New director joins new land at Itasca research center

A new director and newly-acquired land mark changes for the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.

(By Rose Erdahl)

Situated near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories started off 2018 with a new director and an additional 60 acres of land.

Located about 220 miles north of the Twin Cities, the biological station hosts students from the College of Biological Sciences every summer and is home to year-round research on wildlife, plants and water quality. 

In November, the University acquired 60 acres of land north of the state park, and in January, named Jonathan Schilling as its new director.

Schilling, a faculty member at the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences since 2006, also has a lab in St. Paul.

His predecessor, David Biesboer, retired at the end of last year after 19 years as director of the field station. 

Schilling studies the role of fungi as decomposers in the carbon cycle and said he hopes to integrate his research into the work done at the research station.

“I have a feeling that this job and some of the responsibilities in running the station will expand the scope of my science,” he said. 

Schilling said he was drawn to the directorship in Itasca because of the opportunity to study fungi in their natural environment.

“They’re easy to identify on a hike, they have medicinal uses, they have cultural backgrounds,” he said of fungi.

Schilling added that he and his wife met at a field station in Virginia and always wanted to spend time at field station again later in their careers, so this position was an ideal fit.

As director, Schilling said he is prioritizing engagement with the community and will continue developing research at the station — a goal furthered by the station’s newly acquired land.

“It’ll also be fun to manage a place for other people to integrate their ideas,” he said. “I really enjoy what other people bring.” 

The new land marks the station’s first extension beyond their existing 80-acre campus, which sits within Itasca State Park.

“We have a site agreement, so [the original land] is primarily for the buildings and facilities, and this expansion will allow for many new research opportunities,” said station biologist Lesley Knoll.

Before acquiring the new land, mainly observational research contributed to the publication of more than 1,000 scientific articles since the station started in 1909. 

“Research on this new land has the potential to complement ongoing forest research done in the un-manipulated forest of Itasca State Park,” Knoll said.

Schilling said he hopes his direction will further establish Itasca as “a destination for science.”