State of the Planet

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Expanding Overseas Study Opportunities

This article was taken from The Columbia Spectator.  This story is part of a special issue examining Columbia’s Global Centers, three years after the Amman, Jordan and Beijing, China centers were launched. Check out the rest of the issue here. Click here to learn more about the Summer Ecosystem Experiences for Undergraduates.

A golf-ball-sized rhinoceros beetle flies through the open-air pavilion and lands on my table. I look up from my notes, an attempt at reworking my African wild dog study methods, and realize I haven’t seen one of these mighty beasts since my junior year in South Africa. The beetle is a welcome companion on this quiet, star-studded night in Jordan’s Ajloun Forest Reserve, when two weeks ago and halfway around the world, I had waved goodbye to my doorman upon leaving my apartment. Creature comforts: another perspective shift made possible by the Columbia Global Centers.

The CGC network opens doors to outstanding international opportunities that will add a unique perspective to your academic experience. You’ve listened to dozens of lectures on water scarcity and climate change, but you can give these academic pursuits real meaning when you have spent time with the families affected by these issues and the scientists working to solve them.

I admit I am a poster child for the “study abroad changed my life” story, as my veterinary pursuits evolved into a passion for wildlife. Now, as a conservation biology graduate student, I jumped at a chance to expand my international experience, while influencing some unsuspecting undergrads along the way. After pleading with my adviser to let me throw a wrench in my New York-based summer research plans, I spent May and June of 2011 traveling through Jordan as the teaching assistant for the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation’s course in Summer Ecosystem Experiences for Undergraduates.

The CERC is a division of the Earth Institute and SEE-U is a well-attended suite of field research courses. To prepare for the developing partnership with the Amman Global Center, I was tasked with understanding Jordan’s environmental, social, and political issues. I knew very little about the country, but I quickly learned that Jordan is more than just the Middle Eastern desert landscape I had envisioned. Picture this: diverse patches of forest, wetlands, valleys, and coral reefs that are home to a wide array of marine and terrestrial flora and fauna. This was an ideal place to pilot a new SEE-U location.

I headed to Amman with Jenna Lawrence, a Ph.D. lecturer in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology, and 14 jet-lagged students from Columbia College, Barnard, and General Studies. The capital city was the first stop on our journey, with the stunning white stone Columbia University Middle East Research Center as our home base. We exchanged the comfort of the center for the bunk beds and small cabins of the field, where the real hands-on learning began.

Under Director Safwan Masri’s leadership, CUMERC has amassed a wealth of connections with a diverse mix of Jordanians—scientists, policy-makers, park managers, artists, and local residents—all of whom were eager to share their expertise and collaborate with our group.

There was the jovial female photographer whose iconic images created a visual road map of the villages and landscapes we hoped to visit during our travels. The captivating, politically aligned environmentalist who insisted that Jordan could survive without nuclear power and invited us to a protest downtown (we graciously declined). At Dana Nature Reserve, we befriended a gawky, soft-spoken ecologist who shared his love for camera traps and finding animal tracks, and his hope of finding a wife. He seemed to be in the right place: Women in traditional dress ran the parks’ shops and displayed their homemade crafts with pride, proof of Jordan’s award-winning conservation and community empowerment efforts.

The Jordanian ecological community operates out of sheer joy—it is contagious. Back at the Bronx Zoo, my human-wildlife conflict research involves watching African wild dogs investigate “scent samples,” which is a really just a polite way to say I record when the dogs sniff bags of animal poop. But hey, I study African wild dogs! Whether you study barnacle growth, malaria prevention strategies, or sustainable supply chains, fieldwork in foreign countries will not only further your academic success, it will remind you why you chose your discipline in the first place.

Look for fellowships and internships through the Global Centers as an affordable way to go abroad, or follow my lead and get a teaching position (and even get paid to do it). Whichever program you choose, remember that international research is more than just developing knowledge. It’s about the people you meet along your journey.

Erin Mulcahy is a Master’s student in the Graduate School of Arts and Science studying conservation biology. She is the director’s office intern for the Earth Institute.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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