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Biodiversity research to take students to Cambodian forest managed by Buddhist monks

May 1, 2013
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A UW-Eau Claire student-faculty research team will spend six weeks this summer doing research in a remote Cambodian forest. Researchers include (from left) students Kelsey Pischke, Joe Weirich, Joel Smith and Breana Meyer, and Deb Freund, biology lecturer.

EAU CLAIRE — As she grew up in a small Wisconsin town, Breana Meyer spent hours watching Animal Planet and Discovery Channel nature shows that took her on adventures around the world. Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) and famed naturalist David Attenborough inspired her to dream of someday having her own adventures in far-flung locales.

This summer, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire junior ecology and environmental biology major from Fall Creek will make her childhood dreams come true when she travels as part of a faculty-student research team to a remote part of Cambodia to conduct biodiversity studies in a community forest managed by Buddhist monks.

"I wanted to explore strange worlds just like them, and finally I get to do just that," Meyer said of following in the footsteps of her childhood Animal Planet and Discovery Channel heroes. "I can't wait to get my feet dirty and see all there is that Cambodia has to offer."

Deb Freund, a lecturer of biology, received an award from the AsiaNetwork Freeman Foundation Student-Faculty Fellows Program for Collaborative Research in Asia to fund "The Monk's Community Forest: biodiversity and ethnobotany in a Cambodian REDD project," which will take her and four students to Cambodia for six weeks this summer.

"We expect a very interesting trip, as we will be living in remote villages and working with villagers and monks to add to biodiversity baseline data," said Freund, who will spend the early part of her summer with another group of students in Ecuador working at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

A small country in Southeast Asia that borders Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia is rich in culture and biodiversity. Natural resource protection is crucial to improving the quality of life for Cambodians, Freund said, noting that forests are among the most valuable resources in Cambodia, but they are being threatened by deforestation.

Deforestation contributes to 20 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and also has a negative effect on the biodiversity of a region, the sustainable use of resources, and the livelihood and survival of local people, Freund said. The Cambodian government is trying to address the issues, but more research is needed for educated decision making, she said.

"By conducting a basic biodiversity assessment and studying the effects of deforestation on biodiversity and traditional practices, we will provide Cambodia with critical information to use in sustainable conservation and increase awareness for the protection of Cambodian forests," Freund said of the importance of the UW-Eau Claire research team's work.

The research team will conduct surveys on mammals, birds, key invertebrate taxa and medicinal plants to build on earlier biodiversity inventories of the area and survey the local ethnobotanical traditions in Sorng Rokavorn, known as Monk Forest, Freund said. The protected area was set aside as a Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) site to reduce the destruction of local forests by illegal logging.

"Our goal is to produce a biodiversity assessment of the invertebrates, birds and mammals within Sorng Rokavorn, and also to assess the effects of human impact," Freund said.

The student researchers said they are excited to be part of a meaningful and complex project in a part of the world that none of them have previously visited.

"There is a lot about this project that interests me: a biodiversity hotspot threatened by unsustainable human expansion; monks and community members collaborating under the U.N. REDD program to protect their local community and reduce CO2 emissions in a creative way; collecting data about the biology of a poorly understood region in order to manage it better; and, of course, getting the chance to do field research in a place unlike any other," said Joel Smith, a senior geology and biology major from Duluth, Minn.

To properly protect an area, people first must understand it, Smith said. By collecting biodiversity data, the researchers hope to provide more information about how to protect Sorng Rokavorn and other REDD sites and protected communities in the region, said Smith, who has previously been part of faculty-student research teams in Ecuador and in the United States.

While the research itself will be rewarding, the students said they are excited to do their work while immersed in communities in a remote part of the world.

Kelsey Pischke, a senior biology major and Spanish minor from West Salem, studied in Spain while developing her language skills. But exploring Cambodia while working as a student researcher will be an entirely different experience, she said.

"The opportunity to travel to Southeast Asia as more than a tourist is amazing," Pischke said. "We'll help to demonstrate the importance of the Cambodian forests in order to discourage the mass destruction of this valuable natural resource. Our hope is through maintaining and using their natural resources the lives of Cambodia citizens will improve. I'm excited to discover a new culture and to learn a different viewpoint. Anytime you step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself in new ways you grow as a person."

Freund previously took student researchers to Cambodia to study how agrochemicals in rice paddies affect Cambodia's ecosystem. She also was a volunteer with the Teachers Across Borders organization in Cambodia. As a result, she has many contacts within Cambodia and an understanding of its people and culture. Her contacts and knowledge of the country will make it easier for the student researchers to do their work and to be immersed in the culture, she said.


Meyer said she is eager to learn about the Cambodian culture and to meet people whose life experiences are so different from her own.

"Coming from a small town, I'm naive when it comes to other cultures," Meyer said. "I'm excited to practice my research skills in another country because I hope to learn from the locals while also teaching them things that I know. We're going there to do a diversity study, but I hope to learn what it's like to live in Cambodia and to make contacts with amazing people."

Joe Weirich, a senior ecology and environmental biology major from South Milwaukee, already has had multiple international experiences during his undergraduate years. He studied abroad in Argentina, was a summer intern at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands and volunteered at La Mica Research Station in Panama.

This project will take him to a new part of the world and give him a research experience that will help him better decide the path he wants to follow when he graduates, Weirich said.

"I'm interested in conservation and habitat restoration," Weirich said. "Our project is an abridged biodiversity assessment, so it'll help me decide if this is what I want to do as a career. It also will give me experience and a leg up when competing for jobs or applying for grad school."

Meyer hopes to attend graduate school and eventually conduct ecological research.

"I'm not sure on the specifics yet, but I love doing research and hope to do it as a career," Meyer said. "This experience will help me with that in so many ways. I will learn skills involved in traveling abroad, practical research skills, how to communicate with people who don't speak English as their first language, and how to work with a team that I'll be with 24/7 for six weeks."

While the field work will be done during their six-week stay in Cambodia, the students already have done significant work related to the project, and they will continue their work after they return to campus, Freund said, noting that students have been reviewing literature and studying research methods, as well as studying the language, culture and history of Cambodia.

When the team returns in August, they will analyze data along with global information systems and satellite technology to further study the effect of deforestation on biodiversity and ethnobotany in the forest, Freund said. They also will write an article, create a documentary on biodiversity and ethnobotany in Cambodia, and submit their findings to the Cambodian Journal of Natural History so their work can reach a Cambodian audience, she said.

The research team will leave June 26 and return Aug. 7.

For more information, contact Deb Freund at freundda@uwec.edu or 715-836-3522.

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