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Students get up close and personal with all kinds of creatures in the university fieldwork program. (Joshua J. See)
Students get up close and personal with all kinds of creatures in the university fieldwork program. (Joshua J. See)

Canadian University Report 2014: Field Work

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At dusk, the students scurry into the rainforest. Under the thick forest canopy, the darkness is warm, sweet and damp. Droning insects and chirping bats quickly mute the hum of the diesel generator back at the makeshift camp.

They take unsteady steps along fallen trees and traverse muddy ground until they reach the tall and barely visible mist nets they’ve erected to catch bats. They find three in the first net, untangle them, and slip them into small canvas bags to carry back to the camp for identification.

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A few days earlier, these students were strangers. they travelled from Canada, the United states and Britain to volunteer as research assistants in Guyana for operation Wallacea, an organization that runs biology and wildlife conservation research programs around the world.

Most of the students have never before handled wild animals – bats, birds, snakes and others – and few have experienced field research. Some are here to figure out whether they might enjoy careers as field biologists. Others hope to boost their chances of acceptance into a postgraduate program.

Burton Lim, a curator of mammals at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the expedition’s resident bat expert, holds up a bat, artibeus gnomus. it’s a small fruit-eating bat, with a leaf-shaped nose and a yellow fringe along its ears. “I don’t catch many of these,” Dr. Lim says.

“Pretty awesome!” exclaims one student, who is now holding the bat.

For the next six hours – until midnight – the students check and recheck the nets. Most of the bats will be released back into the wild, but some will be kept as museum specimens. During the day, other teams will catalogue birds, reptiles, frogs, large mammals – and dung beetles.

Prior to the expedition, Jin-Zhi (Gigi) Pao, 20, a biology student at Queen’s University in Kingston, ont., planned to apply to veterinary school. But this expedition has her reconsidering her future. “i was hoping for an authentic research experience, and i got it,” she says. This fall, she will do a senior thesis in biology.

“The problem with many universities is that they have moved away from introducing students to fieldwork,” says Tim Coles, the project director and founder of operation Wallacea, based in Lincolnshire, England. “If you’re interested in ecology, it’s good to get into the field to know if you want to move onto a master’s.”

Unusual volunteer experiences can also boost résumés. students applying to medical and veterinary schools need to distinguish themselves from their peers. “This is clearly one of those things that can make them stand out from the rest,” Dr. Coles says.

“Hands-on experience is good prep for the program,” says Elizabeth Lowenger, manager of student affairs at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.

In 2013, more than 2,000 high-school and university students joined operation Wallacea expeditions in 12 countries, including Honduras, Indonesia and Egypt. Undergraduates can also use the experience to gather data for dissertations or course credit.

Volunteers pay to take part in the research. The price varies according to the duration of the expedition, which can range from two to eight weeks. A four-week long trip to Guyana, for example, costs $3,200, not including the round-trip air fare to Georgetown. The fee covers all food, accommodation and medical and evacuation insurance.

For Jocelyn Leger, 20, a biochemistry major at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., the expedition allowed her to stretch her limits. As she walked through the rainforest one night, she saw “thousands of twinkling diamonds,” she says. “But they were spider eyes!” once terrified of spiders, Ms. Leger overcame her uneasiness to the point that she could identify them.

“I felt like I could do anything when I came back from Guyana,” she says. “You will be pushing your boundaries, but it’s a worthwhile experience.”

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