RMC Students Research Freshwater Biodiversity During NSF-Funded Trip to Kenya

News Story categories: Biology Student Life
Student researchers pose with equipment used to collect species of fishes and macroinvertebrates in Kenya

The rivers and streams of the Lake Victoria Basin in western Kenya are a biodiversity hotspot, teeming with different fishes and macroinvertebrates. This summer, three Randolph-Macon students, under the guidance of RMC biology professor Ray Schmidt, took part in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project to conduct the crucial work of indexing these species and assessing the quality of their habitats.

Calvina Birch ‘24, Rita Diamond ‘24, and Courtney Tucker ’24 spent six weeks working alongside students and researchers from Tulane University, the University of Eldoret, and the National Museums of Kenya to study rivers across the region. At each site, the team was split into three groups: one using seines and electrofishers to collect samples of fish, one using nets to collect and sort through insects, and a third to measure the physical dimensions and water quality of the river, with the groups rotating through the roles at every new site.

In addition to expanding the general understanding of what species are present in the region, including potentially discovering new species, Schmidt explains the impact of this work has broader impacts on conservation.

“There’s a lot of species of fishes and other things that occur there that don’t occur anywhere else,” Schmidt said. “Related to that is the fact that the area is very much threatened. There’s a lot of these species of fish that are going extinct without us knowing about them. So, that’s a purpose of this project, to get in there and identify what these things are and see if we can conserve them.”

Futures in Research

The project, part of the NSF’s International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program, also serves to develop a global workforce of researchers, giving students the opportunity to build skills that will prepare them for graduate study in STEM fields. The grant fully funds the students’ international travel and provides a stipend, ensuring they have no out-of-pocket cost to participate.

The ambitions of the three RMC students represent a variety of pathways within the field of biology: Birch is a psychology and behavioral neuroscience double-major with a biology minor, on a pre-med track looking to go to grad school before attending medical school; Tucker is a chemistry major with a biology minor looking to earn a job in a genetics or molecular biology lab; Diamond is a biology major with a music minor who wants to work with wildlife and has a particular love for frogs.

Student researchers work with the National Museums of Kenya to collect samples of fish in rivers

While they brought varied backgrounds with them to Kenya, they each felt the impact of the experience—especially learning new skills as researchers—on their preparation for the future.

Tucker remarked that “it definitely gave me a lot of confidence in my researching abilities.” Meanwhile, Birch noted that “having a professor who wants to instruct you and guide you really helped with the process. Eventually, as you continuously do more streams, you adjust to it and things start to click.”

For Diamond, the work reinforced a potential future career path. “It’s setting me up really well,” she said of the trip. “It really made me feel like research is something that I love to do. I really love being in nature and this work was pretty much in nature 24/7, so that was awesome.”

Cultural Immersion

Beyond the hands-on experience collecting and studying wildlife, the students were also immersed in a new country and culture. All three were visiting Africa for the first time, and Birch was embarking on her first trip outside of the United States. The project let them collaborate with local experts from the National Museums of Kenya to catalog species to add to their collections. The field work also gave them all the opportunity to interact with young Kenyan learners.

“We got to see a lot of the countryside and we talked to a lot of young children,” Diamond said. “If we were sampling near a school, sometimes kids there go home for lunch, so they would walk by and watch us sample and we would get to talk to them. They would ask us questions too, which was really fun for us.”

A Global Database

The work done by RMC students in Kenya this summer is a small, but important, part of a massive global undertaking to create a database of knowledge around the animal species in the region. The next layer of work beyond collecting samples is DNA sequencing, a process that aims to create a unique “barcode” for every living thing on the planet.

The students participated in a sequencing workshop while in Kenya, and their training will continue this fall as they complete the sequencing in labs at RMC. (This process was streamlined by the work of RMC alumna Elise Knobloch ‘21, whose research allows for faster and more cost-efficient sequencing, while still preserving specimens.) The results will inform their individual research projects this semester, which they’ll present at the Symposium of Research, Scholarship, and Creative Work in the spring. 

The final phase of the project for the developing scholars will be to help recruit the next batch of students that will travel to Kenya next summer and build on the foundational research, a transformative experience gaining valuable research skills and strengthening the international network of collaboration.