Monday, 12 August 2013

My Andean Adventure

by Nick Holmberg

Discovering the beautiful ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.
When I heard there was a possibility of going on a work placement in Ecuador and Peru, I knew it was something I had to do. The prospect of discovering a new country, a new culture and more importantly, working in natural habitats that I had never seen before was too exciting to pass up. Paul Ramsay, my supervisor and coordinator of the trip, explained that my work would consist of several short placements with various organisations and NGOs, allowing me to gain experience in different fields. So I packed my bags and boarded a plane to the other side of the world!

As soon as I arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, I realised that South America was very different to any other country I had ever been to and that the next 8 months were going to be unlike anything I had ever experienced before!

I was working as Paul Ramsay's research assistant in South America. Paul does research in various Latin American countries but, of course, spends most of his time in Plymouth. My job was to work with some of Paul's research colleagues in South America and help with their joint projects. 

My first assignment was with an NGO called CONDESAN who have set up various projects aiming to contribute to the sustainable and environmentally friendly development of Andean countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.

Working on a summit near Quito with Mayra,
a volunteer for CONDESAN.
The project I worked for, the GLORIA project, aimed to study the effects of climate change on the plant communities of páramos (tropical grasslands that are only found above 3500m) by recording the presence and abundance of plant species in several sites all along the Andes and then repeat the process every 5 years in order to observe any changes to the community structure. I was part of a team of biologists visiting selected mountain tops to: 

  • Identify plants
  • Estimate the abundance of different plant species in designated plots
  • The view from the summit!
  • Take general notes about the site

This first work experience taught me that being a biologist can sometimes be very hard work! I felt completely drained after every fieldtrip. We would have to carry equipment up the mountain in the morning and then work on the summit until the sunset. And we would do this in all weather conditions of course. But I also learned that you get a huge sense of reward when you have worked so hard!

My second placement was with ECOAN, another NGO. The plan was for me to help them with one of their high-altitude forest restoration projects in which they collaborate with local communities to promote the plantation of the native plant over that of introduced species like eucalyptus. However, things did not exactly go to plan…

ECOAN's funding had temporarily run short during the month we had planned for their projects which meant that they were not able to do the fieldwork. I was obviously very disappointed and frustrated but looking back at that episode, I realise that it taught me one of the most valuable lessons on my work placement: things do not always work out the way you expect or would like them to.

My next assignment was with a company named ETAPA, based in Cuenca, a small city in the south of Ecuador. One of their main duties is to provide drinking water to the city of Cuenca. The water is sourced from the main rivers in the area, most of which spring in the nearby Cajas National Park, 5844 ha of protected grasslands and woodlands filled with rivers and an incalculable amount of lakes. I can quite honestly say it is one of most beautiful places I have seen in my life.

My job was to assist technicians to:
  • Measure parameters (such as pH, t°, Dissolved oxygen,...) of the water in various sites using specialised equipment.
  • Collect water samples for further analysis in the lab.
  • Collect river invertebrate samples.
  • Monitor some of the lakes in the National Park
  • Enter results in the company database.
  • Analyse and interpret the readings and results.
Surveying lakes with ETAPA in Cajas National Park.

Collecting water samples for ETAPA in Cajas National Park.
This was probably my favourite part of the placement year. The people working in the office with me were some of the most welcoming people I have ever met and made me feel comfortable from day one. They also trusted me to do some of the monitoring myself on some occasions which helped fill me with confidence and feel like I was contributing significantly to the company. And to top it all off, I was working in stunning landscape and learning about water monitoring and the national park’s fauna and flora everyday! It also unveiled future possible careers I had not really considered before such as working in water companies. It helped me understand how biology and ecology could be applied to other fields.

Finally, I worked at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) in Quito, assisting with various tasks like mounting plants for conservation in the herbarium or processing invertebrates from kick net samples. I also went on a weeklong fieldtrip with masters students to a volcano on the Colombian border. I helped a group of students to collect river quality data that they would later use to write an assessed report. For their work they used Plymouth University's equipment, and I showed them how to use the it. This was a good opportunity for me to use the skills I had just learned working for ETAPA. It also gave me a lot of self-confidence knowing I was able to transmit my knowledge to other students.

Taking water quality readings for the masters students
in northern Ecuador.

Walking around the impressive crater lake of
Quilotoa in Ecuador.
Thankfully, I didn’t spend all my time working whilst in South America. I made the most of weekends and time off to visit Ecuador and explore other countries. I ended up visiting Peru and a very small part of Bolivia during time off at Christmas and then spent two weeks in Colombia in May, before going back to Europe. Highlights include exploring the famous ruins of Machu Picchu, seeing absolutely incredible mountainous sceneries, having interesting meals like roasted Guinea pig or frog juice and most of all, meeting loads of friendly and welcoming people who happily shared their country and their culture with me! Visiting all these places was nearly as enriching as the placement itself. I feel like I have learned a lot about people, cultures and generally how things work in other parts of the world. I spoke almost no Spanish when I arrived, but now I am fluent, and perfectly happy conversing with local people in their own language. Although it was daunting, being immersed in the language and spending my days working alongside people who spoke little English was a great way to learn quickly. And it was not so difficult after all.

Now that I am back home, I am writing a water quality report for ETAPA, using long-term data I helped to collect. It has involved getting to grips with statistical analysis and working on my communication skills--especially useful practice ahead of my final-year project.

Reminiscing on my eight months' abroad, I realise how many interesting things I experienced and how much I learned. I have seen new applications for biology, learnt to think and analyse situations like a scientist but, most of all, it has given me more confidence as a biologist! I would highly recommend a placement year to any student. I think it simply teaches you things that a degree cannot. And if that placement happens to be in an exotic country... well that is just a bonus!

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