Radford research trip flourishes in the Amazon
This summer, a record number of students will experience one of Radford University's signature research opportunities.
Twenty-nine students, along with four faculty members, are participating in the 2017 Radford Amazonian Research Expedition (RARE), a three-week trip to Peru on which students not only conduct original research, but develop new knowledge, build strong relationships with each other and faculty, explore the exotic terrain and serve those who call the jungle home.
Due to the increased number of participants, the expedition was split into two trips this year. The first group left May 15 and arrived back in the United States on June 4. The second team departs July 16 and returns Aug. 6. Another new aspect of the trip is a visit to Machu Picchu.
RARE has not only grown in popularity since the inaugural group of 10 student-researchers embarked in summer 2015, it has evolved into a life-changing opportunity for students from all areas of study. This summer’s participants include majors in psychology, sports medicine, biology, criminal justice, anthropology, geospatial science, dance, nursing, visual arts and computer science.
On the most recent RARE trip, sports medicine major Abby Jones researched factors that are contributing to rising obesity rates, specifically in Peru. Pre-med student David Darrach-Chavez navigated the lush, and oftentimes unforgiving, jungle to test pH-levels of the soil. Geology major Brigette Miller used a drone to capture images of Lucerna, a small community whose inhabitants can now use that footage to impact their way of life.
“As a faculty member, it’s the coolest way you can teach,” said Associate Professor of Geospatial Science Stockton Maxwell, who co-led the May 15-June 4 trip with Associate Professor of Psychology Jared Caughron. “To take students out there and see them problem-solving, working through issues and dealing with adversity in the environment - it’s just amazing. For me, that was so rewarding, and that’s what makes your job as an educator worthwhile.”
For students, the trip was equally as rewarding.
“This trip will challenge you in ways you never expected,” said political science major Rachel Sharrett, whose RARE research focused on education and patriotism. “It tests your mental and physical strength. It will make you better and change you in ways you never anticipated. It gave me new perspective on myself and on the world. I can honestly say I am a better person because of it.”
Overcoming obstacles; collaboration is key
Maxwell and Caughron led 14 students on the May-June expedition, which started at the small city of Puerto Maldonado. There they visited an animal rehabilitation center, a trip highlight for all. The group’s favorite furry friend: a baby sloth. Their most shocking reptile encounter: a massive boa constrictor found making its way across a dirt road near the center.
The city is also where the research began. It proved a challenge for many students.
“It was a lot harder than I expected and forced me to get out of my comfort zone,” Sharrett said. “Most of the people we were trying to interview spoke Spanish, so there was a big language barrier. Luckily, though, we had a lot of help.”
Student collaboration is a key component of the RARE experience, Caughron said, recalling one of his favorite moments of the trip.
The social scientist students, who were tasked with surveying people out in the community, were having trouble getting the data they needed. The language barrier was too great, and the students were getting discouraged. Later that evening, two of the students who spoke Spanish returned from a different research project - tired themselves- but eager to help their teammates.
“They reenergized them and took them down to the market and were able to collect 15 to 20 more surveys,” Caughron said. “That, to me, was really indicative of this trip, just the spirit that they had, like, ‘This is your project and I’m going to help you get it done. Let’s go do it.’”
From Puerto Maldonado, the team set out toward the Las Piedras Biodiversity Research Station in the Madre de Dios River region at the headwaters of the Amazon River. This would be their main home and headquarters for the remainder of the trip.
As they approached the river, the road they were traveling on became extremely muddy. The team had to unload the bus and finish the journey on foot with 25/30-pound bags strapped to their backs. Jones documented the adventure on her blog, “A RARE Expedition.”
“I noticed the wet, red clay I was slipping around in. Each of us quickly gained a muddy 2-inch lift on our shoes. Two miles felt like much more with the extra weight,” she recalled. “I looked up the road for a moment and caught a glimpse of the long black body of a cat. The tail had to be at least 3-feet long, but it had short legs…I gave the description to JJ, one of our very knowledgeable guides, who told me I had spotted a Jaguarundi.”
In Lucerna, the team finally loaded onto boats and sped away to the station, where they were greeted by much-needed “horizontal sleep,” Jones joked.
At Las Piedras, students bonded over bug bites and on the beaches of the Amazon River. They shared hammocks, snacks and knowledge of what cream works best on bug bites – Orajel proved a successful remedy. Sharrett, a self-pronounced expert braider, styled several heads of hair each day.
“Especially when in the jungle, you have to look out for each other,” she said.
Chavez recalled days where “you literally sweated through your clothes” and those where he wished he had brought more layers to protect from the cold fronts, or “friajes.” There was no escaping the relentless mosquitoes, he said.
The amount of social interaction and collaboration impressed Chavez.
“The team dynamic flourished down there,” he said. “We were all willing to help each other, even when we hit obstacles or had to change our research plans.”
That teamwork was no surprise to professors Maxwell and Caughron.
“Those kind of moments were really enlightening to see, and part of that is how we develop RARE,” Maxwell said. “Students had to change projects because they couldn’t find what they were looking for, but they didn’t stop, they just kept on going.”
Service and reflection
Although research-centric, Caughron said the most recent RARE trip really highlighted its service component.
Lucerna is a recently-developed town, inhabited by people who migrated from the mountains in search of a better livelihood. Barely 10 years old, the community lacks many basic necessities and services, such as clean water. While there, students were able to conduct soil and water tests and provide feedback to the residents.
“I think that was a really neat experience for the students to be able to do science almost as a means of service,” Caughron said. “That’s one of the things that we’ve really pushed on this project is to bring the impact of what we’re doing home to the Peruvians as much as we possibly can.”
As rewarding as it was to help, it was also disheartening for the team to see the negative impact the community had on the environment.
“These residents are basically trying to improve their lot in life…How do you fault them for that?” Caughron continued. “But they’re also part of this challenge of deforestation. We help them with water and soil quality, and at the same time, we know that when we come back next year, they will have probably cut down a few more acres of rainforest. How do we feel about that?”
Those questions and more were posed each night under the serenity of the Amazon, where students and faculty gathered to reflect on their experiences.
“We don’t know what it’s going to look like in 10, 30 years,” Sharrett said. “There may be a day when you don’t get a chance to see it. It may be gone.”
Luckily, Sharrett and her RARE teammates are able to reflect positively on their adventures in the Amazon. Some may even impact its future. They share memories of overcoming obstacles, lasting friendships and invaluable learning experiences. Some memories are more unique.
“One day, close to the end of the trip, I asked to go down to the beach,’’ Sharrett said. “Light rain was coming down and it was getting close to sunset time. I walked out to the beach and just watched the birds playing in the water. It was so beautiful.”