by Jenni Hodges
Jessica Riebkes never imagined she would spend summer nights catching bats in the woods. But when the Central College biology student landed an internship with an environmental consulting firm, this became one of her most memorable college experiences.
Riebkes ‘14, from Cedar Falls, Iowa, explored diverse opportunities as a Central student, from netting bats and surveying fishermen for Stantec to testing seeds at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “I have gotten to do a lot of things that I never imagined I could do,” Riebkes said.
Before coming to Central, Riebkes said she didn’t know she liked biology. “I just felt like Central was a place I could grow and learn,” she said.
Then Riebkes’ freshman biology course caught her interest, and she started working with professor of biology Russ Benedict as a research assistant. For three years, Riebkes has helped Benedict recreate prairie to help the environment and benefit Iowa farmers through his Prairies for Agriculture research project.
“She exemplifies something that makes Central special, and that is the desire to make a difference,” Benedict said. “You’ll hear this within five minutes of talking with her.”
After Riebkes’ sophomore year, Benedict invited her to work for Stantec, an environmental consulting firm where he had been hired for the summer. As an intern, Riebkes led nighttime teams to catch the endangered Indiana bat in large, delicate mist nets.
Riebkes often worked 60-hour weeks and said it seemed crazy to stay in the woods until 3 a.m. to catch bats. Still, Riebkes said she learned how Stantec carries out conservation policies, and she loved discovering the many woodland plants and animals that exist throughout Iowa. Besides the Indiana bat, Riebkes said her team encountered a multitude of different species, from flying squirrels and baby raccoons to enormous hickory trees and a slime mold.
Riebkes’ internship also offered a chance to use her Spanish — a minor she completed at Central. At Lake Red Rock, Riebkes interviewed many Spanish-speaking fishermen for the dam’s hydroelectric project.
The next summer, Riebkes won a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) position at the Chicago Botanic Garden. There Riebkes explored different ways to test the viability of native prairie seeds for the Garden’s Plant Conservation Center.
Andrea Kramer, a conservation scientist and REU program mentor, said Riebkes’ talent and dedication made the project productive and enjoyable.
“We knew right away when we interviewed her that she was the right person for this project, and we were not disappointed,” Kramer said. “She took on every challenge with energy and enthusiasm and did everything very thoroughly.”
Becky Barak, another REU program mentor and a Northwestern University doctoral student, said Riebkes impressed her by taking ownership of the entire research process. “She wanted to be able to do everything on her own and understand the motivation behind things,” Barak said. “She is very passionate about prairies.”
After this internship, Riebkes used the research she completed to write her senior honors thesis at Central. Riebkes also presented her work at the Field Museum of Natural History’s Undergraduate Research Symposium and an Iowa Academy of Science conference.
Even more significant, Kramer and Barak are now building a manuscript from Riebkes’ thesis for submission to a scientific journal. Barak said Riebkes will be recognized as the manuscript’s first author because of her hard work and ownership of the project.
Riebkes continued to explore biology and other interests during her final year at Central. In January, she again combined her Spanish and biology experience during a three-week tropical ecology class in Costa Rica and Belize. She also led biological honor society Tri-Beta, played violin in the Central orchestra and participated in campus ministries.
This fall, Riebkes plans to begin a master’s biology program at University of Northern Iowa, with a focus in conservation. Riebkes said she especially wants to continue studying prairie restoration — a highlight of her experience at Central. Riebkes also recently began working for Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County, Iowa, another site where staff and volunteers are working to restore and protect prairie.
Benedict said Riebkes’ graduation was like saying goodbye to a member of his family. He said, “She is basically the reason college professors become college professors.”