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Cambodian research trip yields results, conference presentation opportunity

RELEASED: Oct. 8, 2010

students conducting rice paddy research in Cambodia
Villagers' morning commute is disrupted as they stop to watch UW-Eau Claire students' sampling activities near the Cambodian town of Kampong Thom. Students, from left to right, are Kathryn Prince, Andrew Ludvik, Brian Pauley and Chris Maierhofer. (Contributed photo)

EAU CLAIRE — Five University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire biology students and a faculty member spent the summer researching the impact of the chemical usage in Cambodian rice paddies, focusing on the diversity of insects, frogs and fish.

The five students were Brian Pauley, Eau Claire; Kathryn Prince, Junction City; Christopher Maierhofer, Eau Claire; Katrina Jacobs, Blue Mounds; and Andrew Ludvik, Weyerhaeuser. Deborah Freund, associate lecturer of biology, led the research effort.

"The science aspect of the trip was very cool," Ludvik said. "This trip will help all of us going into graduate school."

The research focused on the food webs in the paddies. Cambodian farmers trap and eat a lot of the animals that live in the paddies. They use frogs, toads, fish, clams and insects as a major source of dietary protein, Freund said.

students conducting rice paddy research in Cambodia
Local boys watch as Chris Maierhofer (left), Brian Pauley (right), and In Visattha (in red jacket) sort insects captured in pitfall traps used in UW-Eau Claire students' research of Cambodia rice paddies. Visatha, a student from Pannasastra University of Cambodia, assisted in the study. (Contributed photo)

"Food webs work much like a spider web does," she said. "The more strands in the spider web, the stronger it is. More species in a food web make it stronger, more resistant to change. If there are fewer species in the food web, the collapse of the 'web' is more likely."

The researchers looked at three different types of paddies: those using traditional or organic methods, those with manmade chemical fertilizers and those with pesticides. Samples of fish, amphibians and insects were taken from five paddies of each type. The introduction of chemicals can disrupt the food chain and damage the ecosystem, Freund said.

Cambodia, which traditionally used organic methods for fertilizing rice and controlling insect pests, is beginning to use more chemicals in rice production in order to meet higher demand from countries such as China and Kuwait. After the worldwide rice shortage in 2008, a poor country like Cambodia stands to benefit enormously if they can increase production to meet the rising demand with higher prices. Greater chemical use, Freund said, is seen as a quick path to economic prosperity.

student conducting rice paddy research in Cambodia
Katrina Jacobs takes notes on water coverage in an organic rice paddy in Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia, while a farmer prepares a neighboring paddy for planting using cows and a wooden plow. (Contributed photo)

"Cambodians, due to their difficult history of poverty, involvement in the Vietnam War and a devastating civil war, have not used 'modern' chemical farming methods as long as other countries," she said. "Biodiversity of the rice paddies may be affected by the use of chemicals. Our main goal was to research whether the chemically treated paddies differed from the organic paddies."

The researchers are currently working on an assessment of the insect samples they brought back from Cambodia, and will present their findings Nov. 18 on campus as part of the biology department's seminar series. They will also travel to Chicago in April to present their findings at an ASIANetwork conference.

The research project was funded through a grant from the ASIANetwork, a consortium of liberal arts colleges that strives to strengthen the role of Asian studies within the framework of liberal arts education. UW-Eau Claire was one of 13 recipients of a summer 2010 AsiaNetwork Freeman Foundation Student-Faculty Fellows Program for Collaborative Research in Asia grant. It was the first time the organization funded a trip to Cambodia. Students wrote a significant portion of the grant proposal, Freund said.

While much of the trip was research-oriented, the group spent the first two weeks immersing themselves in Cambodian culture, visiting the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, floating lake villages and Buddhist temples. The research was completed at the end of the trip, when the rainy season was more advanced. They also climbed waterfalls, swam in a volcanic lake and spent a full day in boats watching Irrawaddy dolphins, which are close to extinction. Local food, including fish paste, tarantulas and duck eggs, was educational, too.

Ludvik said that a game called "Cambodian hacky sack" was a popular attraction.

"They use a birdie-like object from badminton," Ludvik said. "We are trying to get a group going on campus. If you ever see us on the campus mall, come and join us."

Cambodians were very interested to see the researchers, Ludvik said. Cambodian children helped the students catch animals in the rice paddies and practiced the limited English that they knew.

"My favorite part of the entire trip was when Deb (Freund) took us to English teaching classes taught through her friend," Ludvik said. "We each worked with seven or eight high school students. We told them about America and found out they loved Lady Gaga. Going there and talking with those kids was a great experience."

Before the summer trip, Freund had already spent significant time in Cambodia as a volunteer with the Teachers Across Borders organization. She has developed many contacts within the country and a solid understanding of the people and culture. Freund's next continuing project is to organize a computer drive for Cambodian students.

"The schools there are especially poor," she said. "They don't have much equipment to work with to develop computer skills. I've been trying to collect old laptops and bring them over. It would be a great way to give a helping hand to Cambodian children."

Another trip back to Cambodia is already in the works. The details of the new grant are still being worked out, but the group will return to do more research. Ludvik, Maierhofer and Prince will return, along with two new students.

"The trip was truly amazing; we are all looking forward to going back," Ludvik said. "Not only was the biology aspect interesting, but eating with and hanging out with Cambodians was a great cultural experience."

Freund was pleased with the research the students completed and felt the students took advantage of other immersion experiences as well.

"If there was something cultural to do, they did it. If there was something interesting to eat, they ate it. They were model traveling Americans and great traveling companions."

More information about the trip and the research done in Cambodia can be found on the group's blog.

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LA/RD/DW

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