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.
Attempting to understand the ability of coral ecosystems to withstand the pressures of climate change required me to consider both human and biological actors in the reef ecosystem. My personal favorite Parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum, is both an endangered species and highly prized as a food source; I frequently saw them for sale at the local market. The inescapable connection between human culture and use of marine biological resources stands prominently as a central theme of my research in Papua New Guinea. There is a growing consensus in the field of ecology that human impacts are important in structuring ecosystems. This was especially apparent in the reef system I studied. With that in mind, I also gathered local indigenous knowledge about past and present catch rates of Parrotfish and the perceived health of the corals to compare public perception against biological data I collected.
As one of, if not the only American that many people I worked with would ever meet, I sought to maintain a sense of integrity, respect, and willingness to learn in my interactions with everyone, from children to village chiefs. The ability to work creatively and self-sufficiently was crucial to my grant success and likely needed for the majority of Fulbright U.S. Student researchers everywhere. I embodied my role as a Fulbrighter and was honored to help promote mutual understanding between the citizens of Papua New Guinea and the United States. I believe that future grant recipients would do well to make a strong effort to learn the local language dialect(s), and to combine logic and imagination in achieving their research goals. Mental flexibility and resilience are crucial to personal and professional success abroad.