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Students study biodiversity in Cambodian forests

As she grew up in a small Wisconsin town, Breana Meyer spent hours watching Animal Planet and Discovery Channel nature shows that took her on adventures around the world. Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) and famed naturalist David Attenborough inspired her to dream of someday having her own adventures in far-flung locales.

The ecology and environmental biology major's childhood dreams came true thanks to a faculty-student research project that took her to a remote part of Cambodia to conduct biodiversity studies in a community forest managed by Buddhist monks.

"I wanted to explore strange worlds just like them, and finally I got to do just that," Meyer says of following in the footsteps of her childhood Animal Planet and Discovery Channel heroes. "I couldn't wait to get my feet dirty and see all there is that Cambodia has to offer."

Deb Freund, a lecturer of biology, led the research excursion, which took her and four students to Cambodia for six weeks where they lived in remote villages and worked with villagers and monks to add to biodiversity baseline data.

A small country in Southeast Asia that borders Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia is rich in culture and biodiversity. Natural resource protection is crucial to improving the quality of life for Cambodians. Forests are among the most valuable resources in Cambodia, but they are being threatened by deforestation.

The Cambodian government is trying to address the issues, but more research is needed for educated decision making, said Freund, who has spent significant time in Cambodia, often with student research teams.

"By conducting a basic biodiversity assessment and studying the effects of deforestation on biodiversity and traditional practices, we provide Cambodia with critical information to use in sustainable conservation and increase awareness for the protection of Cambodian forests," Freund said.

While the research itself was rewarding, the students said they also were excited to be immersed in communities in a remote part of the world.

Kelsey Pischke, a biology major and Spanish minor who studied in Spain while developing her language skills, said exploring Cambodia while working as a student researcher was an entirely different experience.

"The opportunity to travel to Southeast Asia as more than a tourist was amazing," Pischke said. "Anytime you step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself in new ways you grow as a person."