Maria Lemke’s passion for aquatic ecology is matched only by her drive to inspire and teach others. Luckily, her role at The Nature Conservancy allows her to follow both.
Maria is The Nature Conservancy in Illinois’ aquatic ecologist, and she has coordinated 10 years of research along the Mackinaw River at an experimental project site and at the Conservancy’s Research and Demonstration Farm, owned by the Franklin family in Lexington, IL. The focus of this research includes gaining a better understanding of why local farmers implement conservation practices; how best to reach them and influence their conservation decisions; and measuring the effectiveness of these practices at mitigating agricultural impacts on freshwater streams and rivers.
Summaries of Maria’s agricultural research were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Soil and Water Conservation and in the Journal of Environmental Quality. These publications demonstrated the need to work one-on-one with farmers to implement the right practices in the right places in order to effectively reduce the non-point source pollution in the Mackinaw River.
For the last several years, Maria and her team have been working with farmers along the Mackinaw River to construct wetlands that intercept agricultural drainage and prevent nitrates from entering nearby rivers and streams. This research is the basis of a new project with the City of Bloomington and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Together, the city, EDF and the Conservancy, among other partners, are working with farmers to implement constructed wetlands within their fields that will help reduce excess nitrates entering the city's drinking water supply for nearly 80,000 local residents.
Before her influential work on the Mackinaw River, Maria was a student with a passion for biology and zoology. She received her Bachelors of Science from the University of Oklahoma and continued pursuing science degrees for the next 12 years. She went on to receive her Masters of Science from the University of Oklahoma and her Ph.D. at the University of Alabama, both with an emphasis on aquatic ecology.
During her time as a student, she also learned to be an effective teacher. Maria held several teaching assistant jobs at both of her alma maters, and after receiving her Ph.D., Maria worked as an adjunct assistant professor in the biology department of the University of Illinois Springfield.
Maria’s drive to teach others about freshwater conservation continues today through her work with farmers along the Mackinaw River, and also through various outreach programs. During the past five years, Maria has taught wetland classes for McLean County Master Naturalist Program, hosted aquatic invertebrate sessions at annual Bio-Blitz events held at the Emiquon Preserve by University of Illinois at Springfield, and taught third graders about wetlands and invertebrates at Conservation Day events in Fulton and McLean counties.
Maria’s work and influence reaches far beyond the Mackinaw River. Lessons learned and research on effective conservation and outreach practices in the Mackinaw River is shared through the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership to reach people on a global scale and to promote the protection of rivers worldwide.
No matter what she’s working on, Maria’s knowledge and passion is what drives her to achieve and share great things.