CELS Senior learns value of connecting with others while researching abroad

IMG_8584Not many undergraduates can say that they’ve supervised a group of five researchers in a foreign country before their senior year. Zahrie Ernst, senior at URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) did just that in rural Tanzania this summer. The experience as an international researcher gave Ernst a new understanding of how to bridge cultural gaps and apply that knowledge to her life back at URI.

Ernst was part of a month-long research expedition led by Emi Uchida, Professor of Environmental and Natural Resources Economics, which investigated the environmental conditions that keep people in poverty, so called “poverty traps.” “I saw things differently when I came back,” recalls Ernst, Environmental and Natural Resources Economics major.

Combining research skills she learned from CELS with a weeklong training at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Ernst led her team studying how aquatic mangrove forests function as a poverty trap, or a mechanism that makes it difficult for people to escape poverty. Mangroves are important fixtures in the ecosystem as they provide protection from coastal storms and offer critical habitat for fish, a vital and inexpensive food source. However, in the poverty trap cycle, mangrove trees are frequently cut down for fuel, leading to the loss of a food source and deeper poverty.

Ernst and her teamed traveled from village to village to study the communities and conditions near mangroves. They tested water quality, conducted interviews with Tanzania stakeholders, and met with local officials, giving her an in-depth look at life in a developing country.

zahrieyogaAt first, Ernst felt daunted by leading a team of Tanzanian researchers much older than her. “I felt that I didn’t deserve it,” remembers Ernst, “I was just this undergraduate.” Soon it was apparent that Ernst’s natural ability to work with diverse groups made her qualified to take on such a large role.

After sharing long working hours, dinners, snacks, and stories, Ernst began to build relationships with her coworkers. Once she understood the researchers’ values and background, she was able overcome some cultural barriers, be a more effective team leader, and absorb a few new words in Swahili. “I learned it’s really important to have relationships with people who are different than you,” reflects Ernst, “I think that requires some level of compassion.”

“Zahrie had an amazing capacity to adapt, trying to find solutions to make things work for everyone,” recalls Uchida, Ernst’s research advisor and mentor. “She quickly bonded with the Tanzanian enumerators and created a positive working environment.”

Ernst’s experience in Tanzania taught her the importance of understanding cultural difference and the value of building personal connections. Back at URI, Ernst was able to apply that knowledge to the yoga classes she teaches at the on-campus Anna Fascitelli Fitness and Wellness Center. To alleviate anxiety after the recent divisive presidential election, Ernst encouraged her yoga students to talk to someone new as a way of breaking down barriers and fostering a sense of community.

Ernst encourages students to take a wide variety of courses and to travel internationally to expand their understanding of the world. As Ernst is about to embark on the next chapter in her life, she leaves the door open for future graduate studies or for more international work. Reflecting on her research and the people she encountered along the way, Ernst offers that the “Tanzanians were the sweetest most welcoming people I’ve ever met in my entire life.” The experience and the friends she made helped Ernst recognize the value of taking the time to understand people, whether at URI or across the globe.