the wave of stress crested, we strategized a new plan: hand-removal of the dried vegetation before using the tiller. In the end, it all worked out. This type of situation where a problem happens, and a solution needs to be figured out in real-time is a big part of the type of research I do. I’ve learned that even the best plans can't prevent these moments from happening more often than you would imagine!

Published: March 30, 2020

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