Prairie Research Institute



In collaboration with the Graduate College’s Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP), PRI is offering hands-on summer internships that will enable undergraduate students from populations underrepresented in graduate study at Illinois to explore careers in applied science. This opportunity is open to students at any U.S. undergraduate institution.

During the 8-week summer program, interns will be immersed in hands-on field and lab projects, led by scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Water Survey, and Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. Interns will also participate in professional and career development activities and will learn about the pathway to graduate study.

Each summer intern will receive:

  • a $4,000 stipend
  • funds to cover travel to/from Urbana-Champaign
  • on-campus housing and meals, plus supplies for workshops and symposiums

There are opportunities in atmospheric science and climate; biology, ecology, and environmental science; sustainable energy; and water supply and safety.

See some specific applied science opportunities we’ve offered below.

The application deadline has passed for Summer 2023. Please check back next year for new opportunities!

Summer 2023 Programs

Improved Lidar Observations of Atmospheric Turbulence

Dave Kristovich, PhD
Illinois State Water Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

One of the major ways that the environment at one location can be impacted by pollutants released into the air from remote surface sources is through long-distance transport by winds at high altitudes in the atmosphere. Even though many sources are close to the ground (e.g., vehicles, factories, etc.), atmospheric motions (updrafts, downdrafts, turbulence) readily move pollutant gases and particles upward to higher altitudes. The UIUC/PRI/ISWS scanning Doppler atmospheric lidar can observe these atmospheric motions on an exceptional high-resolution temporal and spatial resolution. The UIUC/PRI/ISWS lidar is scheduled to be upgraded to allow for much-improved observations of air motions and turbulence. These improved observations, in combination with a nearby source of smoke, provide us an unprecedented opportunity to quantify relationships between atmospheric dispersion and the atmospheric motions that are responsible. The SROP student will help our research group evaluate the quality of the new observations to support future field projects. This research opportunity will allow the student to take field lidar observations over one to two 5-day periods, analyze the observations to quantify updraft/downdraft motions in the lower atmosphere, improve understanding of the new turbulence observations and relate these to dispersion and movement of a nearby smoke release. We hope also to have the opportunity to observe the beginning stages of development of deep convection due to the observed air movements. Note that if there are difficulties or delays in upgrading the lidar system, the student will have the opportunity to do most of this work using already-collected observations.

PFAS Removal and Destruction by Biochar

Wei Zheng, PhD
Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The occurrence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment, coupled with their known adverse effects on public health, has been recognized as an emerging issue. Our research aims to develop an innovative and cost-effective hydrothermal technology to destruct PFAS adsorbed on designer biochars, while at the same time reactivating the spent sorbents. The undergraduate student will conduct a laboratory study to generate designer biochars to capture PFAS from wastewater and then destruct PFAS adsorbed on the spent biochars using a hydrothermal liquefaction system.

Implementing HAWQS for Hydrologic Modeling of a Watershed in Illinois

Elias Getahun, PhD
Illinois State Water Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The Hydrologic and Water Quality System (HAWQS) Version 1.0 is a web-based interactive water quantity and water quality modeling system that can assist states, local governments, and others with water quality protection decision-making. The core modeling engine of HAWQS is the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), which is one of the most widely applied, public domain models. HAWQS provides users with interactive web interfaces and maps; pre-loaded input data; outputs that include tables, charts, and graphs; a user’s guide; and online development, execution, and storage of a user’s modeling projects. Under the investigator’s guidance, the undergraduate student will conduct the following activities: (1) learn how to set up watershed models using HAWQS, (2) develop a HAWQS model for one of the watersheds in Illinois, (3) learn how to conduct hydrologic model calibration and validation, (4) set up climate change scenarios and evaluate its hydrologic impact on the watershed and (5) prepare a poster presentation of this research. This summer research opportunity will provide the student with watershed modeling skills that will be essential for future research work involving watershed studies.

Solar Farms: Ecological Traps for Dragonflies?

Jason Bried, PhD
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Many dark, reflective surfaces (dark-colored cars, oil slicks, polished black gravestones) look like water to reproductively active dragonflies but are obvious dead ends for life-cycle completion. Utility-scale solar energy farms are spreading across the Midwest and may pose yet another ecological trap for dragonflies. The student will help to answer this open question through field activities divided into two parts. First, they will help to catch and mark dragonflies at ~5 ponds (just south of campus) over a 2-3 day period. Working with a volunteer field crew (4-6 people), the student will learn about dragonflies while having fun catching them. The next part features the unusual experience of surveying dragonflies at solar energy farms. The student will visit UIUC Solar Farms 1.0 and 2.0 located immediately south of campus, spending 5-6 hours per farm (over 2 days) recording species, sex, marking, and behavioral observations. Safety training and inside access to each farm will be coordinated with another UIUC research team already working onsite (Dolezal lab, Department of Entomology). These interior surveys will be followed by several repeat days of observations from along the perimeter fencing, completing one full lap per farm (estimated to take 4-5 hours total per day). The total fieldwork schedule would require about 20 days, split between early June and early July, allowing sufficient opportunity within the SROP timeframe for data entry/analysis, poster preparation, program training and networking activities.

Field Testing a Rapid Assessment Tool for Illinois Wetlands

Suneeti Jog, PhD
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Assessing the health of wetlands effectively yet efficiently is important for conservation, restoration and mitigation, especially during the current climate crisis. A master’s student at INHS funded by the Midwest Climate Adaptation Center is in the process of developing a rapid assessment method for Illinois wetlands. This tool needs to be field tested in the summer of 2023 and to accomplish this, the undergraduate student will accompany the graduate student (and sometimes the mentor) to various wetlands across Illinois. The student will eventually evaluate the efficacy of the tool, especially in comparison with other well-established, albeit time-consuming, methods to determine if it can be used as a surrogate for intensive field sampling methods involving botanical expertise. The undergraduate student will assist the master’s student in conducting field surveys of wetland plants, deploy the Illinois Rapid Assessment Method for a variety of wetland types, learn to identify and assess wetland quality based on vegetation, and learn to use other well-established Environmental Protection Agency wetland assessment techniques used by the scientific community and agencies in the midwestern United States. This project will culminate in a poster presentation and is well-suited for a conference presentation. The results of this study will be incorporated in the larger framework of a guide to be developed by the graduate student.

Surveys of Pollinators and Other Insects in Conservation Grasslands

David Zaya, PhD
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

We are investigating how different methods of restoration in former agricultural fields impact plant and insect communities. We will be examining multiple guilds of insects within the terrestrial community through sweep-netting, pitfall traps, and butterfly observations. Part of the work will include characterizing monarch butterfly behavior in different types of grasslands. We will also use quantitative methods to determine the species and abundance of forbs and woody plants that attract floral visitors. The internship will provide the opportunity to learn about the plants and insects of Illinois grasslands in a field and laboratory setting.

Students will gain experience with quantitative plant sampling, insect collection and preservation and insect identification to order. Tools that will be used include microscopy, dichotomous or visual keys, plant collection materials (such as plant presses) and field tools used for navigation and transect alignment (GPS and compass). The students will also get hands-on experience with important ecological concepts, such as restoration, interspecific interactions, behavioral ecology and observational study design.

Research questions that will guide this work include: How do different vegetation management strategies (such as seeding, burning) affect the plant community? How does monarch behavior shift with multivariate changes in the plant community (in particular, the abundance of nectar plants and milkweeds)? Does diversity of the plant community predict diversity of the insect community?

Herpetological Monitoring Methods

Michael Dreslik, PhD and Andrea Colton
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Interns will learn herpetological monitoring methods by participating in Population and Community Ecology (PACE) Lab activities, with a primary focus on Ornate Box Turtle monitoring. Interns will track turtles using radio telemetry, record GPS locations and record habitat measurements. In addition, interns will have the chance to participate in other herpetological monitoring methods such as visual encounters, detector dogs, and hoop/minnow trapping surveys for snakes, amphibians and freshwater turtles. Interns will also have the opportunity to explore other branches of the PACE lab including bats, freshwater mussels, fish and pollinators of Illinois. Interns will gain valuable experience with equipment, data collection/management and monitoring methods integral to future careers in wildlife ecology. Some research questions the student could answer during this program include: How large are the home ranges of turtles at the study site, and do they differ between sexes? How do movement patterns vary throughout the summer? Do turtles selectively use habitats containing certain plant species or communities?

Advances in Understanding Illinois Terrestrial Arthropod Biodiversity

Thomas McElrath, PhD
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Arthropods are the most diverse group of organisms and they are hugely important in nearly all ecosystems. Although many types of arthropods are poorly studied, the extensive specimen collections held by the Illinois Natural History Survey provide a rich opportunity to gain understanding and make unexpected discoveries. For this project, the student will choose a focal group, such as centipedes, thrips, beetles or flies, that has not been comprehensively surveyed in Illinois. They will spend time databasing and identifying that group in the INHS Insect Collection while learning best practices in insect mounting, preservation and data stewardship. Two or three local field collecting trips will also be arranged to suit the student’s project and add specimens to the collection. Finally, the student will summarize and present their findings at the end of the summer. Potential results include finding species worthy of conservation in new sites, adding new species to the collection, finding new state records or documenting range expansions to human activities or climate change.

Investigating Insecticide Resistance in Mosquitoes

Chris Stone, PhD
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Mosquitoes throughout Illinois are showing concerning levels of resistance to commonly used insecticides. We aim to investigate whether this resistance is making mosquitoes harder to control. As part of this research, interns will work closely with members of the INHS Medical Entomology Lab (including a PhD student mentor) and the Wheaton Mosquito Abatement District in DuPage County to perform experimental trials to test the effectiveness of the insecticide sprays they use against mosquito species that are important vectors of West Nile virus. Additionally, the work will include characterizing mechanisms of resistance using enzyme assays. There will also be opportunities to be involved in mosquito and arbovirus surveillance fieldwork. The research is expected to lead to a presentation at the Illinois Summer Research Symposium, other conferences if feasible for the student (e.g., the annual meeting of the Illinois Mosquito and Vector Control Association) and a publication in a peer-reviewed journal (e.g., the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association).

Monitoring Carnivore Distribution and Abundance Throughout the State of Illinois

Bianca Saftoiu, PhD, and Max Allen, PhD
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

This internship will equip students with the skills needed to use camera traps to learn where different wildlife species are found, assess their abundance and also monitor their behavior. Photos collected from about 100 camera trap stations throughout Illinois over 6 months will be included in this study, including photos the student will retrieve from previously set cameras. 

Students will learn to use computer software to tag the collected photos by recording identified wildlife species and the number of individuals present in each photograph. Additionally, the student will get training in how to rigorously design camera trap studies to ensure that valid inferences can be drawn from the data. Appropriate training will be provided for using the software with precision and accuracy to identify wildlife species. Once the photos have been tagged, the student will be guided on data analyses to measure relative abundance indices of species and how this type of information can be applied toward management and conservation decisions.

The student can use the dataset they compile to answer research questions like: Which species has the highest/lowest relative abundance? What human-caused or environmental factors may be driving the relative abundance and distribution for these species? How might this information aid in achieving management goals?

Rapid Rise of Ambient Temperature and Body Size of Sceloporus undulatus

Enrique Santoyo Brito, PhD
Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Over the last century, human activities triggered rapid changes in ambient temperatures around the world at an unprecedented rate. Reptiles are critically affected by temperature throughout their lifespan, and many species worldwide already suffer deleterious effects from rising temperatures. To cope with it, animals may shift their distributions in search of suitable environments. However, the response of specialist species or those with limited mobility will differ from those of mobile ones. Some individuals may express natural compensatory responses, and others may regulate their behavior and social interactions or adjust their physiology plastically. Apart from species with rapid gene recombination or short generation times, most cannot adapt and respond fast enough to rapid changes in ambient temperatures. With temperatures rising at an unprecedented rate, it is critical to study historical natural populations of reptiles to anticipate future impacts of climate change on them. The Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) is a medium-sized lizard species distributed in Illinois. The species is sexually dimorphic and territorial. The INHS Amphibian & Reptile Collection houses specimens of S. undulatus collected before 1970, when peer-reviewed research anticipated climatic change. The Collection is seeking a student interested in herpetology and natural history collections. The student will participate in a morphology-based and climate change study by evaluating the potential effects that increasing environmental temperature has on the occurrence and body size of adult Eastern Fence Lizards from historical collecting sites in Illinois. The ideal candidate will have basic knowledge of reptile anatomy and climate change effects and experience in the scientific method.