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Students Tackles Challenges of Wildlife Field Work While Breaking New Trails in Africa

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Students had the opportunity to observe many wildlife captures over the summer. Here, they watch as Kathleen Alexander and colleague Lena Patiño, center, both veterinarians, assess the health of two banded mongoose as part of their ongoing research. Photo by Cole Grazia.

For Kayla East, studying wildlife health in northern Botswana meant having to get used to the unexpected.

“I remember, on a day off, a group of us were approached at our hotel by someone from the village who told us that a baby monkey had been injured and asked for our help,” said East, a junior wildlife conservation major. “Very soon I found myself running through a fancy hotel with a baby monkey cradled in my arms, trying to figure out how to transport it to the wildlife lab. That was the moment I realized that there is no such thing as mundane in Botswana, no such thing as the expected.”

East was among the 15 Virginia Tech undergraduates who traveled to Botswana this past summer to participate in the College of Natural Resources and Environment field course Wildlife Health Immersion in Africa: Capture, Rehabilitation, and Forensics.

“This summer course was designed to have a specific focus,” explained Professor Kathleen Alexander of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and an affiliate of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “We didn’t want students to travel somewhere to see other people do the work; we wanted them to be responsible in having to navigate difficult, cross-disciplinary environments to engage with wildlife while understanding the human dimensions of that interaction.”

On location at the Centre for African Resources, Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL) near Chobe National Park, Alexander’s immersive eight-week course focused on training students on the many facets of wildlife work in sub-Saharan Africa. They participated in a rotation of tasks intended to mirror the center’s range of work, including animal husbandry and care for raptors and mammals, introduction to laboratory techniques, public health and data handling, and wildlife ecology, capture, and rescue.

Guiding students through this multidisciplinary education experience, in addition to Alexander and CARACAL staff, were two experts who were onsite to work with students in the field and in the lab: Professor Marcella Kelly, a carnivore biologist in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Associate Professor Monica Ponder, a microbial ecologist in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“A big question that drove this program was how can we give these students an experience that will help them identify where they have particular skills or passions, to help them on to the next step in their careers,” said Alexander, who co-founded the nonprofit CARACAL in 2000. “If a student has only ever been in a classroom, how do they know where they want to go next? An experience like this one is valuable in that it helps students answer that question more effectively.”

A dream come true

Growing up in rural North Carolina, Kayla East dreamed of one day traveling to Africa, but she never expected it to happen at Virginia Tech.

“One night we were all sitting around the lab at CARACAL, talking about what our unrealistic dreams were, things that would never happen,” East recalled. “My dream was actually going to Africa. I’d always wanted to go but I never thought I’d get the opportunity. My town has one stop light in it, so to get from there to working with wild animals in Botswana was amazing.”

East wrote about her experience in Botswana for Earth Day Network, a nonprofit that aims to address climate change issues through education and activist efforts. She plans to return to Africa, where she would like to pursue a career in wildlife forensics, a burgeoning new field that utilizes DNA evidence and cause-of-death entomology to help solve questions of animal mortality and disease distribution.

“Coming back to Virginia Tech, I noticed a lot of changes about myself,” East said. “I think my experience in Botswana made me much less of a perfectionist, and it helped my ability to adjust quickly to challenges. It’s an important skill to have in this career — you have to be able to act confidently when difficulties arise, and I’m grateful to have had the experience.”

Making connections in the lab

For senior Sam Flett, the highlight of his summer in Botswana was working in the dynamic field laboratory run by Alexander and learning how to negotiate the challenges of doing research far away from Virginia Tech’s campus.

“I think the standout experience for me was just walking into the lab for the first time,” he said. “It really hit me that this was what I was going to be doing for the next couple of months, and I was excited to jump into it. I love doing this work, and it was an exciting challenge to adapt to a laboratory that had different levels of equipment.”

Flett, who is interested in the ways that wildlife diseases emerge and impact humans, already had experience, having worked in Alexander’s laboratory at Virginia Tech. At CARACAL, he did DNA extractions, helped plate media to aid bacteria growth, and worked with live bacteria under biological safety hoods. Just as valuable, though, was getting to collaborate with local researchers in the laboratory.

“We had someone from Botswana and someone from Zimbabwe working in the lab, and I instantly clicked with them,” he said. “Our first day we were already making jokes and trying to form a connection. Working with them opened my eyes to the different ways that scientists work: they found solutions for questions that I wouldn’t have thought of.”

For Alexander, this type of collaborative learning experience is one that she has strived to implement in all of her programs at CARACAL.

“Co-learning is a big part of this experience,” she explained. “I had government officers in the classrooms with the undergraduates and local scientists working in the labs. In conversations about elephant populations or disease control, we wanted to make sure that multiple perspectives were being presented.”

To further encourage co-learning, Alexander invited a group of underrepresented high school students from Louisa County, Virginia, to visit her field station in Botswana, where they worked side-by-side with the Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students (see related story).

“What I’m hoping to bring with all of this is the idea of partnership in global development and sustainability,” she continued. “There are things that Virginia Tech does really well, and there are things that people in Botswana do really well, and when we bring those things together, when we bring together the strengths of divergent knowledge, cultures, and priorities, we develop novel convergent solutions to complex problems.”

Broadening horizons for all students

The students always traveled in style. Here, a convoy of vehicles filled with students and camping gear sets out to Chobe National Park. Photo courtesy of Heaven Aziz.

Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, said that field courses such as this one can play a crucial role in helping the leaders of tomorrow gain valuable life experiences.

“Offering our students overseas experiences results in an unlimited potential to broaden horizons and change lives,” he said. “If we are going to develop a sustainable world — from a resources perspective as well as broader perspectives that consider cultures and governmental policies and issues of stability and security — then we need students who have a broad range of experiences to face the challenges of the future.”

Just as important is to ensure that students who are interested in these global experiences have the means to do so, regardless of their family’s financial circumstances. Julia Allen, the college’s assistant dean of advancement, sees overseas study as an opportunity where donors can have an immediate, and lasting, impact.

“Having the opportunity to experience a broader world beyond their immediate community is often not a reality for many students. Exposure to problem-solving in communities away from home often leads students to a greater understanding of how to best implement classroom learning in positive ways in their own backyards.

“We are committed to ensuring that every student has access to these types of growth experiences,” she continued, “but we can only do so because of the philanthropic investment of those who understand the value of experiential learning to students and, in turn, the larger community.”

Virginia Tech’s future in Botswana

The next steps for Virginia Tech’s role in Botswana include another summer session in 2020 and the development of a semester-long program in 2021. Alexander is looking to expand the number of students who participate in the program and incorporate student experiences to other regions in Africa. She will also integrate Botswana students, government officials, traditional leaders, and communities into co-learning environments with Virginia Tech students, a unique aspect of her program.

All of Alexander’s work is permeated by the One Health concept, the integrative effort of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to attain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment.

Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs, stresses that Alexander’s outreach efforts have given Virginia Tech students an avenue to engage with the complex challenges faced by the wider world.

“Dr. Alexander’s work with government and community leaders in Botswana is unparalleled,” he said. “Her study abroad programs and research projects have allowed students to learn that research and education in the developing world are complex and multifactorial. She is preparing the next generation of citizen scientists to embrace and thrive in a complex and globally interdependent world.”

For Alexander, the relationship between the research that scientists do and the ways that knowledge has the power to change lives and transform the world is crucial to her mission and her understanding of Virginia Tech’s role in Botswana.

“The Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) mandate really speaks to me,” Alexander said. “Through the program in Botswana, Virginia Tech faculty are able to contribute to the many problems facing societies in Southern Africa while helping to provide the next generation of scientists with the necessary skill set to tackle the challenges confronting these global landscapes.”

Written by David Fleming