Heather Sander

Heather Sander
Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies
PhD, Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota
307 Jessup Hall
Office Hours: 
Mondays from 10:00 AM to 11:30 PM
Fridays from 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM
Research Interests: 
urban ecology, urban wildlife ecology and conservation, urban social-ecological systems, urban human-nature interaction, nature based solutions

My research centers combines field work, GIS, and ecologial modeling to explore questions related to urban ecosystems.  To this end, my research interests are highly interdisciplinary, integrating the natural and social sciences to understand human-environment interactions with a particular focus on the utilization of spatial models and analysis techniques to better understand the relationships between urban human well-being, biodiversity, ecosystem structure and function, and land use.  Through this research I seek to identify fundamental aspects of urban social-ecological systems that can effectively be applied to produce cities that support both environmental functioning and human quality-of-life.

My present research includes projects in:

  1. Urban biodiversity:  In today’s increasingly human-dominated world, conservation must occur in anthropogenic landscapes, including urban landscapes.Given that both urban wildlife ecology and the study of human-wildlife interaction in urban systems are in their infancy, we lack the basic understanding required to successfully implement urban conservation.  My research in this area seeks to identify how key biophysical and human elements of urban social-ecological systems and surrounding landscapes influence urban biodiversity, focusing on bird, mammal, and vegetation communities in small cities in the US Corn Belt, an area where little urban ecological research has been conducted. This work is part in the Urban Wildlife Information Network (UWIN), a network of researchers using common sampling methods and protocols to monitor vertebrate wildlife in cities across North America using trail cameras to derive global patterns and first principles of urban wildlife ecology,. 
  2. Urban human-nature interaction:  Cities are fundamentally human habitat; however, their design and management change urban ecosystems in ways that separate urbanites from nature and expose them to pollutants, noise, altered disease regimes, and urban heat, elevating stress and degrading mental and physical health. Nature-based solutions (NBS), actions that seek to address societal challenges by restoring, managing, or protecting ecosystems, offer a means for supporting human health and well-being and biodiversity in cities. Gaps in our understanding of how ecosystems benefit the human residents of cities, however, prevent us from effectively applying nature-based solutions to create biodiverse cities that support ecological functioning and equitably benefit their human residents. My research in this area draws from my strongly interdisciplinary background and experience establishing collaborations across disciplines to address these challenges by examining relationships between human well-being and urban ecosystems and how they vary within and among cities. My work also examines urban human-environment interaction via an ecosystem services lens, for example, identifying relationships between ecosystem structure and services such as pollination and carbon storage and sequestration, and the degree to which these services meet human demand.


  • GEOG:1070 Contemporary Environmental Issues
  • GEOG:2950 Environmental Conservation
  • BIOL/GEOG:2374: Biogeography
  • GEOG:3350 Urban Ecology
  • GEOG:3310 Landscape Ecology
  • GEOG:3340 Ecosystem Services: Human Dependence on Natural Systems
  • GEOG:4520 GIS for Environmental Studies: Applications
Graduate Advisees: 


Zachery Love (M.A., In progress)

Matthew Little (Ph.D., in progress)

Rachel Larson (Ph.D., in progress)

Nick Alex (M.A., 2022)

Taylor Billings (M.A., 2022)

Brandon MacDougall (Ph.D., 2021)

Brianna Zumhof (M.A., 2019)

Cody Hodson (Ph.D., 2019)

Chang Zhao (Ph.D., 2018)

Jason McCurdy (M.A., 2016)

Amirhossein Tayyebi (M.A., 2015)

Jamie Sanchagrin (M.A., 2015)

Hide Hiruma (M.A., 2013)

Grants & Funding: 


March 2023-February 2028. DISES: Social and ecological dynamics of human-tick-pathogen interactions in urban green space. Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems, National Science Foundation. Amount requested: $1,595,050. Investigator/s Heather A Sander (Principal Investigator), Maureen Murray (Co-Principal), Solny Adalsteinsson (Co-Principal), Whitney Anthonysamy (Co-Principal), Margaret Carrel (Co-Principal), Seth Magle (Senior Personnel), Elizabeth Biro (Senior Personnel).

May 2023-April 2026. Assessing how and why the benefits of urban vegetation vary with social and environmental context. Human-Environment and Geographical Sciences Program, National Science Foundation. Amount requested: $310,329. Investigator/s Heather A Sander (Principal Investigator).

Selected Funded

Greening cities equitably to support academic success:  Identifying how and why relationships between urban vegetation and academic performance vary with social and environmental context. Advancing Environmental Justice at UI funding program. Award amount: $39,000. Heather A Sander (Principal Investigator).

Identifying urban owl distribution patterns in an agricultural region. Iowa Audubon. Award amount: $995. Investigator/s Heather A Sander (Principal Investigator), Nicholas Alex (Co-Principal).-

Assessing changes in the songbird community associated with the August 2020 Iowa derecho event. Iowa Ornithologists Union. Award amount: $1,125. Investigator/s Heather A Sander (Principal Investigator), Brandon Caswell (Co-Principal).

Sustainable air quality: tracking aeroallergens across urban and rural environments. Interdisciplinary Scalable Solutions for a Sustainable Future Program, University of Iowa Office of the Provost. Award Amount: $40,000. Investigator/s Elizabeth A. Stone (Principal Investigator), Thomas Peters (Co-Principal Investigator), Heather A Sander (Co-Principal Investigator), Scott Spak (Co-Principal Investigator).

Schoolyard Nature:  Connecting Eastern Iowa Children to Nature. Funded by Office of Outreach and Engagement. Award amount: ($9,838.00) PI: Heather A Sander.

NSF REU Site: Interdisciplinary Geospatial Approaches to Watershed Science.  National Science Foundation. Award amount: $269,000. May 2019-August 2021. Investigator/s Marc A Linderman (Principal Investigator), David A Bennett (Co-Principal), Heather A Sander (Senior Personnel), Elmer Arthur Bettis (Senior Personnel), Liz Hollingworth (Senior Personnel), Marian Muste (Senior Personnel), Elise Pizzi (Senior Personnel), Silvia Secchi (Senior Personnel), Eric Tate (Senior Personnel).

Graduate College Challenge Grant. 2019-2021. "Interdisciplinary expansion of a successful community-focused science education program". Co-PI with Maurine Neiman, Andrew Forbes, Drew Kitchen, and Marc Linderman. $119,590.

Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) Seed Grant. 2019-2020. Co-PI with Stephen Hendrix, Growing the urban forest: Uncovering relationships that shape urban forests and understories in agricultural cities. $29,997.

University of Iowa, Outreach & Engagement. 2018-2019. Understanding perceptions of urban biodiversity and its benefits in eastern Iowa cities. Award amount: ($9,495.00). Investigator/s Heather A Sander (Principal Investigator), Brianna Zumhof (Co-Investigator)

National Science Foundation, WSC-Category 1.  2014-2019.  Senior Personnel for Decision Processes, Climate Change, and Water Resources in the Agricultural Midwest.  $599,383.  "Collaborative Research" with Adam Ward (PI), Co-PIs Kajsa Dalrymple and Scott Spak, and Senior Personnel Sara Mitchell, Eric Tate, Ananya Sen Gupta, and Aaron Strong.

Selected Publications: 

Google Scholar

MacDougall, B. M., Sander, H. A., Fidino, M., Ahlers, A., Angstmann, J.  Anthonysamy, W., Drake, D., Hayes Hursch, S., Larson, R., Lehrer, E., Magle, S., Ryan, T. Landscape and socioeconomic factors structure mesopredator distributions in Midwestern US cities. Ecological Applications.  In revision following review.

Sander, H.A., Hodson, C.B., MacDougall, B.M.  2022. Integrating human and species habitat preferences in conservation in heterogeneous urban settings. Environmental Conservation 49:234-243.

Larson, R. N., Sander, H. A. 2022. Seasonal activity patterns of sympatric eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and fox squirrels (S. niger) in a Midwestern metropolitan area.  Urban Ecosystems 25:1527–1539 

MacDougall, B., M., Sander, H. A. 2022. Mesopredator occupancy patterns in a small city in an intensively agricultural region. Urban Ecosystems 25:1231–1245.   

Sander, H. A. 2022. Closing four remaining gaps in deploying urban vegetation to enable sustainable cities.  One Earth 5:482-484.  

Gallo, T., Fidino, M., Gerber, B., Ahlers, A., Angstman, J., Amaya, M., Concilio, A.L., Drake, D., Lehrer, E.W., Murray, M.H., Ryan, T.J., St. Clair, C.C., Salsbury, C.M., Sander, H.A., Stankowich, T. Belaire, J.A., Magle, S.B. 2022. Mammals adjust diel activity across gradients of urbanization. eLife 11: e74756   DOI: 10.7554/eLife.74756 

Alderson, J., Sander, H.A.   2022. Combining historical accounts with contemporary bird survey data identifies changes in an avian community over a period of anthropogenic change.  Ibis 164(2):411-422. 

Kay, C., Rohnke, A., Sander, H., Stankowich, T., Fidino, M., Murray, M., Lewis, J., Taves, I., Lehrer, E., Zellmer, A., Schell, C., Magle, S. 2022. Barriers to Building Wildlife-Inclusive Cities: Insights from a joint summit of urban ecologists, urban planners, and landscape designers. People and Nature 4:62-70.

Magle, S., Fidino, M., Sander, H. A.,  Rohnke, Adam, Larson, Kelli, Gallo, T., Kay, C., Lehrer, E., Murray, M., Adalsteinsson, S., Ahlers, A., Anthonysamy, W., Gramza, A., Green, A., Jordan, M., Lewis, J., Long, R., MacDougall, B., Pendergast, M., Remine, K., Simon, K., St. Clair, C., Shier, C., Stankowich, T., Stevenson, C., Zelmer, A., Schell, C. 2021. Wealth and urbanization shape mammalian communities across North America.  Global Change Biology 27(21):5446-5459.   

Sander, H. A., McCurdy, J. D. 2021. Urban vegetation and songbird nesting guilds: Relationships and implications for conservation.  Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 64:127308.

Hodson, C. B., Sander, H. A. 2021. Urban vegetation, high school graduation, and social and environmental context. Landscape and Urban Planning 214:104161

Fidino, M., Gallo, T., Lehrer, E.W., Murray, M.H., Kay, C., Sander, H.A., MacDougall, B., Salsbury, C.M., Ryan, T.J., Angstmann, J.L. and Belaire, J.A., 2021. Landscape‐scale differences among cities alter common species’ responses to urbanization. Ecological Applications, p.e2253.

Hodson, C. B., Sander, H.A. 2019. Relationships between vegetation in student environments and academic achievement across the continental U.S. Landscape and Urban Planning 189:212-224. 

Zhao, C., Sander, H. A., Hendrix, S. B.  2019. Wild bees and urban agriculture: Assessing pollination supply and demand across urban landscapes.  Urban Ecosystems, 22(3): 455-470.

Magle, S. B., Fidino, M., Lehrer, E. W., et al. 2019. Advancing urban wildlife research through a multi-city collaboration.  Frontiers in Ecology and Environment, 17(4): 232-239.

Zhao, C., Sander, H. A. 2018.  Assessing accuracy in ecosystem service maps: An example using carbon storage. Landscape and Urban Planning, 175:11-22.

Sander, H. A., D. Ghosh, C.B. Hodson. 2017. Are greener neighborhoods healthier? Varying associations between body mass index and urban greenspace. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 26:1-10.

Hodson, C.B., H.A. Sander. 2017.  Green urban landscapes and school-level reading performance. Landscape and Urban Planning, 160:16-27.

Wilson, C.G., K.M.,Wacha, A.N. Papanicolaou, H.A. Sander, V.B. Freudenberg, B.K.B Abban, C.  Zhao. 2016.  Dynamic assessment of current management in an intensively managed agroecosystem. Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, 158:148-171.

Sander, H. A. 2016. Assessing impacts on urban greenspace, waterways, and vegetation in urban planning. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 59(3): 461-479.

H.E. Golden, H.A. Sander, C. Zhao, C.R. Lane, K. Price, E. D’Amico, and J.R. Christensen. 2016. Relative effects of geographically isolated wetlands on streamflow: a watershed-scale analysis. Ecohydrology 9(1):21-38.

Zhao, C., Sander, H. A. 2015. Quantifying and Mapping the Supply of and Demand for Carbon Storage and Sequestration Service from Urban Trees. PLOS-ONE 10(8).

Sander, H.A. and C. Zhao.  2015.  Urban green and blue: Who values what and where?  Land Use Policy 42:194-209.

Sander, H.A. and R.G. Haight. 2012. Estimating the economic value of cultural ecosystem services in an urban area using hedonic pricing. Journal of Environmental Management  113:194-205.

Nelson, E.J., H.A. Sander, P. Hawthorne, M. Conte, D. Ennaanay, S.M. Manson, and S. Polasky. 2010. Projecting global land-use change and its effect on ecosystem service production and biodiversity with simple models. PLoS ONE 5(12):1-22.

Sander, H.A., D. Ghosh, D. Van Riper, and S.M. Manson. 2010. How do you measure distance in spatial models? An example using open space valuation. Environment and Planning B. 37:874-894.

Sander, H.A. 2010. Viewshed analysis. In Encyclopedia of Geography, B. Warf, ed. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Sander, H.A., S. Polasky, and R.G. Haight. 2010. The value of urban tree cover, a hedonic estimation of home sale prices in Ramsey and Dakota County, Minnesota, USA. Ecological Economics. 69:1646-1656.

Kayzar, B., S.M. Manson, H.A. Sander, and N. Young. 2009. Template for a toolkit: community growth options for peripheral communities. The CURA Reporter 39(3-4):25-35.

Sander, H.A. and S. Polasky. 2009. The value of views and open space: estimates from a hedonic pricing model for Ramsey County, Minnesota, USA. Land Use Policy 26:837-845.

Manson, S.M.; H.A. Sander; D. Ghosh; J.M. Oakes; M.W. Orfield, Jr.; W.J. Craig; T.F. Luce Jr.; E. Myott, Jr.; and S. Sun. 2009. Parcel data for research and policy. Geography Compass 3(2):698-726.

Sander, H.A. and S.M. Manson. 2007. Heights and locations of artificial structures in viewshed calculation: how close is close enough? Landscape and Urban Planning 82(4):257-270. 


Selected, recent lab group presentations

Sander, H. A., McCurdy, J. D. 2022.  Songbird nesting guild responses to urban vegetation and their implications for conservation.  Ecological Society of America/Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution Joint Meeting, Montréal, Quebec, Canada.

Larson, R. N. Sander, H. A. 2022. Patterns of urban tree squirrel occupancy show strong city-level effects across their geographic range. 101st Annual Meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists, Tucson, AZ.

Leone, Z. Larson, R. N. Sander, H. A. 2022. Relationships between sex ratios and habitat fragmentation in urban white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus). 101st Annual Meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists, Tucson, AZ.

Larson, R. N. Sander, H. A. 2021. Varying responses to land cover, not temporal avoidance, lead to coexistence of sympatric tree squirrel species in a Midwestern US city. International Urban Wildlife Conference. Virtual.

Sander, H. A., Hodson, C. B. 2020. Urban vegetation, high school graduation, and social and environmental context. British Ecological Society Festival of Ecology. Virtual.

Larson, R. N., Sander, H.A. 2020. Varying responses to land cover, not temporal avoidance, lead to coexistence of sympatric tree squirrel species in a Midwestern US city.  British Ecological Society Festival of Ecology.  Virtual.

Sander, H. A. 2019. Assessing the habitat preferences of urban humans and birds to support urban landscape management, British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, Belfast, United Kingdom.

Sander, H. A. (session organizer and chair). 2019. 10th IALE World Congress, Introduction to Symposium 45: Conservation in the City, International Association for Landscape Ecology, Milan, Italy.

Sander, H. A., MacDougall, B. M. 2019. Indicator communities for songbird conservation in heterogeneous urban landscapes, International Urban Wildlife Conference, Portland, Oregon, 

MacDougall, B. M., Sander, H. A. 2019.International Urban Wildlife Conference, Urban wildlife conservation in the US Corn Belt: Mesopredators and their relationship to the urban environment in a small agricultural city, Portland, Oregon Presenters/Authors: Sander, Heather A Student Presenters/Authors: MacDougall, Brandon M

MacDougall, B. M, Sander, H. A. 2019. Assessing mesopredator occupancy patterns in an agricultural city. US Regional Association of the International Association for Landscape Ecology Annual Meeting, Fort Collins, CO. 

Sander, H. A., Hodson, C. B., MacDougall, B. M. 2018. Assessing spatial variation in the habitat preferences of urban humans and birds to support urban landscape management. British Ecological Society Annual Meeting 2018, Birmingham, U. K. 

Magle, S. B., Fidino, M., Lehrer, E. W., Gallo, T., Mulligan, M. P., Ríos, M. J., Ahlers, A. A., Angstmann, J., Belaire, A., Dugelby, B., Gramza, A., Hartley, L., MacDougall, B., Ryan, T., Salsbury, C., Sander, H. A., Schell, C., Simon, K., Drake, D. 2018. Advancing urban carnivore research through a multi-city collaboration. 25th Annual Conference of the Wildlife Society, Cleveland, Ohio.

MacDougall, B. M., Sander, H. A. 2018. Factors influencing presence and distribution of mesopredator species in a small agricultural city. North American Congress for Conservation Biology, Toronto, Canada.

Sander, H. A., MacDougall, B. M.  2018. Patterns in nesting guild communities and implications for conservation in agricultural cities. North American Congress for Conservation Biology, Toronto, Canada

Sander, H. A., MacDougall, B. M.  2018. Birds in Corn Belt Cities: Patterns in nesting guild communities in Eastern Iowa urban landscapes, US Regional Association of the International Association for Landscape Ecology Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois.

Zhao, C., Koylu, C., Sander, H. A. 2018. Using deep learning and kernel density estimation for detecting spatio-temporal footprints of birdwatchers on Flickr. American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Hodson, C. B., Sander, H. A. 2018. Associations between reading and mathematics proficiency rates, graduation rates, and vegetation and water in high school attendance areas. American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Sander, H. A., Hodson, C. B. 2017.  Assessing overlap in the habitat preferences of urban birds and humans to support land management for urban sustainability. Resilience 2017, Resilience Alliance, Stockholm Resilience Center, Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Sweden.

Zhao, C., Koylu, C., Sander, H. A. 2017. Watching the birdwatchers on Flickr: An adaptive kernel smoothing approach for visualizing spatiotemporal patterns of a cultural ecosystem service. 2nd International Symposium on Spatiotemporal Computing (ISSC), Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Zhao, C. and H.A. Sander.  2017. Wild pollinators and urban agriculture: Assessing pollination supply and demand across urban landscapes. American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, Boston, MA.

Sander, H.A., C.B. Hodson., and C. Zhao. 2017. A framework for assessing urban social and environmental sustainability. American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, Boston, MA.

Sander, H.A., C.B. Hodson, and J. McCurdy. 2016.  Can we manage cities for humans and other species? comparing the habitat preferences of urban humans and birds? 5th International Ecosummit. Montepellier, France.

Sander, H.A. and J.McCurdy. 2016. Assessing relationships between bird species and urban intensity, forests, and greenspace in agricultural cities. North American Congress for Conservation Biology, Madison, Wisconsin.