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On research trip to Asia, students learn it's a jungle out there

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College's traveling party, including Adelaide Columnas, Rebecca Isaacs, professor James Godde and Zachary Owens, was asked to don skirts before entering a temple in Indonesia.
It's a jungle out there

Summer International Research Trip explores Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore

Three Monmouth College students got their hands dirty, and then some, during a Summer International Research Trip (SIRT) to Southeast Asia.

Biology professor James Godde led the three-week trip, accompanied by rising seniors Rebecca Isaacs of Rock Island and Zachary Owens of Naperville, as well as junior-to-be Adilaide Columnas of Woodridge.

The students not only had to deal with the heat and humidity of the Malaysian jungle but, as part of conducting research on the jungle’s biodiversity, they had countless encounters with bloodsucking leeches. In fact, they actually sought out the little creatures.

“The leeches suck on the mammals of the region,” explained Godde. “The idea was to collect the leeches, and then by running a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) on their DNA, we would be able to learn more about which creatures live there. From what I’ve read, that DNA remains in the leeches’ systems for about a month, so we’re able to study all the mammals they’ve encountered during that time.”

Godde said mammals were the specific focus, as leeches have a difficult time penetrating a bird’s feathers or a reptile’s scales. The data from the leeches is likely to yield evidence of several more species than the group actually saw.

“We didn’t see that much wildlife,” said Godde. “We heard all sorts of things, but we only saw some monkeys and a tapir.”

Leeches, on the other hand, were everywhere.

“They weren’t hard to find,” said Godde of the inchworm-sized creatures. “They came looking for us.”

By the conclusion of their five days and four nights in the jungle, Godde’s group had collected 120 leeches, which are currently being stored in a freezer in the biology lab. During the college’s upcoming SOFIA (Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activity) program, Godde will oversee five students who will be conducting the DNA research.

“SOFIA is a three-week program, which is just about the right amount of time for us to extract the DNA, run a PCR, clone it and get it sequenced,” said Godde, who will enlist the services of Owens, one other returning student and three incoming freshmen.

Godde and the students also collected leech bites, about a dozen per person. The small wounds would bleed for about 45 minutes, as leeches inject an anti-coagulant when they pierce the skin. Wearing three layers of panty hose prevented the wounds, but it was often viewed as a poor trade-off, considering the heat and humidity.

The Malaysia stage of the trip that Godde referred to as SIMS (Singapore to Indonesia to Malaysia and back to Singapore) was certainly the hardest part.

“The jungle was tough, I’m not going to lie,” said Godde. “We had 60-pound packs, and it was tough hiking. If the trails had been graded, they would have been ‘advanced’ or ‘difficult.’ But I didn’t hear any complaints from the students. I had warned them it would be no picnic. It was a big adventure for them.”

“I was definitely not expecting the jungle at all,” said Columnas. “It was probably the most difficult part of the trip for me, but for some reason that is always the first story I tell when anybody asks how my trip was. Now that I look back on it, it was probably my favorite part.”

Columnas, who called the trip an “amazing experience” offered a comparison of the Malaysian jungle.

“If anyone has read the second book of ‘The Hunger Games,’ that basically describes the jungle, minus the man-eating monkeys and things like that.”

As a safeguard, park rangers knew which “jungle hide” – a type of hut on stilts – that the Monmouth group planned to stay in each night. Also, Godde and the students were never a great distance from rivers, which had regular boat traffic.

“We could have flagged somebody down if we needed help,” said Godde. “In fact, we did that once after completing a particularly tough four-hour hike. Instead of repeating it on the way back, we went to the river and got on a boat.”

In addition to being a place to rest their heads each night, the raised jungle hides provided a respite from the leeches. Mosquitoes, however, were abundant, but the group members made sure that they regularly took their malaria medication.

“After a long day of climbing, hiking, slipping ,tripping and falling, we would sleep at a community hide deep in the jungle,” said Columnas. “I met so many people from all over the world that way, because other people would hike to the hides, too. Traveling the nitty, gritty way makes the overall experience worthwhile.”

While the lifestyle in Malaysia was “roughing it,” Singapore was more about being pampered.

“We loved the food there,” said Godde. “(Psychology professor) Kristin Larson took students there on the last SIRT, and she said, ‘You’ve got to try the chilli crab.’ We finally did right at the end, and it was really good. We had a pretty excellent time there, and we saw several of the typical tourist sites, including the famous Merlion statue and a day at the Botanical Gardens.”

While the biology part of the trip was done in Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore does have some biology, too. Godde reported that it’s one of just two places in the world to have a rainforest within its city limits.

In Indonesia, there were no leeches around the Mt. Merapi volcano, where Godde said his group was able to delve into the politics of national parks, which was another key objective of the trip.

“People live on the slopes of Mt. Merapi, which is very active,” he said. “During the last evacuation notice in 2010, people didn’t leave because they didn’t trust the government. They thought that if they left, the government would step in and claim their land for the national park. So they stayed, and 300 died during the eruption.”

Such research was the prime focus for Isaacs, who also acquired information from the Taman Negara park in Malaysia. Columnas’ focus was Eastern religion, and she was exposed to the predominantly Muslim culture of the region, as well as several Buddhist temples.

While seeing the sights, Godde said he and the students often felt like “rock stars,” as they were hounded by young girls who were not used to seeing Americans.

“This was all research that we can’t do stateside,” added Godde of SIRT, which is funded by donor support.

So for those scoring at home, MC’s most recent SIRT was SIMS, and its DNA data will be analyzed using PCRs during SOFIA.

“You’ll have to check back with us in August to see what we found,” said Godde.

We SIRT-ainly will.