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Blog Blog

From the Field 2019: The Memoirs Program in Rwanda

The Memoirs Program is a partnership between the Zoo, Karisoke Research Center and the University of Rwanda that provides top undergraduate biology students the opportunity to spend their summer at the Karisoke Research Center (Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International) and conduct research in Volcanoes National Park. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and the Cleveland Zoological Society underwrite the program.

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Laura Bernstein-Kurtycz of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo visiting the Karasoke Research Center for the first time

This March, I was able to go on my first trip to Rwanda. This was my first time participating in the Memoirs program, and despite all that I had heard from my former coworkers, I did not truly understand what I was getting into – not until I stepped off the third plane after 24 hours of travel onto the tarmac in Kigali and took a breath of sweet, spiced air. I did not realize the beauty of the land, the generosity of the people, or the energy of the students, until I walked the dusty streets of Musanze and sat working for hours in the large classroom on the second floor of the Karisoke Research Center, in the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund office building. On this trip, I worked with students, and I saw mountain gorillas. That sounds so simple, when stated in one short sentence, but those words contain so much. I will try to be specific, to put into words something almost indescribable.

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Laura with Dr. Kristen Lukas, Director of Conservation & Science at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and Steve

Working with students

Over the two weeks I was in Musanze, I worked with three separate groups of students: two groups of fourth years, finishing their projects and soon to graduate, and one group of third years, embarking on their final year of college and planning their Memoirs. At this time of year, the fourth year students return to Karisoke for their final visit of the school year. Last June, they received the first set of trainings to begin their Memoirs projects, when Kristen Lukas and Austin Leeds visited to get them started. Then, they returned later that summer, going out in to the field or the community to begin their data collection. Over the course of the past school year, they have written their introduction and methods sections, analyzed their data, and written up their results. In March, they begin the final push to the end of the school year. They return to the Karisoke Research Center (KRC) to present their findings to their supervisors (some of whom may be research staff at Karisoke, or members of the CMZ team), to other researchers at Karisoke, and to interested members of the government. This formal presentation is a big deal, and is their practice for their final presentations at school.

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Laura working with Memoirs student Christella

For both sets of fourth year students, the schedule was the same. At the beginning of the week, they all presented their work so far. From there, we gave feedback, we taught soft skills (such as eye contact and how to answer audience questions) and hard skills (how to write a discussion section, how to improve slides). Over the course of the week, we watched the students grow in leaps and bounds. Midway through the week, they gave another set of practice presentations, which were already so much better than the first ones – shorter, cleaner, easier to read, easier to understand. By the time the official presentations on Thursday rolled around, they were ready. Presentations were clear, accurate, and smooth. The audience asked questions and the students knew how to answer. How could I be so proud of people I had only just met four days ago? But I was.

Their projects covered a range of topics, from botany to zoology to education. Cesar investigated differences in plant characteristics between burnt and unburnt plots of land on nearby volcano Muhabura. Jeannette studied the differences in knowledge and attitudes about golden monkey conservation in students who had been out to see the monkeys in person, and students who only learned about them in the classroom. Marcus studied a group of golden monkeys in a non-protected area of forest, and compared their diet to those living in the protected forest. Elias investigated whether viewing conservation movies improved attitudes towards mountain gorillas in members of communities living next to the part. And in one of the most promising studies of the first week, Honorine was able to study the feeding ecology of the mountain gorilla groups on the tourist side of the park (until now, researchers were not allowed to study those groups). She found that while there was some overlap in diet with the groups on the research side, there were quite a few plants that were unique to the tourist groups! With any luck, she will be able to return to Karisoke as an intern and continue this important research.

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Laura working with Memoirs student Jeannette

The second week was similar for the fourth year students, but different for me, because Kristen left on Monday, so I worked more directly with this group. We had another set of excellent studies. Elie investigated the likelihood of parasite infections amongst mountain gorillas by testing feces samples. Olivier looked at the abundance and variety of dung beetle species at different gradients within Volcanoes National Park. Louise studied plant abundance and consumption by mountain gorillas. Ange studied how the golden monkeys in the park used their habitat, working with Steve Mather to incorporate GIS data as a part of her study.

When the third year students arrived during the second week, it felt special to me in a different way, because these are the students I will be working with for the next year. About 15 biology students from the University of Rwanda came up to Karisoke for the opportunity to go into the field and learn a bit about fieldwork and how things are done at the center. Not all of them will get to do their Memoirs project with the KRC staff; only 6 from this group, and 4 from the following week. However, they all got the experience of visiting the center and going into the field; plus, I taught them two modules: The Scientific Method, and How to Write a Research Proposal. I also sat in while the KRC team told the students about next year’s projects, and used their responses and discussion as a way of deciding who to will work with KRC on their Memoirs this coming year. It was an intense meeting, but I am excited to see those students that were chosen when I return in June!

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Selfie with the fourth year Memoirs students! Back row: Placide, Elie, Philbert, Steve, Olivier. Front row: Ange, Laura, Louise.

Laura's letters from Rwanda continue in our next blog on seeing mountain gorillas in the wild! Click here.

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