This Biology Major Just Burned Down an Entire Field… For Science

June 10, 2019

Abbi Christensen didn’t quite know what to expect on the morning of April 20.

She woke up to gentle winds, rolling clouds, and bright sunshine. A native of Watertown, Minn., Christensen has a shock of red hair and a good-natured disposition. She also has deep technical knowledge about biology and chemistry, and how it impacts everyday life.

Arriving on the Crown College campus, she combed the hillside and noted a scraggle of wily underbrush, noxious weeds, and thorny thistles. Dressed head to toe in a flame-retardant uniform, she assembled her team with flamethrowers in hand.

Their goal? To set an entire field afire, all in the name of science.

Supervised by the Prairie Restoration of Minnesota, the controlled burn matched up nicely with Christensen’s major in Biology. She wanted to find out what would happen to the soil and monitor the new growth, research that would involve burning down over two acres of countryside.

“Everything is an experience for me,” she joked a few days before the experiment on campus. “I always like to try something new so I can find something I love. They always say if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.”

How she ended up setting a field on fire is a compelling story, to say the least.


Choosing Crown and finding her place

It all started while she was attending another local college.

She would drive by the Crown campus on her way to class, always wondering what was behind the rolling hills and a disc golf course you can see from the road.

“The feeling I had when I first walked in the door was like coming home,” she recalls. Enrolling in 2017, she immediately gravitated to the Biology program, including Dr. Don Hardy, who gave her personalized attention and made her feel welcome. She also got to know Dr. Dean Erickson, a Professor of Old Testament Studies, soon after attending, and had many discussions.

“I come from a traditional church background, and I’m used to singing more choral pieces in a church choir, so it was fun to experience worship music at Crown,” she says. “I never felt like I was butting heads with anyone, and it’s been nice to see where I can go with my faith.”

At Crown, she joined the Faith and Science Club and presented a hypothesis once at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. “I never thought I’d get a chance to do something like that,” she says.

Loving the science

For Christensen, it’s her passion for the field of science that really started to blossom.

She proposed the controlled burn to Dr. Hardy, and during a class project they performed a test on a small area of campus — only a few garden plots.

“We treated the plots with fertilizer, and noticed how they grew back very green and fertile,” she says. “We found that fire can really help recycle the nutrients.”

At the time, she mentioned an idea of a much larger and more ambitious controlled burn on campus. The idea was to control the invasive species, learn from the organic reactions that occur within the soil, and reintroduce native Minnesota plant species by planting more seeds onto a scorched area.

Interestingly, she sees the experiment as a way to learn about veterinary science — that animals suffering from nutritional diseases may benefit from nutrient-adjusted grasses.

Already enrolled in veterinary school, she plans to work in a veterinary teaching hospital or become a researcher, potentially focusing on animal nutrition.

“There are so many things you can do outside of working at a clinic and treating animals directly,” she says. “I’ll be taking classes like microbiology, biochemistry, and cellular biology.”

Christensen also had to learn about team management, how to apply for burn permits, and making sure the field is well-prepared for the burn. The team doused outlying areas with water, a crew was on hand to monitor the fire, and they alerted local law enforcement and fire departments.

“I wanted to learn about the best way to gather data from an experiment,” she says, noting that she plans to come back to campus as an alumna and analyze soil samples.


Burning the field

The day of the burn, Christensen was pumped and ready.

She had never experienced a controlled burn like this firsthand. The team cordoned off one section of campus far away from any student activity.

The team then monitored how the fire progressed, and noticed how the fire danced around some of the pine trees and small fruit trees, bypassing them altogether. At once point, Christensen had a smudge of black charcoal on her face — and a big smile.

“I was really interested more in the organic reactions in the soil than the actual burn,” she joked.

Eventually, the team expanded to another section of land, carefully dousing the borders with more water. They realized they could start a new controlled burn on one edge of the prairie and let the wind carry the fire to another side of a hill.

Everything transpired perfectly, and when it was all over, the entire field was black.

Curiously, the team then noticed how new growth started to appear in only a matter of days — a lush green color that brightened up the entry to the campus.

“When you burn something, it turns into ash and the degrading of the plants recycles the organic material into the soil,” she explained. “That introduces things like nitrogen and phosphorous, and reduces competition in the soil. Then we can reintroduce native species into the soil.”

She noted how future students can continue to monitor the growth, and she knows she’ll be back. The controlled burn was a highlight of her time at Crown, a rare opportunity to not only learn about biology but to work with other students and professors.

“A controlled burn is a methodical process, but we learn a lot about science,” she says.

That could easily describe her college experience as well.