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Biology students practice conservation on a global scale

| Denise Olson

So what is meant by the term "high-impact practice" on this campus? Is it some sort of athletic or fitness activity? Running? CrossFit, maybe? Not exactly.

At UW-Eau Claire, "high-impact" has a totally different meaning, and it results in undergraduate experiences that put Blugolds on the map, literally, across the globe.

Through the department of biology, our students find opportunities to participate in national and international faculty/student collaborative research and internships — the kinds of research and work opportunities often reserved for graduate students.  

Senior biology majors Ally Hillstrom, Minnetonka, Minnesota, and Morgan Freeburg, Burnsville, Minnesota, provide stellar examples of Blugolds who refuse to let any opportunities pass them by.

Hillstrom and Freeburg have had the chance accompany faculty on national and international research trips to places like Florida, Argentina, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Basin of Nevada, Ecuador and Cambodia. They have gained a firsthand view of the world, and the experience to understand how some of society's most pressing concerns will require cooperation among scientists across the globe. Having declared Spanish minors, both used their Spanish language skills to collaborate with global researchers in their native language. 

Argentina Wellnitz Freeburg"As a minor in Spanish, this was a dream come true for me. I never imagined myself traveling abroad to encompass both of my specialties," Freeburg stated. "Because I made an effort to get to know Dr. Chris Floyd and Dr. Todd Wellnitz, they both asked me to accompany them on research projects they were working on nationally and internationally."

With Wellnitz, Freeburg collaborated with scientists from CONICET, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina, studying aquatic and terrestrial macroinvertebrates. During the three-week study, she found herself totally immersed in the Argentine culture. 

Since this travel experience, Freeburg has upgraded her Spanish minor to a full major, having seen for herself how this can broaden her career opportunities in the field.  

In addition to international research, trips to Clearwater, Florida, to study marine life and to the Great Basin of Nevada to study bird habitat have further developed Freeburg's abilities in data collection and connecting communities to biological conservation efforts. 

Floyd, who worked with Freeburg researching the effect of climate change on the population of yellow-bellied marmots in Nevada, said Freeburg "asked good questions and showed confidence and competence working independently."

The marmot research completed on the Nevada trip resulted in Freeburg coauthoring a manuscript to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. The opportunity to add peer-reviewed publications to her resume upon graduation is unusual at the undergraduate level.

AllyHillstromLike Freeburg, Hillstrom credits her Spanish speaking skills with enhancing her research travel opportunities, including a 2014 research trip to the Galapagos Islands. The research, under the direction of senior lecturer Deb Freund, allowed Hillstrom to transform this biology study into cultural immersion as well. Collaborating daily with laboratory staff, Hillstrom gained more Spanish fluency during their studies of the invasive fly, Philornis downsi

"My time working in the entomology lab gave me confidence in my career path choice, but also gave me confidence as an independent traveler and young adult," recalled Hillstrom. "Not only was I trusted to complete field work and an experiment independently, I gained self-confidence to explore the island independently."


"Through my research and travel experiences I have seen the importance of conservation on a global scale firsthand," said Hillstrom. "I hope to continue my education in graduate school next fall studying conservation biology in relation to national and international environmental policies."

To be clear, the opportunities Hillstrom and Freeburg have had are not typical — they require tremendous work and diligence on the student's part. Being able to combine their Spanish skills with their collaborative research helped these students experience real-world applications in issues of global concern. As both of the women have shared, forging relationships with their instructors made a big difference in the doors opening to these global and national projects. 

"Ally was chosen, in part, because of persistence," said Freund of Hillstrom's Galapagos research trip. "Professors are watching for students who do well in classes, sure, but they are especially looking for students who are self-motivated, persistent and engaged. Own these attributes, let them be seen in and out of class, and opportunities will come to you."

With the variety of high-impact practices these seniors have experienced, whether they go on to graduate studies or immediately pursue career goals in the field, Ally Hillstom and Morgan Freeburg will leave UW-Eau Claire with the kinds of hands-on global experiences that will set them apart as applicants. 

Photo captions (all contributed photos)

Top image: Biology students Morgan Freeburg and Alison Schulte in Death Valley, Nevada, studying marmot habitats.

Top image in body of story: Left to right, Morgan Freeburg, Dr. Todd Wellnitz and Hunter Promer in Argentina, conducting research of aquatic and terrestrial macroinvertebrates. 

Middle image in body of story: Ally Hillstrom works with Dr. George Heimpel, University of Minnesota, to remove Philornis downsi flies from a fly trap at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands.

Bottom image in body of story: Hillstrom in Cambodia, where she collaborated with the monks of the Monks Community Forest (MCF) located in Oddar Meachey Province.