Student Ignites Path To Career In Science Through Fellowship Program

By Kiara Reed, 2014 Ignite Fellow

In 2014, Kiara Reed left her home in Los Angeles and traveled across the country to a remote corner of Maine to embark on a two-week science fellowship on the expedition Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park. Funded by The Durfee Foundation, the Ignite LA Student Science Awards aim to stimulate curiosity and interest in science and technology through hands-on research. Kiara immersed herself in the beauty of Acadia National Park and came away from the experience transformed and inspired to pursue a career in science. 


20160712_194408Before embarking on this program, I had never set foot on a national park reserve, let alone Acadia National Park – a 47,000-acre, pine tree-filled paradise off the coast of Maine. As a Los Angeles city dweller, I was in awe at the miles and miles of vast forestry and picturesque views from our peninsula to the surrounding islands. Along with enjoying the scenes, I was given explanations about the ecology of the region. Our chief scientist, Dr. John Cigliano, taught us about the overfishing of cod in the western Atlantic Basin and ocean acidification, our research topic.

As a team, my group and I tracked the biodiversity of organisms in tide pools, many of which have calcium carbonate shells, rendering them vulnerable to changes in pH levels in the water. We collected common periwinkle snails from the tide pool for further observation. Examining snail behavior and shell weights in the lab made me feel like a real field researcher, giving me insights otherwise unobtainable at my inner-city high school. I left the expedition with a newfound appreciation for nature and a more realistic view about what research is all about.

Common periwinkles on barnacles in Acadia National Park.

Common periwinkles on barnacles in Acadia National Park.

When the college exploration season came around, the impacts of this expedition became clear. My college counselor mandated that everyone apply to an out of state school. Having cherished my time in Maine, I decided to add Colby College to the list. One part of the application consisted of a personal statement. Here, I wrote about my Earthwatch experience and the value of citizen science, proposing that we can reverse human-caused environmental degradation with two things: optimism and collective effort.

I was accepted to the school as well as a six-week science program where I was able to research causes for the decline of eelgrass on Mount Desert Island, study the environmental chemistry of Maine lakes, and even investigate applications of green chemistry. By the end of this program, I found that contributing to an authentic research project made me feel capable and, at the same time, uncertain as each discovery posed more questions.

Earthwatch gave me the confidence and inspiration I needed to pursue a career in the sciences.

If I hadn’t participated in my Earthwatch expedition, I do not think I would have the confidence to attend a private college in Maine – which is on the opposite end of the country from my home state – or have the courage to become a scientist myself. As you may be able to tell, this program was likely a catalyst to my scientific endeavors. It helped me develop realistic expectations for a career in the sciences and took me out of the city to inspire me with the beauty of biology.


Applications are still being accepted for 2017 Ignite Fellowships. To learn more, visit our website.

How Bees And ‘Chili Grenades’ Can Prevent Human-Elephant Conflict

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

Elephants seen during the expedition Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in KenyaA strobe light, a roman candle, and a “chili grenade” (which, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is a condom filled with chili powder, small rocks, and a firecracker) – these “repellents” might be methods to save not only your crops, but an elephant’s life, according to research being conducted throughout Africa and Asia. One such research study is Earthwatch’s new expedition: Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in Kenya, led by Dr. Bruce Schulte.

Bruce has spent over 20 years working with elephants, and beginning in 2017, he will launch this new Earthwatch project, in part to help reduce human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Kenya. Elephants have come into conflict with farmers by eating or damaging crops as farms expand and elephant habitat dwindles.

Another important focus of the study will be on land conservation by implementing the latest methods in sustainable agriculture and forestry. Climate change has resulted in extreme weather events, threatening agriculture production in sub-Saharan Africa. The project aims to find ways around these agriculture impediments by using climate-smart agriculture – a method that reduces pesticide and herbicide use and supports crops that are resistant to climate change while improving soil, land, and water management systems. The soil in this region lacks nutrients and water, and can only sustain agricultural life for a brief period causing farmers to travel deeper into the bush for healthier soil.

An African elephant in Kenya.As farmers shift their agriculture practices into elephant habitat, HEC has increased. Elephants are crucial to the maintenance of their environments by regenerating forests through seed dispersal and trail generation, as well as serving as an important source economically for African tourism. To better protect this species while supporting local farmers and their livelihoods, researchers are testing the effect of repellents on the elephants.

“One of the problems with elephants is that because they are highly intelligent, social, and long-lived animals, they have the ability to problem solve and retain knowledge,” Bruce said. “Through this project, a multifaceted solution will be found.”

Bruce has been experimenting with a number of natural repellents such as strobe lights or natural sound projection ranging from lions roaring to helicopters flying overhead. Although because of their natural intelligence, elephants have learned these repellents have no negative effect on their well-being and begin to ignore them after several interactions. Other repellents used are beehive fences and chili grenades, which remain effective because the elephant will associate being stung or inhaling a foul scent when crossing onto farms.

Aluminum strip fences are another method of repelling elephants from raiding crops.

Aluminum strip fences are another method of repelling elephants from raiding crops.

On average, elephants destroy 10 to 15 percent of a crop yield in one raid, and sometimes as much as 100 percent. By experimenting with repellents along with agricultural practices, Bruce’s project will reduce HEC and work to develop agricultural models alongside local and national officials to broaden conservation practices that will benefit this terrain. If successful, this will ensure stable agriculture and allow humans and elephants to live harmoniously.

“The goal is to make this bigger than any one individual, or group,” Bruce said. “The idea is to establish enough connections with the local people – all the way up to the Kenyan government – to get these practices to become sustainable.”

The Story of How a Painter and Wolf Expert Became Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist: Dr. Cristina Eisenberg

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

Beginning at a young age, Dr. Cristina Eisenberg has had a passion for science, describing herself as the nerdy kid in second grade who spent her time in the library reading every book on wildlife, anthropology, archeology, and paleontology that she could get her hands on.

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

“I was fascinated by it,” Cristina said. “But like many people, I got sidetracked away from science.”

Today, Cristina is Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist – overseeing a portfolio of more than 50 research studies around the world, including her own, which focuses on the relationship between fire and wolves in the Canadian Rockies. Her research is playing a crucial role in restoring the once extensive grasslands of Waterton Lakes National Park back to their pre Euro-American settings.

In 1999, with a bachelor’s degree in painting, Cristina relocated to northwest Montana along the continental divide. A naturalist and stay-at-home mom at the time, she learned to track animals that passed through her land – a system developed to ensure her children’s safety. On a cool and misty July morning, as she was working outside in her garden, Cristina watched as a deer burst from the woods into the meadow in front of her home with two wolves in pursuit.

“It ran towards us and came within about 20 feet of us and right behind it was a pair of wolves, a grey one and a black one,” Cristina said. “Later I learned that it was an alpha male and female pair. They had started a pack.”

Cristina determined these wolves were traveling down from Canada and recolonizing the landscape, which was located just 400 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

This rare sighting sparked her interests and she began tracking wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a volunteer basis. She was a citizen scientist in action. In 2003, she returned to school and obtained her master’s in conservation biology and environmental writing from Prescott University. Cristina’s first book, The Wolf’s Tooth, was based on her master’s thesis. She then went on to pursue two doctorates in wildlife and forestry at Oregon State University.

While completing her doctorate, Cristina hired interns with field experience to support her research, several of whom had volunteered on Earthwatch expeditions. While she had heard of Earthwatch in the past, this was her first real exposure to the organization.

But her ties to Earthwatch were only just beginning. In 2010, she gave a talk on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she met Earthwatch’s Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman. Three years later, she spoke again at a fundraiser in Seattle about the relationship with her volunteers and their importance in her research, which Stan also attended. He recognized her passion for environmental science and for citizen science, and suggested she write a proposal for an Earthwatch research project. In 2015, Cristina launched her first Earthwatch expedition: Tracking Fire and Wolves through the Canadian Rockies.

“The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know.” – Cristina Eisenberg

During the Westward expansion, large carnivorous predators were wiped out to eliminate human settlement interactions as well as increase the availability of game. These actions resulted in a boom in herbivore populations. At the same time, fire was suppressed in order to protect forest resources and human interests. Funded by Parks Canada, Earthwatch, the Kainai First Nation, and the AGL Foundation, Cristina’s research examines the effects that these conditions have had on the species within Waterton Lakes National Park, a biodiversity hotspot located in Alberta, Canada. With the natural recolonization of wolves and use of large prescribed fires, the area has experienced drastic change.

Cristina and her team in the field in the fire site. (Courtesy Donna Fleury)

Cristina and her team in the field in the fire site. (Courtesy Donna Fleury)

In September of 2014, she was hired as Earthwatch’s Lead Scientist, and more recently assumed the role of Chief Scientist. With more than 10 years of field experience under her belt, Cristina is a scientist who is “attached to the natural world.” She has had some exciting experiences in the field, including a memorable 24-hour period in May pulling transect tape in a blizzard as wolves silently hunted behind her, or watching as an elusive alpha female wolf devoured a fully grown elk. Her work more recently includes working alongside the aboriginal Kainai Tribe, where she is supporting efforts to update their timberland management plan to protect their sacred lands.

While Cristina is now stationed at Earthwatch’s headquarters in Boston, each May she returns to the field with a group of volunteers, continuing the conservation of one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. Her research has and will continue to unfold the ecological mysteries of this area, while posing new questions for years to come.

On the Move in Malawi: A Conservation Success Story

By Alix Morris

Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi. A helicopter whirs above the savanna as the pilot “herds” a family of zebras towards a nearby funnel-shaped structure created by the park staff. As thZebra making their way through the final gate prior to loadinge zebras rush into the tunnel, a reserve manager quickly closes a sliding plastic curtain behind them. The animals continue to push forward as additional sliding curtains close one by one behind them, edging them towards a loading ramp. The zebras climb up the ramp and pack into a large transport container hitched to a truck, completing the first stage of an epic, 500 kilometer journey to their new home.

 

Zebra loaded up

A family of zebras from Majete is loaded into a transport truck.


A Park in Crisis

Not long ago, Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve was once devoid of, well, wildlife. Poaching, logging, and charcoal burning were rampant, destroying the region’s iconic animals and their habitat. By the mid-1980s, elephants had been poached to extinction, along with zebras, rhinos, hartebeest, and many other species. Only a few hippos and crocodiles remained.

But in 2003, everything changed. African Parks, a non-profit organization, launched a partnership with the Malawian government and local communities to return Majete to what it once was – a wildlife haven. Their idea was to “re-stock” the park with 14 species of animals that had once lived there.

It was a pioneering effort. But no one knew if it would work.


Earthwatch on the Scene

Since 2013, Earthwatch volunteers have joined Dr. Alison Leslie of Stellenbosch University and the Majete Wildlife Research Programme to support critical research efforts on the ground through the expedition Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve.  The research team is investigating the ecology of many of the reintroduced species, such as diet, behavior, home range, and territory establishment, all of which will contribute to a wildlife management plan for the reserve.

Leslie - credit Dr. Allison Leslie (16)

Earthwatch volunteers record wildlife observations in Majete.


A Conservation Success Story

Today, 13 years after the initial conservation efforts, 2,500 elephants, buffalos, waterbuck, nyala, hartebeest, zebras – even critically endangered black rhinos – have been reintroduced in the reserve. And many species are doing so well that, to prevent destruction of vegetation in the park, some of the animals are currently being re-located to other protected reserves in Malawi where populations are struggling.

And so begins a massive translocation effort – a human-assisted wildlife migration from Majete in southern Malawi to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in the northern part of the country (a journey of approximately 500 kilometers). The massive effort began this month and will continue into 2017.

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“Majete’s success story is a shining example of conservation in practice, incorporating a combination of scientific research, management, law enforcement, and community participation.” – Dr. Alison Leslie

In 2003, African Parks and their partners had a dream for Majete Wildlife Reserve, and 13 years later, that dream has come true, said Alison.

Find out more about this Earthwatch research expedition in Malawi on our website and discover how you can be a part of this pioneering conservation effort.

 

Earthwatch: ‘An experience that will always be a part of you.’

By Jan Boal

Author Jan Boal believes in tuning oneself in to the signs from the universe. Her book, “Safari for the Soul,” explores her journey in finally heeding these signs and taking a leap of faith in herself, deciding to travel the world solo. During her year of self-discovery, she volunteered on three Earthwatch expeditions and was profoundly changed.


Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir

I recently had the absolute pleasure of meeting the staff of Earthwatch Institute at their Boston Headquarters. Not only was I warmed by their sincerity, but I was grateful for their vision and dedication in pursuit of caring for our planet.

In 2011, I volunteered on three expeditions, Blazing the Biodiversity Trail in Brazil, Dolphins of Greece, and Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos. I was 52 at the time, single and following my calling. I knew it would be like when I went off to college: Anticipation of what was to come, knowing I would be different when I returned, and anxious for all those same reasons along with traveling alone to these far away countries. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself.

Like college and getting an education, it is the same when venturing off with Earthwatch — an education, an experience that will always be a part of you, a broadening of yourself, like a breath of fresh air, a new you. Be prepared that volunteering on an expedition is quite holistic and all-encompassing. You will learn about the animal/environment you signed up for as well as the culture of this environment and its impact and struggles dealing with whatever threatened issue is involved.

 

Black rhinos as seen by Jan Boal on the expedition Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos.

You will experience being around a type of passion we seldom experience, usually only witnessing it in the movies. I am talking about the directors of the sites — these scientists who eat, sleep, and breathe in pursuit of their cause — who do it with such dedication and enthusiasm that once you experience this it will unlock something within yourself.

Admiration and unlimited gratitude is what I felt when I went to sleep each night after returning from my expeditions. I knew these scientists were continuing their calling, their mission in gathering data and saving a part of our world — day, after day, after day, after day.

The hands-on experience, learning something new and foreign, being challenged by this — by the travel, unfamiliar ways, and culture — working on a volunteer team consisting of such a variety of people unknown to you, realization of situation, the direness and frustration of this environmental issue, and the pride and joy you will experience is profound and life changing.

I encourage you to trust in this process and have an experience, a journey of a lifetime. You won’t regret it! Be a piece of the puzzle that helps to solve the problem and save our home we call Earth.

Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda

By Earthwatch Expedition Advisor Dustin Colson and Field Team Leader Geoffrey Muhanguzi

As food supplies in Uganda’s Budongo Forest Reserve decline, chimpanzees and other primate species that call it home are increasingly raiding nearby farms, where they come into conflict with the farmers who depend on these crops. Earthwatch teams are investigating what is causing the mysterious decline in fruiting tree productivity in this gently rolling forest to ensure that conservation measures to support forest primates and local communities are put in place. Earthwatch Expedition Advisor Dustin Colson and Field Team Leader Geoffrey Muhanguzi share what it’s like to volunteer on Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda and explain the need for ongoing support.

Budongo Conservation Field Station, Uganda


A Chimp Encounter in Budongo
-Dustin Colson, Earthwatch Expedition Advisor

I wake with a start from an unfamiliar sound. The room is filled with hazy light streaming through a mosquito net.

“Where am I?” I wonder. I hear the sound again, the pant-hooting of a group of chimps just outside my window. “Ah, yes. Budongo.”

I’m in the midst of a lively biodiverse environment, the Budongo Forest Reserve — the jewel of northwestern Uganda. The chimps are calling to each other using sounds that start low and build to a climax of shrill screeches. I will have to move quickly if I’m to catch a glimpse of them. I throw on my clothes, upend my boots to check for spiders before slipping them on, and open the door to face the forest’s edge.

I’m not disappointed. A group of Sonso chimps are padding along the well-worn path leading into the lantana, their favorite mid-morning hang out spot. Not more than 20 feet ahead of me, a mother named Oakland and her unnamed infant clinging to her back pause, checking to see if the way is clear. Most adults will ignore you, but the baby chimp glances over her shoulder and makes eye contact with me. Perhaps I’m the first human she’s ever seen.

Oakland with her infant.

Oakland with her infant in the Budongo Forest Reserve.

As my arms rise to bring the camera closer to my face, as does the hair on the back of my neck. My mind and body are finally awakening to the realization that I am witnessing something very few people get to experience in a lifetime. I count myself lucky to be an Earthwatch volunteer stationed at the Budongo Conservation Field Station and snap a picture.

As much as these chimps left an impression on my life, it was good to know that volunteering in Budongo was positively changing their lives as well. Chimpanzees are an endangered species facing numerous anthropogenic threats. The 600 remaining chimps in the Budongo Forest Reserve are threatened by poaching, habitat fragmentation, and an unexplained reduction in the abundance of fruiting trees. Earthwatch scientist Dr. Fred Babweteera and his team of field assistants are conducting a long-term study to determine the underlying causes of the reduction in fruiting trees, while simultaneously providing relief from the threat of poachers and deforestation.

Earthwatch volunteers contribute to the research effort by walking forest transects collecting tree phenology data, conducting pollinator surveys, and observing monkey and chimpanzee foraging behavior. The expedition contribution cost also ensures that the conservation effort is well-funded and well-manned. The veterinary program, the snare patrol team, the transect cutters, and the farmer startup program all rely on a steady stream of charitable contributions from Earthwatch volunteers. As an Earthwatch employee I am aware that all Earthwatch projects work to create a sustainable environment, yet experiencing these programs first-hand was eye-opening.


Babweteera -Credit Dustin Colson9 (3) copy

The Importance of Volunteer Support
-Geoffrey Muhanguzi, Field Team Leader and Budongo Conservation Field Station’s Manager

While in the Budongo Forest Reserve, the volunteer researchers will help the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) team to investigate the threats to the survival of chimpanzees, including the changes in tree fruiting and flowering, as well as the abundance and distribution of pollinating insects. The team will explore how primates and other wild animals have coped with the changes in flowering and fruiting patterns. Do these animals change their foraging time and place? Do they raid peoples’ crops more often? This information will be useful in developing wildlife conservation strategies, such as human-wildlife conflict management.

Other threats to chimpanzee survival include illegal hunting. Guided by the BCFS snare patrol team, volunteers will participate in looking out for illegal traps (snares) placed in the reserve. Having detected the threats inside the reserve and the potential effects in the Budongo landscape, BCFS has piloted buffer crops with the potential for reducing crop-raiding incidences. Volunteers will conduct interviews with local farmers to assess the potential of buffer crops in reducing crop raids, mitigating human-wildlife conflict with the possibility of increasing chimpanzee survival close to cultivated fields.

We are always grateful for extra hands and eyes in collecting data. We thank those that intend to volunteer and those who have joined us in Budongo in the past.

 

When I Was 17, My Life Changed.

By Taormina Lepore, Earthwatch Student Fellow

At age 17, Taormina Lepore boarded a plane for the very first time on her way to an archaeological excavation as an Earthwatch student fellow, funded by the Durfee Foundation. The two weeks she spent on the dig in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, changed her future career path.


Student fellow Taormina Lepore in 2001 during the Jackson Hole Bison expedition.

Student fellow Taormina Lepore in 2001 during the Jackson Hole Bison expedition.

When I was 17 years old, my life changed.

My eyes were opened to a world outside my comfort zone, a world of science, field work, and new horizons.

When I was 17 years old, I stepped onboard a plane.

It was the first time I’d been on a plane by myself, and this time the flying “aluminum can with wings” would take me from my everyday high school existence in suburban Boston, all the way to an empty, expansive field in the breathtakingly beautiful National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming. I would be there for two weeks, field camping and working with strangers who would become like family.

It was exhilarating and terrifying and intellectually exciting, all at the same time.

teampic3

When I was 17 years old, I excavated the ancient past.

Without this formative experience, I might not have had the courage to pursue my dreams and goals as a scientist and educator. It started with a few brushes and a few meter-by-meter square plots of archaeological excavation at an ancient midden site, where bison bone fragments and flakes of caramel quartzite lay just beneath the moist soil surface.

When I was 17 years old, I went on an Earthwatch expedition.

And this archaeological expedition kick-started a lifelong passion for experiential education. Thanks to an Earthwatch student fellowship, I was able to test my courage, break out of the norm, and fuel an endless desire to travel, to seek new experiences, and learn about the natural world. I’m almost 32 now, and in the time since my Earthwatch expedition, I’ve gone on to work as a museum educator around the country, as a research paleontologist in graduate school, and as a high school science educator.

teampic4

With each experience, I find myself referring back to that Earthwatch experience as the baseline for stretching my boundaries.

Before Earthwatch, being actively involved in science was just an idea, and a far-away idea at that. Earthwatch made the idea a reality. I became a lifelong advocate for citizen science, high school field experiences, and outdoor education. And I became a scientist, studying paleoecology through dinosaur tracks and fossilized droppings known as coprolites.

In a recent job as a consultant paleontologist, I regularly visited construction sites to monitor for fossil resources.

I kept my Earthwatch research team sweatshirt with me every day, as a reminder of how one field experience can make an impact on a young student’s life, and allow her to be consistently mindful of how citizen science can change the world.

I think about Earthwatch whenever I’m in the field.

As an educator, I help my students reach past their own comfort zones, and branch out in their scientific interests. I want them to motivate themselves and find encouragement for their passions, and take the leap to always ask questions, to go camping, to try field science. From conservation, to paleontology and archaeology, to our global context as human beings, field work and citizen science are the underpinnings of a transformative education. It certainly transformed me in ways I’m still discovering, even today. I think about Earthwatch when I remind my students that they can do these same kinds of things. Scientific field work is within their reach.

If every student could be given the same opportunity I had to join an Earthwatch expedition, I really believe we would have a more compassionate, more scientifically literate, and more passionate world. I’m grateful every day for being given the chance to change my life and ignite my scientific passion with Earthwatch.

Taormina Lepore in the field in 2015.

Taormina Lepore in the field in 2015.


Applications are now open for our 2017 student fellowships. To learn more, visit our website