Student Spotlight on Madeline Esterl: Scholarship Meets Experience at the MN Landscape Arboretum

October 25, 2016

By A'Davian Smith (Step-Up Intern*) and Echo Martin (Communications Associate)

Wind blows through the leaves of the forest canopy, the smell of fish and wet grass in the air. Insects buzz through the morning mist and birds chirp territorial warning calls to one another. Water gently laps the rocky shoreline, the sun glinting off Lake Tamarack. Today, Madeline Esterl (B.S. 2017) plans to set this scene on fire.

Esterl — a dual major in Anthropology and Conservation Biology — is the 2016 recipient of the George and Mary Lou Klacan Scholarship, which provides financial support to a summer intern at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. As part of her internship, she is performing a controlled burn. “First they spray the whole field,” explains Esterl. “After a couple weeks it all turns brown, and a small crew brings tanks around and burns the whole field, from four to five acres, for a couple of hours.”  The group later comes back to treat the field, and in the fall they re-grow the native plants. “The day we got to do the controlled burn at Lake Tamarack has probably been my favorite part of my internship so far.” 

Bur oak blight is a fungal disease that can persist over years, leaving the tree open to more serious infections. Esterl's internship project is taking data on infected trees — soil type, if it's solitary, acorn shape, etc. — to help find connections in what makes a tree likely to get infected.

Experiential learning, often completed through an internship, is an integral part of all CFANS majors. It gives students an opportunity to explore the field they’re interested in and gather new skills that they don’t learn in the classroom. While the controlled burn may be her favorite part of the internship, Esterl is assisting on a variety of projects, as well as completing her own project in monitoring bur oak blight throughout the Arboretum. The bulk of her internship has involved learning about Integrated Pest Management (IPM) at the Arboretum with her supervisor Dan Miller, the Arboretum’s IPM specialist. “Dan and I scout around the Arboretum looking for different problems like diseased plants or possible insect damage. When we find an issue we take a sample and then figure out how to treat them without using harsh chemicals.” says Esterl.    

While several students are interning at the Arboretum this summer, Esterl was chosen to receive the Klacan scholarship because of her work in the classroom and her excitement for the work she’s doing. “She’s an excellent student who works well independently,” says Mary Meyer, professor in the Department of Horticultural Science. “Madeline is always ready to learn something new.” Esterl’s enthusiasm for plants is apparent within a few moments of speaking with her, and she’s eager to pass on that excitement. “We need variety in our plant life,” says Esterl. “If kids and adults can learn to truly see the plants around them, and understand the importance of biodiversity for things like food, clothes, and medicine, then they’ll have more stake in it.”

The Klacan scholarship is unique in that it gives recipients the chance to both complete a paid internship and get a traditional scholarship when the school year begins. Because of this setup, Esterl will be able to pursue other professional opportunities during the school year. “I’m not really sure what I want to do after college yet, but experiences like this are helping me to figure that out,” says Esterl.

Beyond the skills that she has learned, the internship has been a networking opportunity for Esterl as well. She’s gotten to know professionals at the Arboretum as well as the founders of her scholarship. “I’ve met George and Mary Lou Klacan a couple times and had lunch with them. It’s great to see people from their generation so interested and invested in my generation.”

The results of the controlled burn, like many of Esterl’s experiences, won’t be visible until after she has left her internship. However, the skills and knowledge she has gained, and the people she has met will continue to be of value as she completes her degree and beyond.

*In the summer of 2016, the department had A'Davian, a high schooler from Minneapolis, in the main office as a Step-Up intern. Step-Up is a City of Minneapolis jobs program for youth and young adults ages 14-21. Each summer STEP-UP recruits, trains and places more than 1,500 Minneapolis youth in great jobs with over 200 top Twin Cities businesses, public agencies and nonprofits. Step-Up interns explore diverse career interests, gain valuable on the-job skills, make strong professional connections, and prepare for meaningful careers.