Ecology course arms outer-island foresters with research skills, network opportunities

ECOLOGY COURSE: Students and forestry professionals from around Micronesia came together for a 17-day intensive course in tropical forest ecology, studying differences between forests on Guam and Saipan. Students learned valuable research skills and had the chance to network with other conservation professionals. Photo courtesy of Olympia Terral

A 17-day intensive University of Guam tropical ecology course wrapped up earlier this month, sending conservation students and foresters back to their islands with new research skills they learned in the forests of Guam and Saipan.

This was the first year the course, run by professors and Ph.D. students from UOG and Iowa State University, included forestry professionals from other Micronesian islands.

In total, 15 students and professionals participated, according to Ann Marie Gawel, a Ph.D. candidate at ISU who helped lead the course.

The students split into four separate groups, with some conducting field studies on Guam while others went to Saipan.

Gawel's team compared the land snail population between the two islands. Other groups looked at the effect of bird loss on forest ecology, as well as the presence of invasive vine species.

While the groups' findings may not be groundbreaking – after all, they had only two weeks to complete their studies – the training they received means they are better equipped to run and manage research projects on their respective islands. Participants came from Yap, Pohnpei and the Marshall Islands, as well as from Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Course leader Ross Miller, an entomologist and research scientist at the UOG Western Pacific Tropical Research Center, said, "Our hope is that it will inform their conservation work and help protect the terrestrial ecosystems on their home islands."

Gawel said it was also a good chance for students and professionals alike to network and learn about the conservation agencies out there.

Victoria Matsunaga, a Saipan resident attending Northern Marianas College, said she noticed a significant difference between forests on Guam and Saipan.

But her biggest takeaway was from her fellow students.

"It was an amazing opportunity to immerse myself in diversity and perspectives from different islands. ... It gave me a chance to get to know my brothers and sisters throughout Micronesia," she said in an email.

Wendolin Roseo Marquez is a senior grants officer at the Micronesian Conservation Trust in Pohnpei, who said in a press release, "The fragmentation and loss of forests on Guam is very alarming."

In an email, Marquez said he hopes the program can be expanded to other institutions in Palau and the Marshall Islands, and believes he's better prepared to carry out and manage research in Pohnpei.

During field work, students practiced writing research proposals, collecting data, and writing and presenting research results, Marquez said.

"Almost everything is new to me," Eugene Eperiam, a state forester in Pohnpei, said in an email, "but one big take away is the research process."

But he, too, enjoyed having the chance to collaborate with other island foresters.

"Also working with all these brilliant minds from other Micronesian (islands) is so amazing," he said. "We may (be) separated by a vast body of water, but we still face challenges in the same way."