Jennifer Tank

Ludmilla F., Stephen J., and Robert T. Galla Professor of Biological Sciences, Director of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative

Jennifer Tank

It is easy to regard “real” nature as something far away—a pristine stream or misty forest that we visit while on vacation at a national park or some other protected place.

As someone who grew up amid the natural beauty of northern Michigan, I also have a special affinity to beautiful places. Yet as a stream ecologist, I know that nature is important wherever we find it.

Here in the Midwest, nature must also coexist with the working landscape of agriculture. Our streams, rivers, and lakes provide both drinking water and irrigation for the crops that make America a breadbasket for the world.   

My research focuses on how human activities, such as nutrient runoff from farm fields, affects water quality and stream health. As one example, we’ve learned that by improving the design of drainage ditches, and planting winter cover crops after fall harvest, farmers can build soil fertility and filter out fertilizer nutrients that cause pollution. Such conservation practices keep fertilizers on the fields where they’re needed to increase crop yield—not washed into waterways where they create harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie or low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico.  

But as important as sound science is to conservation, strong relationships are also invaluable. The trust that Notre Dame has built, through the Environmental Change Initiative, with Indiana farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Nature Conservancy has been essential to our research. Together, we have created win-win conservation solutions for farmers and the environment that are now embedded in policies at the state and federal levels.

The more we adopt these sustainable practices, the more we’ll come to see that all nature, whether down the road or a thousand miles downstream, is worthy of our stewardship.

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