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Area students study stream ecology in Argentina during immersion trip

February 6, 2012
Argentina Immerersion
Four UW-Eau Claire biology majors — three from Eau Claire — and a UW-Eau Claire biology faculty member spent three weeks in Argentina studying streams in the Andes Mountains. The research team included (back row, from left) Zach Snobl, Chris Wojan, Dr. Todd Wellnitz and Kim Wellnitz; (front row, from left), Ong Xiong and John Schoen. Snobl, Xiong and Schoen are all Eau Claire natives.
EAU CLAIRE — When four University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire biology majors returned to campus last month to start spring classes, they brought with them a better understanding of the world's ecosystems, a new appreciation for cultural differences, connections to South American scientists and a desire to share their research with an international audience.

The seniors — three of whom are from Eau Claire — and a biology faculty member spent three weeks in January in Argentina, where they worked with Argentine scientists and students to study Andean mountain streams.

"It showed me a whole different culture that I probably never would have had a chance to see without this trip," Zach Snobl, Eau Claire, said of the international Winterim immersion experience. "It also helped me build connections with ecologists from different parts of the world. I think that is a really unique undergraduate experience."

Dr. Todd Wellnitz, associate professor of biology, led the research team, which included biology majors Snobl; John Schoen, Eau Claire; Chris Wojan, Wausau; and Ong Xiong, Eau Claire. The researchers spent nearly a month in the Argentina Andes and the nearby city of Mendoza, where they collaborated with Argentine scientists and undergraduate science students to study stream and riparian communities in the Andes Mountains.

"The students were fantastic," said Wellnitz. "They worked hard and did outstanding field work, collecting what might prove to be novel biodiversity data. They also had fun — they rode horses into the Andes, camped under the Southern Hemisphere's stars, and got a taste of the gaucho lifestyle. They interacted with Argentine scientists and students, and will have opportunities to present their research to international audiences. I fully expect the experience will be transformative for Ong, Zach, John and Chris, and better prepare them for success in graduate school and careers in science."

The four students have worked on research with Wellnitz for more than a year as part of Team Logjam, a faculty-student research team that is studying the effects of stream logjams on invertebrate communities in northern Minnesota streams. The hands-on work in Argentina helped them better understand how a high mountain desert stream ecosystem compares to the streams they have studied in Minnesota, the students said.

"It allowed me to take the skills and techniques we used on our research in northern Minnesota, along with concepts from a stream ecology course, and apply them to a radically different ecosystem than what is observed here in the Midwest," Schoen said.

The field work was challenging and interesting, but it was the cross-cultural aspect of the immersion experience that was especially meaningful to her, Xiong said.

Argentina immersion trip 2012
Biology majors Ong Xiong and Chris Wojan look on as Dr. Todd Wellnitz shows them stream invertebrates from a mountain spring. Zach Snobl reads in the background.
"As a Hmong-American, my visit to Argentina placed me at the center of not two, but three cultures," Xiong said. "Somehow, that taught me more about Hmong culture and American culture than I ever learned in my 21 years. I learned more about my own identity abroad than I ever could have at home."

Xiong said her time in South America also helped her re-evaluate how she thinks about and approaches her life. In the past, she equated success with accomplishing as much as possible in a short amount of time, she said.

"I learned in Argentina to appreciate time — not for the quantity of things achieved but for the quality of how that time is spent," Xiong said. "In Argentina, it is not about spending less time doing something, but more."

While research was the focus of the trip, Snobl said the students also had a chance to experience local culture and to enjoy the natural beauty of the region.

"It was beautiful to work on these mountain streams and everywhere you looked we would see some of the best scenery in the world," Snobl said, adding that this was his first visit to South America, a part of the world that has long interested him.

Schoen agreed, adding that a trip highlight was seeing an Andean condor, the world's largest flying land bird, circle within 15 feet of him multiple times during a hike up the side of a mountain.

"It was truly an awe-inspiring moment to experience something like that firsthand," Schoen said.

Collaborating with Argentine professors and students helped the UW-Eau Claire students learn more about local culture and customs, Schoen said. An ability to work through language barriers and to appreciate cultural differences are necessary skills in today's world, he said.

And traveling for three weeks with three other UW-Eau Claire student researchers and a professor helped him develop communication and interpersonal skills that also will serve him well in the future, Schoen said.

"We now know how to work well as a team to accomplish everything efficiently," Schoen said of the student research team. "I also made connections with professors. It is a valuable asset to be able to work, communicate and make friends with not only people of your own age, but of all ages."

The reactions of those they met during their travels was a reminder of how unusual it is for undergraduate students to have the kinds of research and international experiences offered to students at UW-Eau Claire, Schoen said.

"It was interesting to talk to others while travelling and explain to them what we were doing," Schoen said. "Everyone assumed we were graduate students. UW-Eau Claire is a special undergraduate college because it pushes undergraduate research so hard. This experience will give us all a leg up on the competition when looking for jobs or further education."

The student researchers, along with Wellnitz, now will analyze the data they gathered during Winterim, as well as data that will be sent to them by their Argentine collaborators. They plan to share their findings at the 2012 Ecological Society of America's national conference in Portland, Ore., and submit papers to professional journals. The students also will give a presentation April 12 as part of UW-Eau Claire's biology department seminar series.

This Argentine biology immersion experience received financial support from UW-Eau Claire's Center for International Education's International Fellowship Program. The fellowship program is funded by the university's Blugold Commitment. In 2010 the Student Senate and the UW System Board of Regents supported increasing the amount of differential tuition UW-Eau Claire students pay, with the new dollars going to fund Blugold Commitment projects that enhance student learning.

For more information about the project in Argentina or for additional photographs from the immersion trip, contact Dr. Todd Wellnitz at or 715-836-3021.



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