FRANKLIN GROVE – It’s been said that if you find something you love, you’ll never work a day of your life.
Elizabeth Bach has found something she loves – and what’s more, she’s pretty outstanding in her field.
With a double major, a master’s and a Ph.D under her graduation cap, Nachusa Grasslands’ first full-time scientist came ready to put her boots on the ground and hit it running – all 3,500 acres of it.
For the past month Bach has immersed herself in the nature conservancy’s grasslands, sharpening her skills on the blades of grass, studying wildlife, and helping keep an eye on the 125 bison that dot the landscape.
The 33-year old scientist brings an extensive background in ecology and biology to her job studying the prairie, woodland and wetlands and all their denizens, from the 700 different types of native plants that start life below ground to the creatures that start life above it.
“There are just very few places like this,” Bach said.
Maybe it was destiny that brought her to Nachusa. After all, she hails from Prairie City, Iowa.
Bach, who comes from a family of farmers, said she yearned early on to learn more about the environment.
As a chemistry major at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Bach found there wasn’t much difference between the chemical reactions that take place in a lab setting and the ones in the soil.
“It’s the same reaction, how the plants break down dead things and recycle them into what living things need. It’s what makes life happen,” Bach said.
Bach graduated with a double major in biology and environmental studies from Cornell College in 2007, earned her master’s in plant biology from Southern Illinois University in 2009, and got a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at Iowa State University.
After graduation she did post-doctorate work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Colorado State University, collecting data, doing lab work and working with scientists from around the world.
Then opportunity knocked when the job at Nachusa opened, and that was enough to open the door for Bach to return to the Midwest and work in an ecologically rich environment.
“We think of the rain forest as an interesting environment,” she said. “But we have a very special one in our own backyard.”
Part of what makes it special is the endangered plant species at Nachusa. Bach is working to better understand and protect the environment that not only allows them to survive, but thrive.
“There are still a lot of things that we don’t know, but this is right time to ask those questions,” she said.
Two of those plants are the prairie bush clover and eastern prairie fringed orchid. Their preservation is important due to the role they play in nature and their relationships with other plants to produce nitrogen – and Bach wants to make sure they stick around.
“It takes a lot of work and effort to bring them back if they leave,” Bach said.
Another question Bach is trying to answer is why bison eat specific types of grass that, if left to grow, would choke out more endangered types of plants.
One way she plans to solve nature’s mysteries is through large-scale collaboration, piecing together information from the various ecologists, biologists and scientist who study at Nachusa.
In a landscape dominated by agriculture, Bach wants to show there is space for both grasslands and cash crops.
In 1820, Illinois had 22 million acres of prairie land, according to the DNR. By 1900, most of those prairies were gone, replaced by farmland. By 1978, there was less than 2,300 acres of high quality prairie in the state. Today, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of that 22 million acres remains as prairie land – hardly a fitting legacy for The Prairie State, but efforts to restore prairie land have ramped up in recent years.
“It’s amazing that there was so little back then and now we have 3,500 acres to ourselves,” Bach said.
While she may still be new to the job, Bach has her eyes set firmly on the future and what she wants to be doing: helping the grasslands grow.
“I love doing this and I hope to be here for a long time.”
Nachusa Grasslands, 8772 S. Lowden Road, Franklin Grove, 815-456-2340