Taking flight: New MSU research center to focus on natural resources research and outreach

On Nov. 28, Michigan State University AgBioResearch will officially open the Corey Marsh Ecological Research Center.

Jen Owen

LAINGSBURG, Mich. – On Nov. 28, Michigan State University AgBioResearch will officially open the Corey Marsh Ecological Research Center (CMERC) outside Laingsburg. The facility is the 14th AgBioResearch off-campus research center in the state and will focus on natural resource issues.

Much of CMERC is located on the former Muck Soil Research Farm, which was home to important MSU research on vegetable agriculture for about 70 years. Tight budgets and persistent flooding from the Looking Glass River into Corey Marsh led to the farm’s closure in 2012. At that time, research projects at the farm were shifted to other MSU AgBioResearch facilities around the state and, for the next five years, the property would sit idle.

“The Muck Soil Research Farm was an important part of our system for a long time, and a lot of important work was done there,” said Doug Buhler, director of MSU AgBioResearch. “In time, as the facilities were aging and flooding was becoming a more significant problem, we saw an opportunity to save money and resources while allowing that work to continue elsewhere.”

Around the same time the farm was shut down, Jen Owen, associate professor in the MSU departments of Fisheries and Wildlife and of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, started a bird banding station in the nearby Rose Lake State Wildlife Research Area. She and her team of current and past MSU students and local volunteers conduct long-term studies on bird migration at the station. They also provide opportunities for the public to experience nature and participate in scientific research.

“Having places for research that are close to campus is great for both students and the community,” said Owen, who has been named CMERC center coordinator. “The number of people visiting our research site from schools, community organizations and the general public has increased each year, to the point that we cannot accommodate everyone.”

It was happenstance that brought the disused Muck Soils Research Farm property and Owen’s migratory bird research and outreach program together.

While participating in Lead21, a nationwide program that helps land-grant university faculty and staff develop their leadership skills, Owen had the opportunity to shadow Buhler and other AgBioResearch leaders and attend meetings with external partner organizations. In the course of these meetings, she learned that the then-vacant Muck Soils Research Farm property was being considered for sale.

The property included a small house, which Owen saw as potential short-term housing for her field technicians, who work at the bird banding station during the two-month peak of migration season. So she took a short drive to Laingsburg to see if the structure was worth keeping. What she found at the site was far more than a house.

“The expansive wetlands and surrounding habitat contain an abundance and diversity of plant and animal life,” Owen said. “More than that, it contained a unique opportunity for the MSU community to further both our natural resource research, academic programs and outreach efforts. When I came back to campus, I asked for the whole property.”

Inspired by her visit and building on her experiences at the bird banding station, Owen proposed creating a new research center only about 20 minutes from MSU that would allow undergraduate and graduate students to conduct field research close to where they were attending classes and be more accessible to visitors. Wheelchair-accessible ramps and a boardwalk close to parking areas that could accommodate school buses would bring new opportunities for people of all backgrounds and abilities to experience nature and science. Owen also envisions the construction of an interpretive center with classrooms and space for art and science displays.

In addition to allowing Owen to extend her own migratory bird research – her team has identified over 130 species visiting the site, with more still being catalogued – the center also holds promise for long-term studies on invasive species and landscape remediation.

“The area is heavily degraded and dominated by invasive plant species,” Owen explained. “Invasive plants have negative effects on the community and ecosystem. In our research, we find that some of these species do not provide the same nutrition as native species for migrating birds that pass through the region. The state of the land provides us with an opportunity to conduct ecological restoration. These are long-term studies and hence offer decades of opportunities for MSU faculty, student researchers, agency partners and the public to be active participants in natural resources research.”

Providing MSU students with research opportunities so close to campus will be an invaluable contribution to their education and later careers.

“It’s important for undergraduates in our department to get out and do research in the field,” said Mallory Verch, student in the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and president of the MSU Fisheries and Wildlife Club. “If this is what we’re thinking about doing for the rest of our lives, we need to start building our experience now. This is going to help all of us kickstart our careers.”

In bringing new life to the site, Owen and the CMERC team are carrying forward the land-grant mission on which MSU was built. They’re creating new tools, resources and opportunities to meet the needs of scientists, communities and students of all ages.

“Under Jen’s leadership and vision, this property went from an unused asset to an opportunity to advance our mission,” said Buhler. “This center will strengthen our natural resources work while helping us reach out to new and diverse audiences. This is a case where, in helping further her vision, we were able to make a significant advance for the good of AgBioResearch and MSU as a whole.”

For Owen, helping students uncover a passion for science and nature is its own reward.

Owen’s grandparents loved birds and instilled that passion in her at an early age. “In the decades since,” Owen recalled, “I have developed a research program studying migratory behavior of birds and the challenges they face in a changing world. Being able to provide people the opportunity to experience nature up close while answering critical scientific questions helps everyone. It’s building the next generation of scientists.”

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