Why Sustainability Matters: A Q&A With Associate Director Jennifer Fraterrigo

Why Sustainability Matters: A Q&A With Associate Director Jennifer Fraterrigo

Jennifer Fraterrigo was named iSEE’s Associate Director for Campus Sustainability effective Jan. 15, assuming a leading role for implementing actions to make the University of Illinois more environmentally sustainable. She plans to partner with students, faculty, and staff to spearhead environmental initiatives that fulfill the goals of the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP).

Fraterrigo, a Professor of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences, has been involved in iSEE and Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) projects for several years. She was a member of the Agriculture, Land Use, Food, and Sequestration (ALUFS) iCAP team and has worked on several iCAP projects, including a tree canopy map she created to help the campus identify priority areas for new plantings. With her desire to make Illinois a leader in sustainability initiatives, Fraterrigo naturally gravitated toward the iSEE Associate Director position.

In this Q&A with iSEE Communications Intern Quinn Wolski, Fraterrigo discusses some of her past work at the University, her goals for campus sustainability, and why sustainability matters to her.

Why do the environment and sustainability matter to you?

I spent a lot of time camping and hiking when I was younger, which led to a deep appreciation for nature and biodiversity. As an ecologist, I am continually learning about how ecosystems function and, as a result, my appreciation for the environment continues to grow. I also recognize the benefits that the environment provides to people, things like clean water and air, food, timber, and climate regulation. By working toward sustainability, I hope to ensure that future generations can also enjoy and benefit from the environment.

How did you become involved with iSEE, and why did you want to take the Associate Director position?

I first became involved with iSEE when I served on the Agriculture, Land Use, Food, and Sequestration team. Subsequently, the team was reorganized and split into two teams, the Zero Waste and Land and Water iCAP teams. As a member of the ALUFS team, I learned about the Illinois Climate Action Plan and helped to develop recommendations aimed at making campus more environmentally sustainable. Some of the issues we discussed were the South Farms and a campus tree inventory. I enjoyed being part of that process and contributing to efforts to improve campus sustainability. I took the AD position because I believe these issues are extremely important both for campus and globally and I want to help position the University of Illinois as a leader in this arena.

What are the primary responsibilities of your iSEE position?

The primary responsibilities are to establish strategic priorities and facilitate the implementation of efforts to make campus more environmentally sustainable by achieving the goals described in the Illinois Climate Action Plan. In practice, that means partnering with students, faculty, and staff to develop and advance initiatives that align with the iCAP objectives.

What has been the most interesting part of your new position so far?

The most interesting part of the position so far is learning about the number and scope of initiatives that are underway or being planned to improve campus sustainability. I also find it inspiring to interact with people who are so passionate about these issues and dedicated to making positive changes.

What are you looking forward to over the next year and five years at iSEE?

For the next couple of years, I’m looking forward to facilitating efforts to reduce plastics on campus. Over the long term, I am looking forward to raising the profile of iSEE and campus sustainability efforts and helping to make our campus a leader in the movement to increase sustainability.

What activities are you most excited for this Earth Month?

I think the Boneyard and campus trash pickups are great opportunities to come together as a community to help the environment. I am also very excited for Earth Month trivia and the Earth Week Clothing Swap, which are both new events this year. Meredith Moore and her team have done a great job planning many fun activities, so please check the events calendar!

Are you looking forward to working with the chancellor’s office on iCAP initiatives? What iCAP targets are we approaching, and do they track with what upper executives are anticipating?

Absolutely. From what I have observed, administrators and upper executives care deeply about improving campus sustainability and are committed to achieving the iCAP objectives. My first meeting with the Sustainability Council will be on May 12. I’ll have a better sense for what they are anticipating after that meeting. What I can tell you now is that there is a good amount of momentum for reducing waste on campus and increasing sustainability education.

Does anything about the job intimidate you or pose challenges you haven’t faced before?

I think the main challenge will be building consensus among stakeholders who have very different goals and constraints. The upside is that people are generally very motivated to find solutions to environmental problems.

Can you explain more about your experience leading a research lab that studies ecological mechanisms in our environment?

My research focuses on understanding what causes vegetation patterns to change and what the consequences are for biodiversity and the storage of nutrients and carbon in plants and soils. My students and I currently study two main drivers of vegetation change: the introduction of non-native, invasive species and climate change. The research that we do helps us to predict how ecosystems may look in the future, where changes are likely to be pronounced, and how ecosystem services, like those mentioned above, may shift as a result.

Your research includes some work in Alaska – can you tell us more about that?

Over the past several decades, studies have documented widespread expansion of deciduous shrubs into the Arctic tundra, which is dominated by grasses. Climate warming is the primary driver of these changes, but many other factors determine how and where plant communities will change. Deciduous shrub expansion can produce feedbacks to regional and global climates by altering biophysical and biogeochemical processes, including carbon cycling. Our goal is to quantify plant community variation, its environmental drivers, and the potential feedbacks to regional carbon balance. The project is highly collaborative and involves field work, remote sensing, and modeling with scientists from the University of Illinois, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and Brookhaven National Lab.

What are some of your favorite things to do in your free time?

I love hiking, camping, and generally spending time outdoors. I also enjoy cooking and being with my family. I have a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. We try to hike and camp as much as possible. I went backpacking for about two weeks in northern New Mexico with my son a few summers ago and am planning to take my daughter backpacking this summer. We have also made it a priority to carry on my parents’ legacy and visit national parks as a family. I want my kids to develop a love for the outdoors and teach them to appreciate and respect nature.

Do you have a core memory or experience from one of those family trips you took as a child?

I visited Yellowstone National Park with my family when I was around 7 years old. My mom signed up the entire family for a nature program. I have a vivid memory of standing knee-deep in a very, very cold stream with an empty mayonnaise jar for collecting aquatics insects, which we later dumped out and identified with a park ranger.

 What is the best national park you have visited?

That is a hard question! Each one is so amazing in its own way. I worked in Yellowstone for a summer when I was in college and had the chance to explore some very remote parts of the park as part of a research team. I’ll never forget that experience. Muir Woods, although not technically a national park, was simply awe-inspiring. I have been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park many times and am always blown away by the biodiversity in the region. Finally, I had the chance to go whitewater rafting last summer on the New River in New River Gorge, our newest national park. It was breathtaking.