SJR Column: Brazil Project, September 2017

Summer always seems to be filled with possibilities and most of us remember coming back to school from summer break to be greeted with a familiar question: “What did you do over the summer?” But not many would be able to provide a response that includes having been “up close and personal” with alligators, toucans and coatimundi or visiting Iguazu Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

These unusual encounters were part of many new experiences shared by a group of U.S. and Brazilian university students and faculty who spent several weeks this summer as part of an international research collaboration between University of Illinois at Springfield and UEM – the Universidade Estadual de Maringa, a university in southern Brazil. Thanks in part to an external grant, Dr. Keenan Dungey, a chemistry professor at UIS, and Dr. Luiz Felipe Machado Velho, a biologist from UEM, worked together to create a course focused on the study of the aquatic ecology of the Illinois River in Illinois and the Rio Parana in Brazil – both parts of large and important river systems in the Americas.

The course included opportunities for students to spend time doing research together while learning some of the cutting-edge science behind restoration and conservation on both river systems. The experience also helped students develop understanding of the cultural differences and similarities between the U.S. and Brazil that result in different and sometimes similar approaches to the environment.

UIS has been connected with scientists from the UEM since Dr. Mike Lemke, Professor of Biology and founder of the UIS Emiquon Field Station on the Illinois River near Havana, first traveled to Brazil several years ago.

“We’re honored to work with our colleagues from UEM,” says Dr. Lemke. “Felipe’s work complements mine, helping me to bridge ecological links from nutrients to bacteria to protozoa. The value of floodplain aquatic ecology is what is at stake here.”

“The idea of the course was to do similar things on the floodplains in both countries,” says Dr. Dungey.

“For me it was fascinating,” he continues, “to be in Brazil and be surrounded by great science; to see the UIS students and watch them form relationships and teams with the Brazilian students and experience a different culture.”

For Shelby Green, a senior from Chicago who is majoring in Environmental Studies, the course was her first time being abroad.

“Experiencing the people, embracing the culture, and developing a better understanding of the science was just mind-blowing,” Shelby reports.

“I’m a first generation student and it was challenging being so far from home for the first time; but going to Brazil showed me there is so much more to learn.”

Shyleen Frost, who graduated this spring from UIS with a major in Biology, is no stranger to international travel. She has traveled in Europe and conducted water research with Dr. Dungey in the Gambia, West Africa, last year. “It was just amazing to learn so many cool new sampling techniques for all these different types of organisms and compare them to those found in the U.S.,” says Shyleen about her Brazil experience.

“It showed the importance of collaboration to me and what you can do together. I’m going forward into grad school and now I know my research collaborators could be from anywhere in the world!”

“In the next ten years, I think focusing on some of these critical conservation issues will be the thing that this collaboration can bring to bear,” reflects Dr. Lemke. “The Brazilians are losing their rivers to hydroelectric plants and we can learn from that. At the same time, the UIS Emiquon Field Station is located in one of the largest floodplain restoration projects in the country and has much to offer our international partners.”

“Working with our UEM colleagues, who have been studying the Parana River floodplain for more than 30 years, was a good experience for our UIS students,” says Dr. Dungey. “Students will present the results of our research on each campus and at an international conference.”

Dungey hopes the future collaboration of UIS and UEM can go beyond biology and chemistry. “In addition to its relevance for scientific study, river floodplain restoration is also a public affairs and an education issue,” he states. “There are a lot more opportunities for collaboration.”

And, in case you were wondering, the coatimundi is South America’s version of a raccoon.

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch