UCF alumna leads Arboretum’s environmental initiatives, controlled burns

(Photo: Shea Dawson)



As Jennifer Elliott sat in the UCF Arboretum office, a small trailer behind the Harris Corporation Engineering Center, an Arboretum staff member entered with bad news: the Cuban tree frogs were back.

Cuban tree frogs are an invasive species in Florida that often eat native tree frogs and lizards.

Elliott sighed. Though she loves animals, including even pesky tree frogs, her job as program director for both UCF Landscape and Natural Resources and the Arboretum requires her to protect the state’s native species, sometimes by killing invasive species.

Elliott, whose biology journey began here at UCF in 2002, has earned the university statewide recognition in conservation and has been a leader in student involvement and education in environmental issues.

“It was 2009 when I started working here as an hourly biologist — now it is 2019 and I am the program director,” Elliott said.

Elliott came to UCF in 2002 after earning her associate’s degree in South Florida. She majored in biology with the intention of going to veterinary school. At the time, she thought the only way to work with animals was to become a veterinarian, she said.

“All I knew was that I loved animals, and I think we’re conditioned from a young age to think that if you love animals, you should be a veterinarian,” Elliot said.

Her plans changed when she found the UCF Marine Turtle Research Group as an undergraduate. MTRG gives students research opportunities in marine turtle biology, behavior, ecology and conservation, according to its website.

“So I sat behind my first sea turtle, and my whole world changed,” Elliott said. “I just had no idea that being a wildlife biologist was something that you could do.”

Elliott continued her involvement in the UCF Marine Turtle Research group as she worked toward her masters degree in biology.

Linda Walters, one of Elliott’s undergraduate and graduate professors, said that as a student, she was always prepared and engaged in her classes.

“She was in that group of students that make professors thankful for the jobs we have!” Walters said in an email.

While Elliott wanted to work with sea turtles, she said there were limited jobs available in the field. She took an open biologist position at UCF in 2009. Though she had no experience with upland ecology, she said she took the position ready to learn.

“When I took that dive into upland ecology … it was just this incredible awakening how intricate these ecosystems are and how important the state of Florida is as a biodiversity hot spot,” Elliott said.

Elliot took her current position as program director of the Arboretum in 2018.

As program director, Elliott has engaged students through volunteer opportunities and launched new conservation efforts in her roles.

“We all like to think our students go from being ‘great students’ to ‘great leaders,’” Walters said. “With Jen, I have been able to watch that actually happen. Jen leads science-based, conservation-based and community-engagement efforts at the Arboretum for students, staff, faculty and the community.”

Elliott said she wanted to educate students about the possibilities of wildlife biology.

“I felt as a young person in South Florida, no one opened my eyes to those possibilities,” she said.

Elliott oversees the Arboretum’s community garden, which has involved the most volunteers out of the Arboretum’s initiatives. Walters said she thinks the community garden has the biggest impact and that it “has been huge for everyone involved.”

Elliott also oversaw the start of UCF’s burn program which helps native plants in the Arboretum and is an example for similar burn initiatives across the state. She said Landscape and Natural Resources started working on burns at UCF in 2004, and the initiative started after a wildfire in the cypress dome of the Arboretum in 2004. She said that this fire showed the Landscape and Natural Resources staff that they needed to “start taking prescribed fire seriously.”

By regularly scheduling controlled burns, the staff reduces the availability of fuel for potential wildfires. In addition, burns eliminate older foliage to allow new plants to grow, she said.

Elliott said her team at Natural Resources and Land Management didn’t know what prescribed fire would entail at the start.

“We were just a bunch of biologists who knew that fire was important but didn’t really know how to do it,” Elliott said.

Elliott said the Arboretum’s urban setting makes it a difficult place to use prescribed burns, so the staff partnered with various agencies which knew how to use fire as a tool and could train them to use it here at UCF.

The Arboretum staff started doing controlled burns in the winter when the winds were more predictable, and eventually worked their way to burning in the summer. This was the goal, as summer fires are normal in Florida ecosystems.

The now-regular burns have increased biodiversity, Elliott said.

“Just this week we found a Florida state endangered plant — Calopogon multiflorus,” Elliot said, referring to a species of orchid that may not have been able to flourish before the regular burns.

Elliott said the staff has also found a rare dropseed grass that had likely always been in the Arboretum but had been outcompeted until prescribed burns allowed it to thrive.

Because of the “tricky business” of burning in an urban setting, UCF’s expertise in prescribed burns has spread like wildfire, Elliot said.

“We go out and present a lot…” she said. “People from the forest service will come and say, ‘If you want to talk about urban burning, go talk to the folks at UCF.’”

Elliott said her goals for the Arboretum include increasing student engagement in the Landscape and Natural Resources program.

She wants to start involving students in the burn program and possibly teach a class on prescribed burns. She said she also wants to use UCF’s utility-based ponds as an opportunity to introduce more native species at the university, which she sees as another opportunity to involve students in real conservation efforts.

“Always, it’s my goal to engage students in as much of that as we possibly can,” Elliott said.

Elliott currently teaches a research-based class on ecology in an urban environment called Urban Ecological Field Studies. In the class, students work in groups to execute and present a research project in the field of urban ecology.

Scott Petrino, senior interdisciplinary studies major with an environmental studies minor, is one of 20 students in Elliot’s course. He and his group conducted a study this semester on how longleaf pine populations respond to burns.

Petrino praised Elliott for guiding her students through their projects while still allowing them the freedom to experiment on their own.

“She trusts that you know what you’re doing,” Petrino said. “She’ll give you the tools then she lets you run with it and do your work.”

Amanda Lindsay, senior biologist at the Arboretum, said Elliott was a mentor for her as she started working in the Arboretum and said the student community Elliott has built at the Arboretum has been one of her greatest impacts.

“This is the only place where students can come and get involved and meet people,” Lindsay said. “And it’s always here for them, so it’s kind of like their home away from home.”

According to Lindsay, Elliott’s passion has been the key to the Arboretum’s success, and Elliott said since she started working for the Arboretum and Landscape and Natural Resources, her passion for conservation and education has grown.

“I really became passionate about conserving and protecting all of these habitats from the coast all the way to the center of the state because they’re all so different and so important,” Elliott said. “And also educating students, bringing students into that … I’m really very passionate about making sure the young people here understand that there are a lot of things you can do with a degree in biology.”

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