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From Kenya to Panama: EEB concentrators take independent research to new heights in new terrains

<h5>Members of the 2022 cohort studying at the Semester in the Field program in Mpala, Kenya admire their surroundings.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Andy Dobson&nbsp;</h6>
Members of the 2022 cohort studying at the Semester in the Field program in Mpala, Kenya admire their surroundings. 
Courtesy of Andy Dobson 

For most Princeton students, even the worst thunderstorm just means a wet walk home or a flooded basement in their dorm. But almost seven years after graduating, Renata Diaz ’15 still remembers the struggle of setting up a field experiment for her classes at Kenya’s Mpala Research Center, only for her assignment to be washed away in the downpour. 

This experience is not unusual for the Semester in the Field study abroad program, offered every spring to junior and senior concentrators in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). In this program, field research is the assignment and ecosystems the classroom. Diaz was studying with Mpala in Kenya; an alternate version of the program is typically also run at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. 

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The programs are held abroad for a reason. According to the EEB website, faculty have found that teaching and learning in an immersive environment, away from campus distractions, has great benefits.

“This belief emerged as we watched our majors return from field studies with a much deeper understanding of the tropics and the impact of humans on biodiversity as well as with a more mature understanding of what constitutes original research,” the website explains.

For Diaz, along with Lucy Hayes ’16 and Katie Grabowski ’16, the Semester in the Field Program would be a defining experience at Princeton. The prospect of going abroad helped Hayes decide on her concentration in the first place.

“What really drew me to EEB was the study abroad program,” she said. “Because it was so well defined — there was such a purpose to it within the major that I didn't feel like you had with other majors. Since I am not an auditory learner, sitting in lectures was always a little hard for me. And so I was really craving that hands-on experience.”

Hayes and Diaz, who were in the program at Mpala, had a busy schedule.

“Day to day you would wake up around 6:30 a.m.,” Hayes said. “You couldn't sleep in because the birds were so loud. And then you would go and get breakfast, and be ready to get in the car by around eight. That meant packing all those tools that you would need in the field for that day. And then we would drive to whatever research we were going to and to collect data.”

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The data collection could be anything from taking soil samples to characterizing the controlled burns of field sites. This process could turn into an entire day in the field, or end at noon so that students could head back to Mpala to complete classwork or data analysis.

In addition to her love of biology, Hayes has an extensive background in music as a cellist. This unlikely combination translated into a unique piece of independent work abroad. 

“Both my thesis and JP were about soundscapes as a metric for biodiversity,” Hayes remembered. “A soundscape being the unique recording of an area, you can run algorithms on that. You can tell what time of day it is [and] hear different changes in biodiversity.”

Hayes was inspired during her time in Kenya by lessons on niche partitioning and how different species find unique ways to live within their environments. 

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“[In] an orchestral symphony, you have a different musical part for every single instrument,” she explained. “But a trained musician can hear each instrument and how it fits, [how] certain instruments play at the same pitch and in the same octave, but you can delineate between them because they have different sounds.”

Hayes became committed to capturing the sounds of Mpala’s natural orchestras.

“I remember, I took this microphone, and I would do recordings really early in the morning, and I would do them really late at night to try and get the bats, so I would set them up near the hippo pond,” she described.  

After beginning her junior paper work on soundscapes in Kenya, Hayes continued the project in Costa Rica for her senior thesis. But this wasn’t the end of her EEB field work.

“I ended up doing field research after I graduated. I was working with snakes in Thailand. That was a childhood dream of mine. I had a moment after I graduated where I realized, if I don't do this now, I never will,” she said.  

After a year in Thailand, Hayes even returned to where she originally completed her thesis research.

“I moved back to Costa Rica, because I loved it so much when I lived there for my thesis research. And while I was there, I was teaching sailing, but also working with a group that did Manta Ray conservation,” she described.

Drawing from these experiences, Hayes advised current students, “Don't feel fenced in. Ask a lot of questions. Even if you think ‘Oh, they'll never go for it,’ ask the question. And remain curious. Because then you get to do the cool stuff.”

The questions Diaz was asking in Kenya also developed into her independent work. 

She explained, “I found that I was really excited about the synergy between field work that tells you something tangible about the real system.” 

Study abroad provided a perfect opportunity to put this into practice and create mathematical models to predict where Mpala’s tree populations will grow and shrink in the future.

“Trees grow, they produce seeds, the seeds produce more trees,” Diaz described. “But herbivores can interfere with that; elephants can eat the whole tree or mice can eat the seeds and interfere with reproduction. So species interactions among the herbivores and the trees determines how the trees are distributed across the landscape.”

For this first part, Diaz collected data on the demographic patterns of the trees in Mpala. For the second part, she analyzed the data back at Princeton based on a theoretical ecology course she took as a senior.

“If we take these numbers, and plug them in, and then iterate them forward over time, how do we expect the spatial distribution of trees to change? First, I was just interested in patterns in herbivory, across the landscape. And then I got into the mathematical modeling portion of it,” Diaz said.

Diaz went on to work in the field of ecology as a macroecologist, examining how ecological systems respond to dramatic environmental changes in the current era, using both field experiments and computer science. 

“I do a combination of field ecology, or the data science approach to ecology, and then increasingly a complex systems approach to ecology. And so I use tools from computer science and theoretical physics to study how big picture patterns and how ecological systems behave,” she said.

This work has clear connections to her time studying abroad with EEB.

“Bringing heavy duty mathematical tools to emerge with this very grounded, field ecology perspective is something that I first encountered during my independent work. It's not the most common approach in ecology. And that's where I work now,” Diaz said. 

Unlike Diaz and Hayes, Grabowski chose the program in Panama for her study abroad.

“Some of the courses were taught by Princeton professors and some were taught by Smithsonian professors. For the day to day, often there was a field component to what we were doing. Panama has a bunch of different ecosystems and habitats, and the STRI has centers in most of them. And we got to visit a lot of those,” she explained. 

Despite their different locations, the two Semester in the Field programs have the same concentrated 3-week course structures. Grabowski’s favorite was on coral reefs, which had the class spend a week in the North and South of Panama respectively — allowing them to study both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

She would go on to study the impact of Mozambique’s civil war on the ecosystems of one of the country’s national parks, Gorongosa. 

A couple years and a pandemic later, John Bullock ’23 continued the tradition of finding inspiration for his independent work on a Semester in the Field program in Kenya. 

He found the student-led projects built into the program particularly rewarding. Bullock recently completed one on ungulates — hoofed mammals.

“[They were] physically demanding, especially on days where 5 a.m. mornings were required to get out to the herds. We have to finish up before the herdsmen need to take the cattle out to pasture to graze by 8 a.m.” he said.

As with Diaz, Hayes, and Grabowski, Bullock had experiences he wouldn’t have found on Nassau or within the walls of an ivy-covered building. 

“We've recently seen African wild dogs. There's only 12 of them here; they were wiped out by canine distemper in 2017. And we just tracked down the pack on Friday, while they were napping in the sun,” he described.

Because the students and professor were observing the wild dogs as part of an EEB class on parasites, when one of the dogs defecated, a member of the group was sure to take a sample for later analysis.

This type of experience is not only unique, but unexpected. Bullock had originally intended on studying abroad in the Panama location, before a change in the country’s quarantine restrictions resulted in a last minute redirection.

“I actually decided to go to Panama. But then they canceled it about two weeks before we were supposed to go. We were very, very fortunate that [Princeton] figured out arrangements and handled so many of the logistics and offered us the option to come to Kenya,” he explained.

The surprise diversion to Kenya turned out to be foundational to the project Bullock settled on: studying ticks on cattle herds in the region. 

Andy Dobson ’90, a professor in the EEB department, planned on teaching a course in Panama, but chose to join the Kenya group as well.

“Our panel, the Panama cohort that I came here with, has been split from the original Kenya cohort from the start. And we've been taking two courses separately,” Bullock said.

An assignment for the class Dobson taught to the Panama cohort is now the basis for Bullock’s thesis, with Dobson serving as his advisor.

“I've been very, very fortunate that my second course here has been parasitology, which it never was meant to be,“ Bullock said. “[Dobson] has been extremely helpful and formulating a plan for my two week project that will provide me with some sort of data and help me better in forming my thesis project.”

For the project, he tracked the abundance of different types of ticks on one cattle herd through cycles of anti-tick treatments. Bullock explained that certain species of ticks are transmitters of pathogens, which makes specific tick diseases detrimental to cattle. “The type of tick matters,” he said.

While study abroad might have provided the field training, Bullock’s journey to settling on his independent work question was less straightforward. 

For one thing, Bullock faced many roadblocks in receiving permission to work with vertebrate animals, an area of study relevant to his ambitions as a veterinarian. In addition, the demands and specifications of different funding sources were difficult to balance within the design of his project.

“One part about the process that I found surprising, and honestly pretty frustrating, has been the funding aspects of senior theses. I've come to learn that there are a lot of strings attached to every dollar,” he said, listing minimum time commitments and not simultaneously holding a paid job as examples of restrictions funding sources can impose.

The process was helped by the support Bullock received from academics both at Princeton and other institutions. This includes the lead veterinarian at the Smithsonian National Zoo and a professor at George Mason University, both of whom have offered their help despite limited opportunities to meet in person.

Speaking on this, Bullock explained, “I've learned that being humble, and taking what they give you, and being flexible above all else goes a really long way.”

When approaching a senior thesis, Diaz recommends taking the opportunity to be adventurous, rather than focusing on a deliverable. 

“[Students should] be clear about what it is you're hoping to get out of it. Success can look like a lot of things,” she said. 

Diaz elaborated, “My undergraduate senior thesis is not published. I didn’t feel like the data I collected would really stand up to peer review. But I still consider it a huge success, because I've learned so much, and [it] gave me experiences that put me on a path that I feel good about.” 

As for students beginning the process?

“Some advice that really resonated for me was to have eyes open, and to embrace having a lot of ideas. At that stage you have a lot of opportunities to learn and a lot to gain, and honestly very little to lose from doing a research project and having it not work out or learning that you don't like something about it,” Diaz said.

Grabowski agreed that her independent work exposed her to many new challenges and unique learning experiences. 

“There are moments when a day in the field doesn't go how you think it [would], or you're getting ready in the morning and find out you can't actually go out. And for a lot of people it's your first experience of collecting your own data, cleaning your own data, analyzing your data, and then writing it up. I had never done that, and certainly the analysis part of it was brand new to me and very overwhelming,” Grabowski said. 

What has stuck with her is the level of community the study abroad aspect of her independent work provided. 

“What went really well [for me] was the community of researchers at Gorongosa. There were lots of people around ready to answer questions, and help, and brainstorm, and think about what to do,“ she said.

Dobson takes his role as a mentor, and providing this type of support to students, very seriously. 

“Your role, always, as a teacher, I think is to inspire people, much less than to sort of walk them through the process. It’s about getting people over the threshold where they just want to discover things for themselves,” he said.

Now that the juniors and seniors on campus have submitted their independent work, underclassmen and prospective students are now another year closer to the process. 

Dobson’s advice on independent work?

“I don't think people should be intimidated by it, I think they should purely be excited,“ he said. “The whole point of Princeton is creating an environment where people realize their potential and so it's finding a way for them to find that creativity in themselves. Science isn't just doing one thing, it's a whole diversity of different things. And it's finding which aspect of that appeals to yourself and that allows you to see the world in that quantitative scientific way.”

Madeleine Lausted is an assistant Features editor and works on “Daybreak” in the Podcast section at The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at mlausted@princeton.edu.

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