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Biology students, faculty to study rice paddies in Cambodia this summer

RELEASED: March 4, 2010

Deb Freund
Deb Freund

EAU CLAIRE — Five University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students and a biology faculty member will spend time this summer in Cambodia studying how the use of agrochemicals in rice paddies is affecting that country's ecosystem.

"As rice has become more valuable, the pressure has grown in Cambodia to increase the amount of rice it produces," said Deb Freund, an associate lecturer of biology who will lead the research team. "As a result, rice farmers are using more fertilizers and pesticides. We want to study how these chemicals are affecting the fauna that live in the rice paddies."

While exporting rice is critical to the country's economy, Cambodian farmers also harvest and consume much of what lives within the rice paddies, Freund said, noting that the paddies are home to many diverse creatures such as frogs, birds, crayfish, snakes and insects.

Like all ecosystems, the rice paddies have food chains within them, Freund said. Introducing chemicals can disrupt the food chain and damage the ecosystem, she said.

"The farmers may get more money for their rice by using the agrochemicals, but we want to know if they are hurting their way of life as a result," said Freund. "The paddies are evolved aquatic ecosystems populated by fish and other animals that are important to the diets of many Cambodians so there may be many adverse effects to the new farming methods."

Freund and the students will examine 15-21 rice paddies during a five-week visit to Cambodia, a small country that sits between Thailand and Vietnam. The researchers will sample populations of fish, invertebrates and amphibians, all of which are important to the paddy ecosystem, she said. They will take samples from paddies that are managed using traditional or organic methods, and paddies that are treated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

"We hope to capture a snapshot of Asian rice paddy biodiversity, preserving it in time before Cambodia succumbs to more capitalistic methods of agriculture," Freund said.

Freund has spent significant time in Cambodia as a volunteer with the Teachers Across Borders organization. As a result, she has developed many contacts within the country and a good understanding of the country's people and culture, she said. Her contacts and knowledge will make it easier for the research team to do their work this summer, she said.

"I've been to Cambodia four times to help teachers learn better ways to teach in the classrooms," Freund said. "As a biology person, I've noted the changes in farming practices there and began wondering about the long-term impact these changes will have on the country and its ecosystem. When I was there last summer, I hired a biology student who spoke English and I spent time visiting rice paddies and talking to farmers."

When she returned from Cambodia, she began talking with biology students about her idea for the research project and found there was great interest among the students.

The project perfectly matches his interests, said Andrew Ludvik, a biology major and anthropology minor who is interested in zoology and conservation.

"It'll be a great opportunity for me to gain experience in researching and learning about organisms and ecosystems in an exotic environment, and I'll be thrown into a foreign and complex culture that I'll learn many new things from," said Ludvik, a senior from Weyerhaeuser. "This opportunity is really like a dream come true to me."

Ludvik said he expects the experience to help him as he continues his education and as he pursues his career.

"This is a perfect opportunity to gain research experience that will give me an edge to get into the grad program that I'll want and it will give me a better understanding of what I may be doing in my career," said Ludvik. "It'll be neat to see what implications the data we obtain will have on rice paddy fields in Cambodia."

While Ludvik has not traveled in Asia before, he has had several international experiences as a UW-Eau Claire student. He studied abroad in Australia for a semester and traveled to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with Freund for a summer class.

"That also was a great experience — and my first experience with a significantly different culture," Ludvik said of the summer class. "It was very cool to learn and explore the unique animals and plants found at the Galapagos."

The Cambodian research is appealing because it offers experience in anthropology, agriculture and in many different facets of biology, said Kathryn Prince, a senior biology major from Stevens Point.

"It offers the chance to do real work in the field and explore a new place," Prince said. "I'll be glad to get some extended research experience; the things learned in a classroom are of little use if there's never a chance to apply them in the real world."

Knowing the research could have a long-term impact on the country is exciting, said Chris Maierhofer, a junior biology major from Eau Claire.

"We're (hopefully) going to be using our findings to educate folks about the long-term dangers of agrochemical use, with the potential for improving health and livelihood in one of the poorest places in the world," said Maierhofer, who worked on a research project in Japan last summer. "If things go well, this will add fuel to my fire of wanting to work globally for social justice and to alleviate poverty."

This summer's research project will be funded through a grant from the AsiaNetwork, a consortium of liberal arts colleges to promote Asian studies. UW-Eau Claire was one of just 13 recipients of 2010 summer AsiaNetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Awards. This is the first time the organization has funded a project in Cambodia, Freund said, adding that the students wrote a significant portion of the grant that received the funding.

While much of their time in Cambodia will be spent doing field work, Freund also is ensuring the students develop an understanding of Cambodia's history, people and culture.

"We will visit museums, temples and other sites of historic and cultural importance to Cambodia," Freund said. "The students already are listening to language tapes and doing other things to learn about the country in preparation for the trip."

Prince believes learning about Cambodia will be a highlight of the project.

"I want to experience living in a less developed region," Prince said. "I want to learn about the country. A year ago, I didn't even know Cambodia existed. It's horrible that they've experienced such brutality so recently, yet their history remains little-known in America."

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JB/DW

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