UTB biology seniors to travel to Siberia
BROWNSVILLE, TX — Two undergraduate biology majors at The University of Texas at Brownsville will travel to the Siberia region of Russia later this month to perform independent research projects.
Homero Peña, 21, a senior from Lozano and a 2011 Rio Hondo High School graduate and Erika Ramos, 22, a senior from San Benito and a 2010 Los Fresnos High School alumna, will travel to the Northeast Science Station on the Kolyma River in Cherskii, Russia. Their trip is being funded by the Polaris Project which is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. The Polaris Project provides opportunities for students, scientists and academic instructors to conduct global climate change and Arctic research. The 2014 expedition will include 30 scientists from research and educational institutions from the U.S. and Russia.
“The Arctic is often the first area on the globe to experience the effects of climate change, and changes that occur in the Arctic have the potential to have cascading effects on the rest of the planet, including south Texas,” said Dr. Heather Alexander, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, Mathematics and Technology.
While in Russia, Peña will study the characteristics of different plant communities and how plants influence their underlying soils across a range of environmental concerns. This is especially important to understand because plant communities are changing as the climate warms.
Ramos will look at how vegetation traits change as permafrost thaws in response to climate warming and cause the soil to cave in on itself, a process known as thermokarsting.
Peña and Ramos will live on a barge in the Kolyma River during the duration of their trip. The first two weeks of the trip will involve going into forests and the last two weeks will be traveling toward the Arctic Ocean to study the tundra.
“I have always wanted to go to Siberia,” said Peña. “I wanted to see the boreal forests. I saw a lot of documentaries on the National Geographic Channel about the animals that inhabit Siberia. I thought as a career that I wanted to do research on the wildlife in the boreal forests.”
Their goal is to present their research at a national conference.
The students are preparing for the trip by purchasing online and in stores winter clothing for the weather conditions they will encounter and reading research papers about Siberia’s ecosystems. Peña and Ramos have also had online meetings with other students traveling as part of the Polaris Project and recently participated in an Arctic Field Training Course in Massachusetts.
Alexander began encouraging students to apply to the Polaris Project and travel to Russia last fall in her Biology III laboratory. She said Peña was the first to express interest, and at their first meeting about the trip, he brought along Ramos.
“I’m glad I found two students that are open minded and understand the importance of doing this type of research for their careers,” said Alexander.
Peña said he wanted to do something this summer to improve his resume and to develop his science skills.
Ramos said she liked what Alexander told her in class about doing research in Siberia, something Alexander had done while at UTB and doing post-doctoral work at the University of Florida.
“What Dr. Alexander proposed was an amazing opportunity to be able to develop a research idea about how I could manage that and become a better scientist at the same time,” said Ramos. “I love being outside and being able to explore the environment; it’s amazing.”
The students worked in Alexander’s laboratory during the spring semester as undergraduate researchers. They have also had several meetings with her to prepare for the trip.
“I’ve always been pretty good in science,” said Peña. “I remember when I was younger looking into a microscope and seeing bacteria and deciding I wanted to learn about this.”
Alexander and Aaron White, 25, a graduate student in biology at UTB from Apple Valley, Minn., will travel to Siberia at the same time as the Polaris Project. Their research on climate warming, carbon cycling and increased wildfires is funded by a separate National Science Foundation grant.
The Northeast Science Station was founded in 1989 by scientists from the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The research station receives funding to operate from the National Science Foundation, the Russian Science Foundation and the Soros Foundation and supports researchers from across the globe, including the United States, Germany and Japan.
The group will depart Brownsville on Monday, June 23 and fly through New York City and the Russian cities of Moscow, Yakutsk and Cherskii. The group is scheduled to return to Brownsville on Monday, July 28.