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Conservation and Conversation in Chile

The UConn contingent poses on top of Cerro La Bandera in Navarino.

The UConn contingent poses on top of Cerro La Bandera in Navarino.

Over the winter break, nine UConn students and two faculty traveled to the Subantarctic Chilean island of Navarino for three weeks on a study abroad course to learn about biocultural conservation and environmental ethics. Navarino is the world’s southernmost permanently inhabited island in the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve.

“It’s a place with stunningly beautiful mountains and glaciers but bitter wind and snow, even in the middle of summer,” said Robert Capers, UConn scientific collections manager.

Capers led the course with UConn alumnus Ricardo Rozzi ’98 MA,’01 Ph.D., now professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas (UNT) and biology at the University of Magallanes in Chile. The trip was also supported by the UConn Office of First Year Programs and Learning Communities as one of its First Year International (FYI) initiatives.

The multicultural course was taught in both Spanish and English and included faculty from UNT and Japan, as well as students from universities in North and South America. Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Bernard Goffinet established the UConn connection with the course in 2013, but this was the first year that students participated for course credit.

The students took a 33-hour boat ride through an uninhabited archipelago, characterized by glaciers, to reach Navarino. Between bouts of hail and snow showers, students engaged in bird banding, vegetation surveys, and freshwater insect ecology, and held discussions about current issues in environmental sciences, philosophy, and conservation of biological and cultural diversity.

UConn graduate student Lily Lewis, right, works with senior biological sciences major Jeff Hammond on moss identification.

UConn graduate student Lily Lewis, right, works with senior biological sciences major Jeff Hammond on moss identification.

Sophomore biological sciences major Wyatt Million said that he made unexpected connections between biological conservation and the culture of the native Navarino people.

“The importance of naming in a culture was something I never thought about,” he said. “When naming new organism, for example, you express your own culture or view point, which will have an effect on the perception of that organism. So a name has great implications.”

Students stayed at a scientific station in Puerto Williams, a small town of 2,200 inhabitants. At the end of the course, they presented their research findings to the course participants.

Goffinet also organized the biennial meeting of the International Association of Bryologists on Navarino in January, which attracted scientists who study mosses from 20 countries around the world. Several UConn students involved in the study abroad course attended the conference, and ecology and evolutionary biology graduate student Lily Lewis presented her dissertation research and her study with senior biology major Emily Behling ’15 on the spread of plant species via migratory birds.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet also attended the inauguration of the conference and announced that a new scientific field station would be developed on Navarino to further support the work initiated by Rozzi and his group.

“This experience provided many of the students with their first exposure to scientific communications and hence with a unique inspiration to pursue a career in the sciences,” said Goffinet.

Funding was provided by the UConn Office of First Year Programs and Learning Communities and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Six students also received $1,000 fellowships from Partners of the Americas through a grant managed by UNT. 

View more photos from the trip.


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