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Alice Beittel ’15 Completes Research in Mongolia


Alice Beittel ’15 recently shared her experience as a paid undergraduate researcher for the Mongolian American Aquatic Ecology Research Initiative. Currently a senior at University of California, Davis, Alice is majoring in Environmental Science and Management and minoring in Geographic Information Systems.

Six weeks of camping, new language and culture, cold showers, mosquitoes, awesome science, and no internet in Mongolia? Count me in! This was the first line on my application to spend my summer as a paid undergraduate researcher for the Mongolian American Aquatic Ecology Research Initiative. As someone who is passionate about studying aquatic ecology and learning how social systems interact with environmental systems, I was beyond excited to apply. A couple months later I joined an international team to study the impacts of climate change and development on the Selenge River Valley of northern Mongolia. Our work was to understand how the construction of a proposed hydroelectric dam would affect the people and animals who use the river daily. Together with a collection of conservation biologists, professors, graduate students, and undergraduates, I worked to investigate how a dam could influence the behavior of a native fish species commonly found in the area.

So, we packed our luggage with all sorts of exciting fieldwork equipment: collapsible pirate-themed kiddie pools, PVC pipes, fish nets, GoPro cameras, tons of sticky notes and zip ties, a handful of fishing waders, a water quality meter, and lots of duct tape. With this supplies we set out to learn how fish would interact with new river environments the dam would create. Hydroelectric dams dramatically alter aquatic habitat by changing the sediment levels, currents, and nutrients available to aquatic animals. To mitigate impacts on fish populations, many dams offer passageways for fish to cross the dam. Our questions revolved around investigating how a fish’s behavior could influence its usage of such passageways. Behavior is often an animal’s first line of defense when facing new situations and environments. Knowing how fish interact with dam passageways will enable engineers to make smart design choices that have the potential to help fish populations adjust to their new environment.

Future environmental sustainability will be a testament to how well we can integrate ecology and animal behavior into engineering and design choices. Whether it be designing well used fish passageways or building nature reserves that align with migration ranges, systems-level thinking will be essential to conserving our shared environments.

My O’ Dowd education trained me to think critically about how all of life is connected. Taking AP Environmental Science with Ms. Prutzman and going on the Ecology Project International O’Dowd research trips played an immense role in solidifying my interest in ecology and setting me on the path to where I am today. Living Lab work days where we learned about intercropping and classroom discussions on current environmental justice issues made me realize how environmental science is much more than just collecting data or memorizing plant names. It’s about deepening our understanding of how we impact life around us and how we can create environmentally equitable solutions for people and planet.

Ecology field work has taught me how to creatively problem solve, think on my feet, and take setbacks as opportunities to grow. While polished figures and graphs in academic journals give readers insight into the data, what is left out is the true nature of data collection, memorable experiences that are much less glamorous but will last a lifetime. Laughter, a positive outlook, and our incredibly supportive research team enabled us to tackle all the challenges that came with doing fieldwork in a remote environment. I love that I get to work outdoors with passionate people from a wide range of fields and that the learning never ends. After I graduate this June, I plan to continue working at the intersection of design and aquatic environmental science with environmental management agencies. In a couple years, I’ll likely be back in academia chasing after new aquatic ecology questions as a masters or PhD student.

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