Field Research & International Experiences

Group of students and faculty in Mozambique Students in the College of Life Sciences have the rare opportunity to do hands-on fieldwork in countries around the world. In this edition of Life Sciences Magazine, we will look at four field studies conducted in Mozambique, Belize, French Polynesia, and Mongolia.

Malaria in Mozambique

In Mozambique, about a quarter of the people who come to the local clinics or hospitals for treatment have malaria, a disease that accounts for over one million deaths every year worldwide. Part of the reason that malaria is so costly is that the traditional method for diagnosing malaria is not very reliable, meaning doctors often give malaria treatments to patients who don’t have the disease, while withholding treatments from patients who do.

Microbiology and Molecular Biology Professor Eric Wilson, former student Rich Davis, and current premedical student Trenden Flanigan have been researching a more accurate method for diagnosing malaria, that costs only 7 cents more per test. In August of 2009, Trenden received funding to travel to Mozambique, where he had served his LDS mission, to train local doctors on the modified diagnostic method.

Trenden Flanigan and local lab techinicianTrenden Flanigan with a Mozambican lab technician.
During the ten days that Trenden spent in Mozambique, he trained medical personnel at two different sites on the new method. “In the central hospital,” he said, “I worked directly with the hospital director and the lab director, and I trained five technicians one-on-one. At the clinic, I worked with the director and three lab technicians.” These newly trained directors and technicians then conducted a study comparing the accuracy of the old method with that of the new method, while Trenden acted as scribe. Of the 205 samples collected, the research team found that the traditional method accurately diagnosed only 84 malaria cases for every 100 diagnosed with the new method.

Dr. Wilson, Rich, and Trenden hope that their methods will spread to different clinics throughout countries plagued by malaria. They are currently in contact with the Angolan minister of health and hope to visit the country in August or December 2011 to teach Angolan doctors and to continue their research. The team is also organizing a trip to go back to Mozambique to continue their efforts there.

Rainforest Conservation in Belize

Deep in the rainforest of Belize grows a palm tree species called xate (pronounced shatay) with leaves that are very valuable in North American and European floral arrangements. Because of the monetary value of xate, many individuals, called “xateros,” enter the country and illegally harvest from the national forests. While in the country, xateros live off large game they hunt in the rain forest. Dr. Brock McMillan, Professor of Plant and Wildlife Sciences, and his colleagues have hypothesized that xateros’ presence in the rainforest has disrupted the delicate ecosystem because there are fewer large animals to control the small mammal population, which in turn prey more heavily on the seeds that are necessary to replenish the rainforest.

Tristan McKnight sampling aquatic insectsTristan McKnight samples aquatic insects in Mongolia.
In order to measure the impact of recent events on the Belizean rainforest, Professor McMillan and graduate student Casey Day traveled to Belize to study the population of small mammals and their impact on the seed bank there. To test their hypothesis, Casey and Dr. McMillan placed seeds in enclosures made of different sized mesh in order to filter the kinds of animals that could eat the seeds. Historically, small mammals have not been considered a primary player in rainforest ecology, so if small mammals are eating more seeds than other organisms, it would reflect a likely change in the ecosystem balance.

Professor McMillan and his team hope that their results will have political implications as well as scientific implications. As Casey stated, “The work we are doing in Belize could add to the evidence that the country has against the xateros, bringing them one step closer to action from their government and help from foreign governments, such as Great Britain and the United States.”

Insects in French Polynesia and Mongolia

There are millions of species of insects in the world, many of which have yet to be identified. With all that diversity, there are plenty of research opportunities worldwide for BYU entomology students. Over the years, Biology Professor C. Riley Nelson has taken advantage of these opportunities by leading groups of students to catalog the diversity of insects on Maupiti, a tiny island in French Polynesia. The island is very remote, so the collection of insects on Maupiti is unique and relatively unstudied.

While on the island, students work hard to catalog as many insects as possible. Professor Nelson described a typical day researching on the island, saying, “It’s best to work in the early morning hours, so we head out very early to where the insects are, set up traps, capture in- sects, preserve the insects, and prepare them so that they can be shipped back to the laboratory here at BYU. We repeat that day after day.”

"We are making the world a better place by sharing knowledge of insects and sustainable development around the world."

Dr. Nelson does not limit his insect field studies to just French Polynesia. Each summer, he travels with one or two students to Mongolia to study aquatic insects in remote areas of the country with the Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey (MAIS), a team of researchers from Mongolia, Russia, Lithuania, France, and the United States. The water resources of Mongolia are under heavy pressure in recent years mainly from increasing pressure from mining and grazing interests. The MAIS team works to help local Mongolians better understand legal environmental regulations that can preserve the waters for use by nomads, their varied herds, and these newer, less sustainable land uses.

The research done by the MAIS team has very practical application: the team collects aquatic insects known for their sensitivity to varied kinds of pollution, such as siltation from overgrazing and arsenic and heavy metals in gold mining, to use as indicators of the cleanliness of the water. The BYU and other foreign researchers work side by side with Mongolians from government agencies and universities to recognize these insects so that the locals can care for their own water supplies. They act as clear partners in preserving the lands and waters of this beautiful country.

Professor Brock McMillan and student Casey Day setting up enclosures to study the population of mammalsProfessor Brock McMillan and student Casey Day set up enclosures to study the population of small mammals in the rainforest in Belize.
The days in Mongolia are even more exhausting than the days in Maupiti. Because the MAIS team is so far north, the daylight hours are long, and researchers collect samples from 6 a.m. until about midnight. In addition, the team tries to collect samples from about three sites per day, so camp moves almost every night. At each of the sampling sites, every member of the team has responsibilities to fulfill. Tristan McKnight, an undergraduate student who was a research assistant in Mongolia in 2010, explained how the team worked together. “At each site, as soon as the Jeeps stopped, we all jumped out, separated, and began our preassigned tasks. My two main duties were to run a quantitative sampling of the local biodiversity with yellow pan traps, and to collect robber flies (an important predatory fly) with a butterfly net.”

The research in Mongolia is important as it helps the native Mongolians learn how to manage their resources on their own. As Professor Nelson states, “We are making the world a better place by sharing knowledge of insects and sustainable development around the world. By training locals, our work lasts longer.”