Studying South Jersey’s Epic Forest

Rutgers–Camden students, faculty, and partners continue a long tradition of conducting research in the Pine Barrens at the Rutgers Pinelands Field Station

Photo by Gary Colyer Jr.

When Rutgers–Camden biology major Julia DeFeo researches how forest fires impact fragile woodland ecosystems, she doesn’t do it in Camden—she studies the insects and trees and soil and other elements of nature at the Rutgers Pinelands Field Station more than 30 miles east of campus. “Being in the field and connecting to where our samples are coming from is a great opportunity,” said DeFeo, a junior from Haddonfield, New Jersey, who is involved in four different research projects in the Pinelands. “Many other students don’t get that experience.”

The station, started by the U.S. Forest Service in 1933, was established as a Rutgers site in 1985. Since then, scores of Rutgers–Camden undergraduate and graduate students and faculty have conducted studies in the forest and used on-site labs at the station in New Lisbon in Burlington County. The station also hosts many visiting researchers, including high numbers of students from other schools.

Studying the Pinelands, which cover about a third of New Jersey, is important for myriad reasons, said John Dighton, director of the field station and a professor with a joint appointment in the Rutgers–Camden biology department and at Rutgers–New Brunswick. Dighton, who specializes in soils and fungi and has authored numerous academic papers and books—including three books published in the past four years—said one key reason the Pinelands is important to New Jersey is that it sits above major freshwater aquifers that supply drinking water to many. Another is that the forest is home to numerous rare and endangered species and plant life, such as snakes, orchids, and sedges, many of which exist only in the Pine Barrens. “It’s a resilient, yet fragile, environment,” he said.

DeFeo, who is considering a career as an environmental attorney or a scientific researcher, said she enjoys her work that deals with how ecosystems are affected by fires. Wildfires, she said, will be more common as climate change continues to warm the earth, making the study of these fires relevant for the future. “The research we are doing here in that way is really important,” she said.

For more information about the Pinelands Field Station, visit

From left, Katie Malcolm CCAS’10 (also pictured above in the Pinelands forest); Evan Rosenheim CCAS’19; John Dighton, professor and director of the station; Julia DeFeo CCAS’21; and Steven Schulze GSC’20.

Posted in: 2019 Fall, Features

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