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 Geological 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 and 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; geology; sustainable energy; and water supply and safety.

To learn how to apply, click here. The application deadline is Friday, March 8, 2024.

See the specific PRI applied science opportunities below!

The Ecology of Nesting Birds

Thomas J Benson, Ph.D.

Birds are culturally and economically important and serve as indicators of environmental health. We are conducting a variety of research projects on birds nesting in nest boxes around the Champaign-Urbana area. Projects include the effects of temperature on behavior and development, understanding the influence of disturbances on behavior and development, and the influences of surrounding landcover and pesticide use on nesting birds. A student working on this project would be able to participate in local fieldwork, including handling and measuring birds, as well as working with existing datasets to address a project fitting their interests.

Chasing Dragonflies in the Artificial Pondscape

Jason Bried, Ph.D.

Artificial ponds (for cattle, irrigation, stormwater, golf courses, etc.) are familiar features in agricultural and developed settings. Artificial pond networks, or “pondscapes,” should promote habitat generalists and randomly distributed species, potentially begetting randomness at multispecies levels. Do random species occurrences lead to random co-occurrences among species? Do random co-occurrences add up to random (meta) community patterns? Such unanswered questions may have broad implications for how we spatially predict and manage ecological communities in artificial pondscapes and other built environments.

We have begun to pursue these questions through observations of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) at “The Ponds” research station, an artificial pondscape located on the U. of I. South Farm. The SROP student will engage with pure and applied ecological thinking, gain specialized entomological experience, and develop scientific analysis and presentation skills. The project offers ample opportunity for field data collection, odonate species identification, and learning the R computing language. Broadly, the experience builds upon previous student work in the fields of community ecology, insect conservation, and odonatology. 

Range-wide Genomic Analysis of Little Brown Bats

Mark Davis, Ph.D.

Genomics provides a cutting-edge tool to investigate endangered species. Together we will explore how white-nose syndrome, a deadly bat disease, has impacted a species under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The undergraduate student will be primarily involved in laboratory processing of samples. Specifically, they will be responsible for DNA extractions (from wing tissue samples of bats). Once extractions are complete, we will assess the quality of the samples together and likely conduct DNA pellet concentration. Once the DNA is ready, the student will help prepare for RADseq library preparation. Additionally, the student will be involved in GIS-based map making to examine geographic trends of samples collected across a wide range. The student will be exposed to several genomics projects and researchers, and trained on required protocols, while also having the flexibility to learn other methods of interest.

Environmental DNA to Advance Biodiversity Conservation

Mark Davis, Ph.D.

Environmental DNA (eDNA), or organism-derived DNA freely available in the environment and harnessed via bulk substrate sampling, is an emerging and rapidly expanding area of research. In fact, eDNA methodologies and technologies are being deployed globally and in nearly all ecosystems. The Collaborative Conservation Genomics Laboratory at the Illinois Natural History Survey is conducting eDNA research in numerous ecological contexts, and we are seeking an SROP student to join our team in the summer of 2024. The SROP student will be primarily involved in the generation of environmental DNA data for threatened and endangered biodiversity throughout the Midwest, including pollinators, turtles, and mollusks. The student will gain experience in all aspects of eDNA sampling, processing, data generation, and analysis, including DNA extraction, quantification, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), quantitative PCR (qPCR), metabarcoding library prep, gel electrophoresis, and other lab tasks. The student will have the opportunity to synthesize, analyze, and interpret data. Finally, the student will have the opportunity to participate in field sampling in local aquatic systems, filtering water, and preserving eDNA. The student will contribute to multiple genomics projects and researchers, trained on numerous genetic/genomic protocols, while also having the flexibility to learn other methods of interest.

Assessing Conservation Effects in an Illinois Watershed using PLET

Elias Getahun, Ph.D.

This summer research opportunity aims to evaluate the impact of conservation practices on nonpoint source pollutants such as sediment and nutrients. The project will use the Pollutant Load Estimation Tool (PLET) to develop a customized watershed model to simulate watershed surface runoff and sediment and nutrient loads based on various land uses and management practices. The student will receive mentorship to conduct the following activities: (1) set up a watershed model using PLET, (2) develop a PLET model for a watershed in Illinois, (3) simulate runoff, sediment, and nutrient loads for the watershed, (4) evaluate sediment and nutrient load reductions as a result of implementing different best management practices, and (5) prepare a poster presentation of this research. This research opportunity will provide the student with watershed modeling skills and understanding of the impact of best management practices on the reduction of nonpoint source pollution in streams and rivers.

Evaluating Plant ID Apps, Scarce AI Data, and Naming Accuracy

Suneeti Jog, Ph.D.

Citizen interest in the natural world along with the use of natural areas for recreation has recently increased substantially. The popularity of Plant Identification apps available cost-free via smartphones has also increased, thereby making it simple and accessible for botanically untrained subjects to identify native and non-native plants. But how accurate are these apps compared to the skills of experienced botanists? Are there variations among them? Do they work just as well with images of vegetative parts (stems/leaves/basal rosettes/bark) vs. reproductive parts (flowers/inflorescences/fruits/seeds)? Does the app work just as well in areas that are sparsely populated as it does elsewhere due to higher observations, or does data deficiency matter? With field locations in sparsely populated areas of Illinois and the Champaign-Urbana area, we will attempt to answer these questions using a variety of different Plant ID apps. The undergraduate student will take hundreds of images of unknown plants in both locations and curate the data, while getting the opportunity to learn about plants in a fun, modern way. The mentor will serve as the experienced botanist and use all available skills (prior knowledge, field guides, dichotomous keys, and herbarium specimens) to identify the plants. The student will participate actively in the process of plant species identification and collection of specimens. Results will be presented at a conference and no prior knowledge of botany is required. Just bring your enthusiasm for the outdoors, your thirst for knowledge, and your smartphone!

Doppler Lidar Observations of the Turbulent Summer Atmosphere

David Kristovich, Ph.D.

Observing winds is a critical step in understanding and ultimately predicting weather and climate. The Climate and Atmospheric Science group will be collecting field observations of how air motions change depending on the type of surface over which they pass. We are in the process of requesting research funds to participate in up to two field projects that examine how the summer atmosphere is altered by the presence of large water bodies (either Lake Michigan or the confluence area where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers collide). The interested student would gain experience in collecting observations using an atmospheric Doppler lidar and possibly other instruments (such as towers and weather balloons). The student will learn how to appropriately collect weather data by setting up the lidar, collecting data, checking its quality, and using our software to visualize it. If funding is not received for the field experiments, we will collect and analyze the data at the University of Illinois.

Biodiversity of Illinois Arthropods: Choose Your Own Adventure

Thomas McElrath, Ph.D.

Arthropods are the most diverse group of organisms and 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 (INHS) provide a rich opportunity to gain understanding and make unexpected discoveries. The student will choose a focal group, such as centipedes, true bugs, soldier beetles, or flesh 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. One or two local field collecting trips will also be arranged to suit the student’s project and schedule and add specimens to the collection. Finally, they will summarize and present their findings at the end of the summer. Potential results include finding new species worthy of conservation, new species in the collection, new state records, or documentation of range expansions to human activities or climate change.

Converting Non-recyclable Plastics to Fuels

Nandakishore Rajagopalan, Ph.D. and Hong Lu, Ph.D.

Student experiences encompass conducting a literature survey, formulating plans, executing experiments, recording and analyzing data, and preparing operation procedures. The role requires meticulous attention to detail, acquiring proficiency in equipment usage, and engaging in discussions with ISTC staff to enhance processes and efficiency. The position entails running experiments related to the conversion of plastics into fuels and analyzing the outcomes. Additionally, the role may involve participation in projects focused on clean energy and carbon reduction.

Algae Cultivation with Wastewater and Flue Gas

Grace Wilken, Vanessa DeShambo, M.S., and Lance Schideman, Ph.D.

The summer researcher will have the opportunity to learn about and work on federal projects focusing on cultivating algae and bacteria for biofuel or animal feed, with the beneficial integration of nutrients from municipal wastewater and/or CO2 from a coal power plant. These projects involve laboratory analysis and pilot-scale field work at industry partner sites (wastewater treatment plant and coal power plant). The student will learn and perform laboratory analyses, such as measuring total and volatile suspended solids, ammonia levels, Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), and operating a spectrophotometer for a variety of measurements. The student researcher will also have the opportunity to perform an independent, yet guided, benchtop experiment with Spirulina platensis (cyanobacteria, a.k.a. blue-green algae). By the end of the research period, the student will complete a presentation of their results (poster, slides, or written report). This experience will provide a hands-on introduction to experimental design and analysis, plus laboratory and field work in sustainable technology and environmental engineering.

Social Justice Aspects of Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Sherilyn Williams-Stroud, Ph.D. and Nate Grigsby

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), in which CO2 is captured from a point source, compressed, and then injected deep underground where it will remain for the foreseeable future, is emerging as a key part of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. One of the benefits of CCS is that it can be applied to industrial sources that are otherwise difficult to decarbonize. For example, our project is assessing the feasibility of a CCS project at Heidelberg’s cement facility in Mitchell, Indiana. For any CCS project to succeed it is critical to identify and engage key diverse stakeholders. At the early stage of this project, background research and preliminary social site characterization are required to lay the groundwork for future phases. We are seeking an intern to study the social justice aspects of CCS. The intern will engage in three activities. First, they will conduct a literature review to understand the social implications of CCS broadly. Second, they will conduct a socio-ecological analysis to provide insight into Mitchell’s historical development and its current environmental and economic challenges. Results will be used to develop metrics that can quantify how different groups might be impacted by CCS activities. Finally, the intern will assist in data collection, including interviews and focus groups. Results will be written up in a report for the project team and, if appropriate, in a peer-reviewed publication.

Explore Water–Energy Nexus in Illinois Using IECM Model and ArcGIS

Zhenxing Zhang

For the 8-week Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP), the selected student will primarily work on the following three aspects. One: Research: the student will work with me to learn the Integrated Environmental Control (IECM) model to analyze the water–energy nexus in the state of Illinois. They will also work on learning the ArcGIS Pro tool to conduct geographic analysis of water–energy nexus scenarios and develop a simple web app to demonstrate the water–energy nexus situation in Illinois. Two: Professional development: for the last week of the SROP, the student is expected to deliver a 20-minute presentation to the Water–Energy Program and to the Watershed Science section, using well-designed PowerPoint slides. The student will be trained in how to prepare a PowerPoint file and how best to make a public presentation. Three: Research writing skills: the student will be trained in writing a brief report on their project. They will be trained in conducting a basic literature review of the water–energy nexus. At the conclusion of the program, the student is expected to gain first-hand experience in frontier research on the water–energy nexus, develop skills in making PowerPoint presentations, learn to develop web apps using ArcGIS software, and learn the basics of research writing.