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Fall 2008 | The Next Chapter

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Undergraduate scientists
Bret Grasse ’08 explores a bat cave in Panama.

Undergraduate scientists
By Mike Dauplaise ’84

Panama trip a dream realized for three St. Norbert student researchers

Allison Rick ’08 had nurtured a keen interest in science for much of her academic career. Then she experienced the Panamanian rain forest, and her passion jumped to a whole new level.

Rick was one of three St. Norbert College and seven University of Wisconsin-Green Bay students who participated last winter in a two-week research trip to Panama. The group split its time between the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) field station at Gamboa, in the Panama Canal Zone, and a marine field station at Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean coast.

The pioneering group was able to consider a dozen locations before selecting the final two. A second trip, planned for this January, will add a third location to its itinerary.

“I liked the rain forest better,” said Rick, who is pursuing a doctorate in plant and environmental sciences at Clemson University. “The biodiversity in the rain forest is really cool. I’d never seen anything like it before. It confirmed that being a research scientist is something I really want to do.”

The trip was subsidized in part by a grant from David Cofrin, a member of the family for which Austin E. Cofrin Hall at St. Norbert and the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity on the UWGB campus are named. Anindo Choudhury (Biology) serves as the St. Norbert faculty representative.

“This is not your typical field course; it’s actually a research-based field course,” Choudhury said. “It was Dr. Cofrin’s brainchild to develop a course that would link UWGB, St. Norbert and STRI in a triangular partnership. It’s an incredibly rich experience.”

Cofrin also funded a glass-bottomed boat used for field study at STRI.

Carl Wepking ’08 had already experienced a rainforest environment when he spent a semester studying in Madagascar, the island republic off the southeast coast of Africa. For him, the marine studies portion of the Panama trip was the highlight.

“The marine research part of the trip helped show me that’s what I have a passion for,” he said. “I know I want to be a marine researcher; I’m just not sure in what field yet.”

The group studied fossils as well as spider and bird populations in the Canal Zone before observing marine invertebrates on the coast. Wepking, an environmental studies major, collected soil samples to study for his thesis, in which he identified nematodes (small roundworms) and showed biodiversity
in the rain forest.

He now studies the effects of oyster reefs on stopping shoreline erosion and increasing biomass in fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico at the Dauphin Island F.O.C.A.L. (Fisheries Oceanography of Coastal Alabama).

Bret Grasse ’08, the third member of the St. Norbert student contingent, is now conducting research at a remote marine institute in California.

Photo Gallery >> View a photo gallery of images from the Panama experience.

Fall 2008 magazine

Web extras Web exclusives
Look here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current
St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).

Photo Gallery Panama research experience
Explore images from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Photo Gallery A most excellent celebration
View images from the inauguration of the new president.

Video The Pursuit of Excellence
Watch the inaugural address delivered by Thomas Kunkel.

Photo Gallery Out to Africa
A photographic essay brings a Zambian connection to life.

Text Extra Bodyguard to the Packers
Enjoy recollections of the Ice Bowl, from the new book by Mike Dauplaise ’84.

Video “Communio”
This new video celebrates the college’s long heritage.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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