Education News

Earth Institute Travel Grants Awarded to Students

2008-12-19

 Can natural disasters create political instability? Sasha Chavkin believes the recent major floods in the Bolivian cities of Santa Cruz and Trinidad accompanied political unrest and the rise of secessionist movements in the region. In fact, he suspects that an unsatisfactory government response to the floods fueled the secessionist movement.

This year, Chavkin, who is currently earning a dual degree from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Journalism School, will travel to Bolivia to research the connection between disaster and political instability. As the incidence of natural disasters rises due to global climate change, Chavkin’s research becomes increasingly relevant around the world in places, like Louisiana, that are beginning to experience the negative impact of global warming.

Chavkin is one of 15 Columbia University students who received travel grants from the Earth Institute’s Office of Academic and Research Programs this year. Each of these students is engaged in original research overseas in topics related to sustainability and environmental protection. They will travel to exotic locations like Indonesia, Bolivia, Kenya, Vietnam, Argentina, India, Nicaragua, and Nepal to apply what they have learned in the classroom through hands-on field research. “To enable students to undertake research in the field is an invaluable educational experience,” said Louise Rosen, the OARP Director.

Across the globe from Bolivia, in western Kenya, lives a population of Blue Monkeys. These monkeys often pause in their activities to survey the sky or check their surroundings for danger. This pattern of “vigilance behavior” is not fully understood by scientists. Kaitlyn Gaynor, Columbia College Class of 2010, hopes to fill this gap in our understanding of primate behavior. Under the guidance of Professor Marina Cords, Gaynor will travel to Kenya to conduct original research on the vigilance behavior of Blue Monkeys and report her findings in her senior thesis. She received a travel grant from the Earth Institute to fund her trip. The grant, says Gaynor will “allow me to develop my research skills and to experience the field of environmental biology outside of a classroom.  Thanks to the Earth Institute, I now have the resources to finance my travel to Kenya.”

Professor Eugenia McGill plans to take her Environmental and Sustainable Development Workshop students on some international field trips. McGill’s 120 students will split into groups and travel to sites around the world to gain first hand experience with local environmental and development issues.

One group will study grassroots disaster risk reduction plans in Sumatra, Indonesia. Another group plans to study the progress of sustainability projects in Kenya’s Millennium Villages. Yet another group will study the United Nations’ efforts to promote safe-sex practices and planned parenting in Nepal. Other groups will study a variety of issues all over the world. The Earth Institute will fund the students’ travel expenses. The academic experience of McGill’s students will be immeasurably enriched by their on-the-ground experiences.

Eiren Jacobson will apply her grant to her research on Franciscana River Dolphins in Argentina. Jacobson, also a member of the CC Class of 2010, will intern with AquaMarina, a non-profit that promotes sustainable fishing practices and works to protect the river dolphin population in Argentina’s Rio La Plata estuary. As an intern, Jacobson will study the dolphins’ population structure and attempt to understand the impact of bycatch on the species.

How should a government balance conservation efforts with the rights of indigenous groups who depend on endangered natural resources? There is no simple answer to this question, but that hasn’t stopped Wen Zhou, Columbia College Class of 2009, from trying. Zhou first took interest in the Cuc Phong National Park in Vietnam while studying abroad there last year. Cuc Phong covers a mountainous, tropical region of rural northern Vietnam. The park is home to a variety of threatened animal and plant species. It is also home to a number of small rural villages whose inhabitants depend on slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting for their survival. However, the Vietnamese government has declared these activities illegal within the park’s boundaries.

This fall Zhou was awarded a travel grant from the Earth Institute at Columbia University to fund her return to Vietnam, where she will research the tensions between indigenous traditions and conservation efforts in Cuc Phong National Park. She will interview locals, park rangers and conservationists and explain her findings in her senior thesis with Columbia’s Anthropology Department.

Through the Earth Institute’s travel grant program students actively educate themselves by traveling, learning to conduct research and applying their academic knowledge to real-life situations. However, the students themselves also provide the Columbia community and the world with valuable original field work on new issues. Their research contributes to the global efforts to understand our environment and encourage sustainability.