Katherine Charton Spotlight

1.Explain your research so that your grandparent or a 5-year old would understand it?

Grasslands around the world are threatened because of the increasing presence of trees and shrubs in these grass- and forb-dominated ecosystems. Grassland managers use prescribed fire, mowing, and herbicide application to help manage this threat. My research uses field experiments to understand how well these methods meet restoration goals. I consider not only the outcomes of management now, but also how outcomes will change under future climates, such as warmer winters and drier summers. This research helps us better inform future management actions and ensure grasslands can remain resilient to global change.

2.What inspired you to pursue that research?

My interest in this work is two-fold. Firstly, I’ve always been fascinated by ecosystems that experience fires and the resilient plants that thrive in such conditions. Growing up in Northern California and doing research in upland Florida prior to the start of my PhD gave me firsthand experience in fire-adapted ecosystems. Secondly, upon moving to the Midwest, I became intrigued by the conservation challenges faced by land managers in this region. Conversations with managers revealed the difficulty in managing woody plants and variability of outcomes, prompting me to design an experiment to address these concerns.


3. What are your hobbies or interests outside of school?

Outside of school, I love everything and anything that will get me in the water. I’ve traveled to many of the lakes and rivers in Wisconsin to go boating, sampled a number of the outdoor pools in the greater Madison area for lap swimming, and recently planned a scuba dive in Devil’s Lake as a graduation gift to myself! Since these are highly seasonal activities, I’ve also come to love quieter, indoor activities in the winter. I taught myself to cross stitch and rekindled a love of fiction while in graduate school. I also go out to a new restaurant with other graduate students nearly every Friday to try another of Wisconsin’s many fish fry locations.



4. What are your favorite places/things to do in Madison? 

I live just a few blocks from James Madison Park, so I have spent many summer afternoons and evenings there with friends, yard games, a good book, and some snacks. I also love how many parks there are outside of Madison within a relatively short driving distance. I am particularly fond of Black Earth Rettenmund State Natural Area, not only because it is one of my field sites for my research, but also because it is known for its abundance of wood lilies that flower in June. I’d be remiss to not mention some of my favorite fish fry locations too. I recommend Chico’s Villa Tap for an authentic dive bar experience and Merchant Madison for a more upscale affair.


5. What are some pleasant surprises you’ve encountered while being a graduate student here?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to build community in Madison. As a Midwest transplant, I love how friendly Midwesterners are. My partner and I met some of our dearest friends in Madison within just a month of moving here because we got chatting in a line at a beer festival! I love that we have a community outside of the university, especially because my partner is not a graduate student, but I’ve also made some life-long friends simply from my classes. In my first year, I remember holding up at a coffee shop nearly every Thursday evening to work on labs with classmates, and now over four years later I get to graduate with these same friends.

6.What is your dream job?

My dream job is a position where I get to combine my love of ecological research with my love of synthesizing and communicating scientific information for real world application. I could see myself working for a non-profit or government agency where I get to conduct my own research program and work closely with land managers to inform my research questions. I believe strongly in the need to build capacity for conservation and restoration within local communities, so doing science that can serve the community would be extremely fulfilling. I am also yearning to set down roots, so I hope my next job will keep me in the Midwest.


7. Anything else you want to share?

Having taken some time off between undergrad and graduate school, I was really excited to take classes again while working on my PhD. I took more than most and continued to do so up until my last year when I really had to buckle down on dissertation writing. I love the diversity of classes offered, not only within iBio, but across campus. One of my favorite courses was a graduate seminar on plant adaptations to environmental gradients that took me to New Hampshire for a week to collect data on alpine plant communities. I cannot recommend taking advantage of these opportunities enough, both for the learning opportunities and the bonds you’ll build with life-long colleagues.