By Dr. Kristin Drexler
Faculty Member, School of STEM, American Public University
In late July, I led a team of researchers, including APU graduate student Mariana Jimenez, and two biology faculty members from Belize to conduct a socio-ecological study in the Central American nation. Belize is located on the southern Yucatan Peninsula and is bordered by Mexico and Guatemala.
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The two-week study was entitled Impacts of Anthropogenic (human-caused) Pollution on the New River, Belize: A Socio-Ecological Systems Approach. We conducted interviews and collected demographic data from 44 residents in 12 communities along the New River in Orange Walk Town and the Corozal districts of northern Belize.
I have been traveling to Belize for 22 years, eight of them as the co-founder and director of the Belize Field School, a series of accredited field courses from New Mexico State University. I initially fell in love with Belize in 1997 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there. I have been returning every year since.
The Value of Including Students in Faculty Research Projects
I believe in the value of including students in faculty research projects. This experience is so valuable for personal, academic and professional growth.
The student helping us collect data in Belize is Mariana Jimenez. She resides in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and three daughters.
Mariana is currently pursuing her master’s degree at APU in environmental policy and management with a certificate in environmental hazard mitigation and restoration. Mariana is also the secretary for two APUS campus chapters: WSTEM, which stands for Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and AWIS, the Association of Women in Science, wSTEM’s sister organization and a professional chapter at APUS.
The field project was locally coordinated by a faculty member in biology at Muffles Junior College in Orange Walk Town, Omar “Gonzalo” Castillo. Having worked with Omar on several prior social surveys in Belize, I consider him to be a leading social researcher in the country.
Omar selected Carlos Tun, also a faculty member at Muffles, to be a member of the field data collection team. Both men were essential to the collection effort because of their knowledge of the New River system, the customs and languages of riverside communities, and experience interviewing residents.
Omar was also able to gain community permissions to conduct the surveys in the villages. Omar, Carlos and Mariana have been instrumental in effectively translating and transcribing interviews from Spanish to English.
For the first two days of the project, the team was joined by Dr. Ed Boles and Daniel Velazquez. Dr. Boles is an aquatic ecologist who I’ve worked with on several projects over the past decade; he has been conducting river studies in Belize for 30 years.
Daniel Velazquez, who I served with in the Peace Corps in the late ’90s, is also a resident of Belize. He is an artist and conservation filmmaker and will be creating an educational video on our socio-ecological research and river health.
The Study of the New River in Belize
As part of my APUS faculty research grant, the study investigates perceptions of human-caused pollution in communities along Belize’s New River. Omar Castillo first mentioned the idea to me when he and others were tracking an annual pollution-related phenomenon along the New River.
For two to three weeks each year, residents complain of a foul odor and white film in spots on the river. This annual event prompted a citizen action group called Friends of the New River, which invited our team to conduct the assessment of New River communities. Although leaning heavily on the qualitative aspects (using interviews and resident stories), this in-progress study is “mixed-method” in that we also plan to use quantitative elements such as descriptive and relationship statistics.
I chose to conduct a qualitative study because my previous social research in Belize taught me that by interviewing residents and hearing their stories, we can begin to triangulate a more holistic understanding of linkages and associated meanings of common phenomena. After the data analysis is completed later this season, we expect to see that our interview participants perceive a variety of effects related to changes in the New River regarding pollution, climate change and other factors.
The study is important to Belize. Although there have been numerous water quality studies, this was the first-ever social assessment in the area, so the results will be informative.
Also, the study is valuable to the survey team. “This experience revived in me the need to engage in future qualitative socio-ecological studies,” Carlos Tun said. “Every day, there was something new to learn which helped me grow professionally. Dr. Drexler is a mentor to me, her experience, innate drive and dedication are qualities that make her so unique. She felt the concern of the communities, and she knew that this study was worthwhile.”
Why It’s Valuable to Include Students in Faculty Field Research
There are personal, academic and professional benefits for everyone involved with faculty-led field research. For my student Mariana, this was her first international field research experience and her first time traveling to Belize. In a post-travel evaluation letter, she wrote: “I found myself critically thinking of socio-ecological impacts. Lessons from emergency management in phenomena studies stood out to me…from ideas of implementing a management plan for the New River, to policies, and emergency management. This study brought my field of study to life.”
Omar Castillo and I will begin the next phase of this project soon, analyzing the interview data and writing up a final report. We also plan to co-author an academic article for submission to a peer-reviewed journal.
About the Author
Dr. Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member of Geography and Conservation of Natural Resources for American Public University’s School of STEM. She earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at New Mexico State University by researching socio-ecological systems, sustainable agroecology and community extension education. She earned her master of arts degree in international affairs from Ohio University, with an emphasis in natural resources management.
Kristin has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize regarding agroforestry, conservation and sustainable agriculture. Until she became a full-time instructor with APU in 2009, she was an environmental scientist in New Mexico, conducting field biology surveys and environmental impact analyses. She founded the Belize Field School Program at NMSU, coordinating short courses in Belize in wildlife, agroforestry, marine ecology and documentary filmmaking (2006-2014).
Most recently, Kristin produced an award-winning short film, “Yochi,” about youth conservation and action against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. In the late 1990s, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Belize. She serves on the board of directors of Full Basket Belize, a U.S. nonprofit that provides high school scholarships and community grants in Belize. She also regularly volunteers for the Mesilla Valley Film Society in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
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