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Steps Magazine | Cultivating Future Ecologists

Home to more than 55,000 plant varieties and 5,600 animal species, Brazil has the largest biodiversity in the world. Nearly one in every four plant species can be found within its borders. Exploring the effects of deforestation on one of the country’s prominent ecosystems, CSUSM undergraduates travel to Brazil each summer to participate in a unique internship conducting field research.Funded by the National Science Foundation, the annual internship blends course instruction with hands-on research. It aims to expose students to ecology early in their academic careers and inspire the next generation of environmental engineers, conservationists and scientists. The demand for these fields is escalating; the USDA reports that nearly half of its environmental sciences workforce will retire in the next 15 years.“Considering all of the environmental issues we face today with resource use, waste, climate change and sustainable uses of soil and water resources, having an understanding of ecology will be imperative to solving these critical issues,” explained Dr. George Vourlitis, professor of biological sciences.Each summer Vourlitis accepts four undergraduates for the six-week, paid internship in Brazil. Students study alongside 20 doctoral candidates at the Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso and administer field experiments in the Cerrado, Brazil’s second largest and most vulnerable ecosystem. A tropical savanna nestled just south of the Amazon, the Cerrado accounts for one-fifth of the country’s land area.“Tropical ecosystems like the Cerrado are the most diverse and also the most threatened environments in the world,” described Vourlitis. “When people think of deforestation, they think of the rainforest, but the Cerrado has been deforested for over a century and it is home to at least as high, if not higher, biodiversity as the rainforest.”Examining the vitality of the fragmented savanna, student researchers conduct studies on carbon-cycling, energy balance and nutrient cycling of the tropic ecosystem. They spend time in the field collecting soil samples and organic matter, and measuring the biomass of 100-meter transects of the Cerrado. Back in the lab, students run tests analyzing the soil for respiration, moisture, nutrients and nitrogen content.“The internship opened my eyes to the field of research in a way I never thought of,” said biological sciences student Andrea Fenner, who participated in the internship as a junior. “Ecology showed me that science is interrelated and interdisciplinary, and the experience made me a more versatile scientist.”Following the summer internship, the grant program provides financial support for students to present and disseminate their original research at national conferences in the U.S.“Conducting ecological research in Brazil as an undergraduate gave me the confidence to know that I could do research as a graduate student,” said Shelley Lawrence.Currently pursuing a master’s degree in biological sciences at CSUSM, she is continuing her ecology research and focusing on the effects carbon has on the physiology of leaf tissue. After graduate school, Lawrence plans to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, studying environmental impacts and inventorying native plants and animal species.“Studying in Brazil was more than just scientific research,” added Lawrence. “It was an amazing cultural experience and exchange that changed my perception of the world and of science.”