Research Interests

Plant Communities of Northeast Iowa

The Palezoic Plateau of northeastern Iowa is a place of surprising biodiversity. The rugged hillsides were difficult to clear for farming, so they still support hardwood forests, goat prairies, and rare cliff habitats. Cold water seeps create small wetlands, home to several rare plant species. Students interested in spending a summer at Luther can find plenty of opportunities for plant ecology research projects.

Anna Burke (’15) is continuing research in forest seeps in Winneshiek County. She is completing vascular plant surveys, water quality, testing, and is searching for rare Baltimore checkerspot butterflies which use a rare wetland plant for their reproduction. Her work is funded by a grant from the Iowa Science Foundation.

Brian Kurtz (’15) worked on the documenting the rich plant diversity of Malanaphy Springs State Preserve. He collected hundreds of vascular plant specimens for accession into the Luther College Herbarium, and initiated the first ever inventory of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) in the preserve. His work was funded by a grant from the Iowa Science Foundation and the Dean’s Office.

Shane Steele (’12) spent the summer of 2010 conducting plant surveys in small forested wetlands in the area around Decorah for his senior project. His work was funded by a grant from the Dean’s Office.

Eric Sievers (’11) conducted research on the pattern of herbivory by the moth, Leucanthiza dircella, on leatherwood (Dirca palustris) at Twin Springs Park in Decorah. Eric also assisted with conducting plant surveys on an algific talus slope located on the Luther College campus.

Stephanie Tomscha (’07) entered data from the original Public Land Survey in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties into a database, allowing us to make maps of the mid-19th century distribution of tree species across the landscape.

Fire and Vegetation History of the Northwest Wisconsin Sand Plain

In this project we seek to better understand the interactions among climate, vegetation, and fire in the “pine barrens” of northwestern Wisconsin. We use pollen and charcoal preserved in lake sediments to reconstruct fire and vegetation history over thousands of years. Knowledge of the behavior of fire and vegetation under past climates may help establish guidelines for restoration and conservation of pine barren ecosystems.

This research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to Luther College and has been conducted in collaboration with researchers and students from the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Recent Student Projects


Madeline Kofoed (’14) and Katie Storey (’15) are continuing their projects this year. Katie has a received a grant from the Dean’s Office to engage in a summer research project. She seeks to reconstruct early-Holocene paleoenvironments near Metzger Lake using charcoal, pollen, and fungal spores (from mastodon dung!) contained in lake sediments ranging from 13.000 to 6,000 years old.


Shelby Eaton (’13) continues work on the analysis of an 8,000 year-long fire history record from Metzger Lake, WI. Katie Storey (’15) has joined the lab and is focusing on the most recent 1,500 years of this record. Her objectives are to see how fire history may have been affected by climate changes during the transition from Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age.

Madeline Kofoed (’14) received a grant from the McElroy Foundation for her project, The impact of Mid-Holocene climate on fire regimes on a sand plain in northern Wisconsin.

Jimmy Marty (’12) and Chris Nevala-Plageman (’11) presented the results of their senior research projects at the American Quaternary Association Biennial Meeting in Duluth, MN. The meeting was held in June, 2012, on the heels of a devastating flood. The title of their presentation was, Holocene climate history of northwestern Wisconsin reconstructed from lake level changes.


Shelby Eaton (’13) and Shaun O’Neill (’12) continued work on the analysis of an 8,000 year long fire history record from Metzger Lake, WI. Madeline Kofoed (’14) joined the lab part way through the year to learn the ropes and develop a project proposal for a collaborative research study.

Jimmy Marty (’12) completed his senior research project, The plant macrofossil record of lake level changes at Cheney Lake in the northwestern Wisconsin sand plain. He presented this work at the Midstates Consortium for Math and Science Conference (Washington University, St. Louis, MO) and the St.Croix Research Rendezvous (St. Croix, MN). Jimmy continues working on lakes and wetlands in his job at the LacCore lab at the University of Minnesota.


This year Chris Nevala-Plagemann (’11) completed a senior honors project, A late- Holocene history of fire and drought at Cheney Lake: has local climate affected fire regimes in northwestern Wisconsin? He presented his research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Ithaca, NY, and at the annual spring research symposium at Luther College. He was also accepted into the medical school at the University of Minnesota to begin his training in the fall of 2012.

Jimmy Marty (’12) joined the lab and began helping with the analysis of the Metzger Lake sediment core. During the summer he began his own research project through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program in the Geology Department at the University of Minnesota. He presented results from this work at and the University of MN Summer Research Symposium and at the annual spring research symposium at Luther College.

Shelby Eaton (’13) continued learning the art of analyzing charcoal from lake sediments. She began the daunting work of analyzing an 8,000 year-long fire history record from Metzger Lake, WI. Shaun O’Neill (’12) also began working on this long sediment core.