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Foreign Fulbright

Bats: Misunderstood Mammals Making a Difference in Your Life

October 24, 2017

Juan I. Moreira-Hernández, 2016-2021, Costa Rica, working with bats that are captured using specialized nets called “mist nets.” Only rabies-vaccinated and trained professionals should ever handle bats or any other wild mammals.

Why are there so many plant and animal species in the tropics? This seemingly simple question has puzzled biologists for centuries, and even today, there is no definitive answer.

However, species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, and the rate is faster in the tropics than anywhere else. My Fulbright research focuses on understanding how species interactions can promote and maintain high biodiversity in tropical regions. This understanding is necessary to predicting responses to environmental changes due to human activities, and to design effective conservation polices accordingly.

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U.S. Fulbright

Plants, People, and the Mother City

October 9, 2017

Tanisha Williams, 2015-2016, South Africa, at Boulders Beach visiting the iconic beach penguins

Welcome to the Mother City. These are the first words you read walking out of the airport in Cape Town, South Africa. No one could have prepared me for that feeling, stepping onto the soil of the Motherland for the first time. My emotions were complex and overwhelming, but the feeling of excitement and sense of belonging stood out.

My Fulbright grant was two-fold, conducting research for my doctoral dissertation and giving back through outreach and other STEM-based initiatives. I spent my Fulbright year researching the impacts of climate change on indigenous flora throughout South Africa. The first half of my research was used to collect seed and propagate over 1,500 Pelargoniums, a highly-diverse genus of flowering plants, at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (Wellington, Bellville and Cape Town campuses). These plants are now growing in reciprocal transplant gardens at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Cape Town, Western Cape and at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. Growth and development data will help me understand the effects of genetics, the environment, and the interaction between these two processes that aid in Pelargonium adaptation to different environments. Understanding plant adaptations to their environment sheds light on how plants will respond to the unprecedented rates of climate change.

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U.S. Fulbright

The Land of the Unexpected

March 1, 2016

Peter Pellitier, 2014-2015, Papua New Guinea (left), poses for a picture with young friend while studying coral reef resilience in Kavieng, Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, the much too accurate national slogan is “the land of the unexpected.” Every morning, I awoke assured that my day would be far from boring, simple or easy. Encountering sharks, witnessing assistants maimed by venomous fish, and dealing with missing boats are just a few of the research challenges I faced while working abroad as a Fulbright U.S. Student in Kavieng, Papua New Guinea.

Working in the exquisitely bio-diverse land and seas of Papua New Guinea, the Fulbright Program provided me with the adventure and cultural experience of a lifetime. Swarms of fish flashing over the obtuse angles of coral 35 feet below the turquoise surface of the Coral Sea will forever be burned into my memory. The country is truly a biologist’s playground.

My research examined the ecological drivers of coral reef resilience to climate change, especially the functional role of Parrotfish in the reef ecosystem. A significant amount of my Fulbright project was spent diving and collecting data in the remote islands of New Ireland Province to understand this phenomenon. Some Parrotfish eat algae that can smother the reef, while others eat the coral itself. All functions are thought to be critical for coral “rejuvenation.” Understanding how Parrotfish and the reef interact is critical amid the two-pronged threat of ocean acidification and warming ocean temperatures that endanger coral reefs.

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U.S. Fulbright

All Problems Have Solutions: Insights from My Fulbright in Andalucía, Southern Spain

February 12, 2014
Julie Charbonnier

Julie Charbonnier, 2012-2013, Spain, collecting toad eggs in one of Doñana National Park’s ponds

Carmen Diaz Paniagua “Poli” knows this place like the back of her hand. “You’ll make a right at the tree with a stork nest, and then turn left when you see the road split into three,” she explains nonchalantly as I follow her through the terrain. All I see are miles of sands and a few scattered bushes, with no discernible landmarks. My Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant in Ecology on the consequences of global change on amphibian dynamics brought me to Doñana National Park, one of the world’s most renowned systems of wetlands tucked away in Southern Spain (Andalucía), two hours southwest of Sevilla.

A few days later, clearly lost as we attempt to follow Poli’s instructions, my labmates Rosa and Maria, and I bop around the dunes in a car. Rosa stopping and twisting the timeworn map sideways says “No! No me lo puedo creer (I can’t believe this),” as she makes a sharp U-turn, the car nearly tipping over. Maria smiles, saying, “todos los problemas tienen soluciones (all problems have solutions).” She’s still chipper despite our long detour in the desert. We finally find the pond, and it’s buzzing with insects and tadpoles. The species found in Doñana have evolved to withstand the heat and scarce rainfall. Doñana is incredibly unique: it’s a rest stop for half a million migratory birds, the last natural habitat of the elusive and endangered Iberian lynx, and home to eleven species of amphibians, the highest in all of Europe. It’s just one of the reasons I chose this spectacular location to conduct my Fulbright in collaboration with Dr. Ivan Gomez Mestre.

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U.S. Fulbright

Pygmy Hippos: The Real Diamonds of Sierra Leone, By April Conway, 2010-2011, Sierra Leone

February 29, 2012

My journey began when I travelled to the remote Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary located on the Moa River in Sierra Leone. I set out to study the endangered pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis), a very solitary and elusive animal that is notoriously difficult to study in the wild. Armed with 20 remote-sensing camera traps, my goal was to capture pygmy hippos on film. In addition to obtaining photographs, I explored methods to physically trap a pygmy hippopotamus so that we could attach a collar and track the animal through the forest. To raise awareness for the plight of the pygmy hippopotamus, I collaborated with several conservation organizations to conduct environmental education in schools and villages.

I spent almost every moment with my two local field assistants. We worked together in the forest and travelled around the countryside to explore areas for hippos. While we worked, we discussed all aspects of our cultures, trying to understand the differences and find where we had common ground. These men became my brothers, and the villagers, my second family. Kenewa, one of my field assistants, loaned me his grain storage room to sleep in when I needed some “people time” off the island. He carved my name into the door and declared the room would always be mine, no matter where I was in the world.

Although work took up much of our time, my team and I would sometimes go to the local dances.  Dee-jays would set up shop in a village meeting area and we would dance the night away. The relationships I developed gave me a unique perspective on conservation. I witnessed the frustrations that wildlife conservation can bring in an area where people are struggling daily for survival. I have learned to enjoy every day as it comes and cherish relationships. I have also learned to work better with people, to maintain patience even when things are difficult, to manage employees and to try to understand all sides of conflicts before making a decision. By employing over 60 local people over the course of my research, the villages began to see some benefits for conserving the island.

Fulbright enabled me to interact with and influence hundreds, if not thousands, of people. I am a stronger person when dealing with adversity and have come through the experience with a new insight into the world. I also obtained some great results for my research: video footage of pygmy hippos eating and pictures of animals never before documented on the island including the majestic bongo. The highlight of my research was when the U.S. Ambassador came to visit the island for a night, and the villagers put on a fantastic cultural show complete with a ‘pygmy hippo devil.’

My advice to those applying for a Fulbright grant is:

  • Pick a project that is your passion. This is your time to do what you want!
  • Tell a story with your personal statement and explain your project in a way comprehensible to those outside your specialty (no jargon!).
  • In country, try to do an extra project outside of your own research. You’ll meet new people and maybe have an adventure you never expected.

Top photo: April Conway, 2010-2011, Sierra Leone (center), training local field assistants in radio telemetry techniques that track wildlife through the forest using radio waves

Middle photo: A pygmy hippopotamus caught on camera on Tiwai Island

Bottom photo: April Conway, 2010-2011, Sierra Leone (left), with women preparing rice flour for a funeral in Kambama village