Allison Morgan ’21 has always loved science.

During her childhood in the Mississippi River town of Hamilton, Morgan conducted her own experiments with pond water. When she was 12 years old, one of her favorite books was The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. The story follows a young girl as she explores her interests and fascination with the natural world and science. And like the main character, Calpurnia Tate, Morgan is seeking a life full of science and love for nature.

Allison Morgan

Morgan has been apprenticing at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens near Louisville, Kentucky, since graduating in May with a degree in biology with a conservation biology sequence from Illinois State’s School of Biological Sciences. She had transferred to the University as a junior.

Now three months into her year-long apprenticeship, Morgan said she is learning something new every day. She enjoys hands-on learning, networking, and trips with her Yew Dell comrades.

Morgan leads guided tours through the gardens’ pollinator meadow diving into native plants, insects, and animals that work best for the ecosystem. As a part of her work there, Morgan is developing an independent project to create a positive change in the ecosystem.

“I decided to create a composting system at Yew Dell. There is one already, but I would like it to function at a higher level. It will incorporate organic materials produced in our offices, food waste from events, and have testing to make sure the end product isn’t too weedy. It’s a big job but I’m excited about it,” Morgan said.

Morgan’s research at Illinois State

A research project with Illinois State Associate Professor Dr. Victoria Borowicz helped pave the way for Morgan’s apprenticeship.

“My colleague told me about her and told me she was interested in research. The interesting thing about Allison is that she came to me with an idea,” said Borowicz.

Morgan developed her own research question about taking dredged materials—clay, sand, and other sediments at the bottom of rivers—and making an engineered soil from which native prairie species of plants could grow.  

“This is something people don’t think about, but the rivers have to be dredged routinely if they are used for commercial transport. Well, what do you do with all that stuff? It piles up. There’s been an interest in figuring out how to take the dredged material and make use of it,” Borowicz said.

Morgan said there are 300,000 cubic yards of dredged material removed from Illinois rivers each year and placed in three locations across the state.

“The sediment that gets dredged comes primarily from run-off and erosion, so the idea was to reutilize nutrients from our fertile Illinois soils. We grew a few native species, like Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) and parthenium integrifolium (wild quinine),” said Morgan. “We found that some plants grew well in high concentrations of dredge material and other species did not. It was nice to conduct research and share those results. There is so much potential, I hope to spark an interest in others for testing and uses.”

Morgan presented her findings at the University’s Research Symposium.  

“Her research experience showed her that there are other opportunities out there. Often, students will have a limited view of all the careers that are open to them. By doing independent study, Morgan saw that research is something people do. She enjoyed working with plants, and she found this internship,” Borowicz said.

Though Morgan is uncertain about her next step after Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, she is excited to explore horticulture further.

“Things are not always finite. You can always explore new things. Education isn’t something that stops at one goal, it should be continuous,” Morgan said.

Morgan shared a message for current Illinois State students.

“I recently have learned the importance of trial and error. That’s a lot of what gardening and horticulture are, but it certainly applies to life. Any move you make is forward, even if it doesn’t go to plan. You’ve still made progress toward a solution.”