International summer travel gives CELS students rich cultural and research experiences

Dog days are meant for relaxing poolside, sunbathing, or grilling in the backyard. But for some students in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, summer is also a great opportunity to travel, experience new cultures, and engage in hands-on research. This summer, CELS students, faculty, and staff trekked down the coast to balmy Florida and international destinations in the southern hemisphere to study today’s most pressing environmental challenges, from sustainable fisheries management to water pollution.

Twenty-four-hour transatlantic flights are now second nature to Dr. Thomas Boving, Professor of Hydrology in the Department of Geosciences and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Joining Boving on the long journey to India were eight students from a range of academic disciplines, including geosciences, environmental management and biomedicine. “By taking along my students, I was able to teach them about this technology and water quality issues in India, pollution of the environment in general, but also the social aspects of life in a developing country,” he adds.

For more than a decade, Boving has researched and installed groundwater filtration technologies in developing nations, providing local communities with much-needed access to clean drinking water. In May, Boving’s work took him to Goa, a state on the west coast of India, and one of his three current research sites. His work in India focuses on riverbank filtration, a low-tech, sustainable water treatment technology that draws water from nearby rivers to flow underground towards wells. The process ensures cleaner water than drawing from the river’s surface. Many of India’s rivers still face contamination from heavy industrial pollution and sewage discharge, which creates serious environmental and public health challenges. In addition to learning about water quality and hydrology, and earning course credit for graduation, the students also immersed themselves in Indian culture, visiting Hindu temples and exploring the former Portuguese colonial capital of Old Goa.

From India’s coastline along the Arabian Sea we travel to Ghana where recent CELS graduate, Maximilian Bucher, spent the summer working to address collapsing fish populations. Bucher’s work in Cape Coast supported the Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project, a five-year program funded by the USAID that aims to rebuild marine fisheries stocks and catches through the adoption of responsible fishing practices.

Bucher collaborated with faculty and staff from the Department of  Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Sciences (FAVS) in CELS, as well as doctoral students from a Ghanaian partner institution, University of Cape Coast. Together with Evans Arizi, a CELS postdoctoral student originally from Ghana, Bucher conducted a stock assessment and created a management plan for sardines and anchovies. These herring-family species are important for Ghanaian artisanal fishermen and the national diet.

“Apart from the academic knowledge I am gaining, and the almost daily crisis management of working in a developing country,” reflects Bucher, “the most valuable experience has been to get an insight into the various thoughts, motivations, ambitions, and conflict of a fishery that involves fishermen going fishing in small canoes to simply try to feed their families.” Bucher graduated Summa Cum Laude with a bachelor’s in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics in May.

Approximately 4,000 nautical miles off the Ghanaian coast lies the British island territory of Bermuda where Dr. Hollie Putnam, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, conducted research this summer. In partnership with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), Putnam and her graduate student, Kevin Wong, studied the mechanisms corals use to adapt to climate change impacts, such as warming waters and ocean acidification. In the early stages of their study, the researchers were surprised to learn that corals may be able to adapt more rapidly to a changing climate than previously thought.

A native of Canada, Wong has been working at BIOS since 2014 when he first pursued a research internship investigating the role of temperature and light on the growth and survival of mustard hill corals, rightfully named for their yellow color. “That was my first experience with research,” says Wong. “I wanted to see and learn the methods and techniques used, to get a taste of what research was like.”

In addition to conducting coral research this summer, Wong also worked as a teaching assistant for a coral reef ecology course Putnam taught in conjunction with faculty at BIOS. The three-week intensive course provides students with an introduction to the structure and functions of coral reef systems through lectures, laboratory exercises, and field scuba diving experience.

“It is critical to partner with research institutions like BIOS and others to give students the hands-on research and critical thinking skills they may not develop in the same way in the classroom,” offers Putnam. “I think these international experiences are very eye-opening.”

Back on the mainland, in the urban jungle of Miami, Florida, CELS undergraduate, Noah Gilbert, also had an eye-opening experience.  As part of Dr. Jason Kolbe’s research laboratory in the Department of Biological Sciences, Gilbert spent the summer gathering lizard tails in order to study the reptile’s response to urbanization. Gilbert and Marcos Vargas-Rodriguez, a visiting Science and Engineering Fellow from Puerto Rico, assisted with the catching and surveying of local lizards to track the spread of invasive species in Southeast Florida.

“I learned how to use a GPS and conduct transects, differentiate between all of the anole (lizard) species in Miami, catch and survey anoles, and work as a member of a productive team in a biological research setting,” says Gilbert, who is also a URI Coastal Fellow. Over the course of their research, the students were intrigued to discover that U.S. Route 1 acts as a buffer against the invasive lizard species from Puerto Rico, preventing the non-native lizards from spreading farther inland.

“The experience gained from this trip is so incredibly valuable,” Gilbert reflects on his summer travels. “The skills gained from a trip like this not only help to build research experience, but also help make you a stronger student and team member.”

Whether it’s at CELS or across the globe, experiential learning gives students the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills gained in the classroom to real-world problems, all while working with diverse groups of people and examining issues from different perspectives.