As the UW-Madison Arboretum’s eighth director, Karen Oberhauser enjoys the quiet patch of forest and prairie in the midst of the city the way many do, with walks and bike rides to admire its beauty.
But as she grows more involved in research and projects at the Arboretum, where she took over as director on Oct. 1, Oberhauser is hoping that others see it as more than just a serene place to walk, run or cross-country ski.
“Our hope is that at least some of those people that are using it for recreation or respite will get involved and learn more about the land,” Oberhauser said, “learn some of the challenges of maintaining this land in the middle of an urban area, take some of our classes, go on some of our free walks and use it in more ways.”
And in the process, she said, perhaps some will become the citizen scientists that she hopes will assist the many research projects ongoing at the Arboretum as part of its function as an outdoor laboratory.
During her first months on the job, Oberhauser said she’s been getting to know the Arboretum and the staff. She’s walked the 17-plus miles of trail across the Arboretum’s 1,200 acres and visited eight of the Arboretum’s 11 outlying properties, which are located outside of Madison.
“I was pretty excited about what I learned,” she said. “Of course, the land is incredible. It’s an honor to be working here. The people are amazing. It’s just a really dedicated and knowledgeable staff, and in many ways I feel like I’m joining a well-oiled machine, which feels good.”
Oberhauser is a Wisconsin native, but apart from a year getting a teaching certificate, and visiting her daughters who studied at UW-Madison, she hadn’t spent a lot of time on campus. She grew up in Clintonville, then attended Harvard University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in biology.
After taking time off to work as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco, Oberhauser earned a teaching certificate at UW-Madison, then taught biology, chemistry and earth science in Onalaska for three years. From there she attended graduate school in ecology, evolution and behavior — kind of a fancy way of saying zoology — at the University of Minnesota, and remained there first as an adjunct professor, then as a full faculty member starting in 2002.
What led her to the Arboretum, she said, was a desire to do something different in her field, something other than another faculty job or a traditional academic leadership post. When the job at the Arboretum came up, she said, “it just seemed perfect. I still kind of pinch myself that I applied for one perfect job and I got it.”
While at Minnesota, Oberhauser became an expert in monarch butterflies. At first she studied them, she said, because they were an “organism of convenience” for her, “a good species to answer specific questions she had about how the world works.”
But with graduate students, she expended her research focus, studying monarch diseases, migration and the environmental cues that trigger migration. She and her students did research at monarch overwintering sites in Mexico, where most monarchs in the world cluster into a very small area. For about the past 10 years, Oberhauser said, her research has been focused on conservation, as monarch butterfly numbers have plummeted.
Oberhauser is on the board of a small nonprofit organization, called the Monarch Butterfly Fund, that raises money to support monarch conservation in Mexico. She is also co-chair of the Monarch Joint Venture, an umbrella organization of groups working on monarch conservation in the U.S. The Arboretum is now part of that organization.
“Monarchs depend on habitat, and what the Arboretum is all about is habitat,” she said. “So yeah, it’s a great connection.”
There’s plenty more going on at the Arboretum. The diverse property plays a pivotal role in storm water management for Lake Wingra, Oberhauser said, which is ringed about two-thirds around by Arboretum lands.
“Storm water is a huge problem for us but it’s a great opportunity for studying how cities manage their storm water,” she said. “We’re doing this huge service for the city of Madison and Dane County by improving the quality of Lake Wingra and the Yahara River watershed. So that’s a big focus of our research.”
Another is prairie restoration. Curtis Prairie, planted by botanist John T. Curtis and famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, is the planet’s oldest prairie restoration. That and Greene Prairie, which Oberhauser said was planted differently using lessons learned from Curtis Prairie, are the focus of research.
Oberhauser calls it “humbling” to follow in Leopold’s footsteps, and thinks often of the legacy of those who came before her, and the legacy she’ll leave. But the team that works with her is part of that legacy as well.
“It’s humbling,” she said, “but it’s kind of empowering that we build, that we really stand on the shoulders of giants, which provides a really good foundation.”
Another focus is citizen science, in which the public gets involved in helping with scientific tasks, such as data collection. An example of that, Oberhauser said, is citizen involvement in work being done to protect the rusty patch bumble bee, which has been found at the Arboretum.
She’s hoping to build on that, and has talked about ways to work with the state Department of Natural Resources and other entities to train citizen scientists.
Oberhauser said that she also wants to work more with UW-Madison faculty to involve the Arboretum more in their research.
“I think it’s a perfect place for graduate students and undergrads to do research, so we’re looking to build those connections with campus, but also to really increase involvement with our staff.”