Joanna Klass, recent UW-Madison graduate with a degree in zoology and biological aspects of conservation, had a fascinating experience abroad. With assistance from the School for Field Studies (SFS), Joanna was given the opportunity to go abroad for the first time and conduct biological research in the rainforests of Australia. Since returning, she has been awarded the Distinguished Student Researcher Award for her research paper on her findings in the rainforest.
Each year, SFS honors exceptional students for making important contributions in environmental research. SFS semester students engage in undergraduate research guided by SFS faculty on projects related to the SFS Center’s Five Year Research Plan (5YRP). Outcomes of these Directed Research (DR) projects provide information and recommendations to community members and other stakeholders on critical, local environmental issues. Students are nominated by SFS faculty based on their demonstrated sophistication in research design, field work, and reporting; their leadership skills and teamwork; and their contribution to the 5YRP.
How did you get connected with the School for Field Studies and with this project?
The School for Field Studies is a program out of Boston University that grants students an unforgettable experience they simply could not gain anywhere else. Students are truly gaining research experience – writing their own research papers, conducting their own experiments, and interviewing members of the local communities. I believe that there is an affiliation between Boston University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison – the program is listed through International Academic Programs (IAP).
Will you discuss the work you conducted at the SFS Centre for Rainforest Studies?
The work we conducted was quite time consuming. It ranged from writing practice research papers to learning how to set different traps to catch mammals, birds, and insects. Our professors had us set up practice field experiments to prepare us for our independent research projects. We also participated in community activities such as planting seedlings for rainforest restoration projects, eradicating invasive plant species, and lending a helping hand at the local Bat Hospital. I learned a lot that, at the time, I didn’t think would be applicable to many other things, yet on my return to Madison caught myself thinking during class “Oh! I learned that in Australia!”
Where did you stay, and for how long? What was it like there?
I lived in the middle of the rainforest in Far North Queensland with nothing but four cabin walls and a tin roof separating me from the outdoors. Yungaburra was the nearest town and it relied heavily on agriculture and ecotourism as a source of income. It was a very beautiful place, and I’m glad I was able to spend three and a half months there.
What was the greatest challenge when you arrived?
The greatest challenge was definitely getting used to a strict schedule and lack of personal space. The jet-lag was a bit difficult to fight at first, but once you get over the first few days things tend to go pretty smoothly. They kept us on a pretty tight schedule with little free time, though the outings they planned for us definitely made up for any loss of independence. I had eight girls in my cabin and we were pretty limited on privacy, though everyone was in the same situation and was respectful of each others space.
What would a day in the Centre typically consist of for you?
A typical day would begin by waking up around 5:45 a.m., 6:00 a.m. if you were lucky. The birds begin calling as soon as the first ray of sun peeks out. People would then either go for a jog down the winding access road, try and catch a few more minutes of sleep, or prepare for Kitchen Patrol if they were scheduled that day. Around 7:30 a.m. people would begin trickling up to the common areas for breakfast, and class started around 8-8:30 a.m. No two days were alike, and after the first class we would either prepare to go on a field trip around the nature reserves and local communities or brace ourselves to sit through a full day of lectures. Around 10:00 a.m. we would take a break called ‘smoko’, which was basically a tea break complete with cookies, exotic fruits, cakes, and other dessert items. Lunch followed around noon, and before eating everyone would meet to discuss any important news or funny stories that they wanted to share with the group. Classes would resume after, breaking around dinner time and sometimes continuing again until 7:00 p.m. that evening. After cleaning up all the kitchen utensils and wiping down the tables to ensure that no nosy bandicoots or mice were lured up to the center, people would either lounge around and watch a movie, work on some homework, or retreat to their cabins for the night.
What were some of the most memorable moments you had with the people you met there?
It’s difficult to select the most memorable moments – we all had our insides jokes with the group and our professors, and something extraordinary seemed to happen every day. Racing to get in the best van whenever we went on field trips was always adrenaline-pumping, as was dodging wait-a-whiles (plants with barbed extensions that would cling to clothing), avoiding terrestrial leeches, and climbing up strangler figs as tall as houses, all carry their fair share of memories. Being taught Aussie slang was also entertaining, and we began creating our own renditions as time passed. Seeing a real-life wild cassowary (a large five-foot bird that looks as though it’s straight out of Jurassic Park) roaming freely on our field trip to the Daintree was absolutely breathtaking – everyone was ecstatic to see such a rare sight. Being able to stare eye-to-eye with such a beautiful, alien creature I had never seen before was something I will never forget, and I know my comrades felt the same.
You recently received the School for Field Studies Distinguished Student Award for a paper you wrote while conducting your research. What was your paper about, specifically in regards to the ongoing research agenda of the Centre?
A main goal of SFS is to get local residents interested and involved in student research and my project relied heavily on community involvement. My research examined the relationship between the local Yungaburra community and a recently uprooted roost of Spectacled Flying Foxes, a rare species of bat restricted to Far North Queensland and parts of New Guinea. Their original roost had been damaged during Cyclone Larry and they were forced to relocate. Unfortunately, they chose a small park in the middle of the neighborhood which closely bordered several residences. During a community meeting, locals listed that management of the flying foxes was a top priority on their agenda, though managing this particular species proved to be difficult due to the fact that it is protected underneath federal and state laws. My paper examined what laws were affecting management options of the park and it aimed to provide residents with accurate information on the number of animals and dispel any false notions regarding the species. It addressed the difficulties of managing areas where wildlife and people come into contact as well as pointed out potential human-wildlife confrontations that could occur with increased climate change, and many community members contributed to my research. SFS staff are currently working on putting together a management plan for the park, and parts of my research will be used when discussing possible strategies.
Would you welcome another opportunity to research abroad? Why is this experience abroad unique and how does it impact your work?
I would welcome another opportunity with open arms. Being able to work closely with people and wildlife directly affected by your results is something that everyone interested in research should experience. You are truly able to experience different viewpoints and are able to actively participate in working toward a solution to real-life problems.
How do you think your international experience will influence your future? Do you plan on returning to Australia at some point? Or work or study abroad in another in another location?
My international experience can only open up more opportunities for me – it truly made me more independent and I was able to gain invaluable research experience. I’m very proud of my project. A lot of sleepless nights and drafts covered in red pen haunted me throughout the process, but at the end of it all I’m able to look back on my work and look at what I overcame and what I am capable of doing. I would love to return to Australia – it’s definitely on my to-do list – and I would love to travel to other places. I’m really open to anything, and I could definitely see myself living abroad for an extended period of time. Part of studying abroad is seeing exactly what’s out there and gaining a deeper appreciation for it.
What advice would you give to someone who was considering a project like this?
Do it. It may be daunting, especially to interview locals who are very adamant on the issue, but it is an experience unlike any other. My advisor, Moni Carlisle, and my TA, Hester Dingle, were there for me every step of the way and were very encouraging. I interacted with a number of people I never would have gotten the chance to, and my eyes were opened to new perspectives on issues I had once overlooked.
By Thomas Schneider, Division of International Studies