Research Around the World

January 16, 2023
person at a table with maps
History Assistant Professor Melissa Morris is spending the spring semester as a Fulbright Scholar in the Netherlands, researching her book.

Students and professors from across campus engage in fascinating international studies with a global community of colleagues. 

By Micaela Myers 

Booking It to the Netherlands

History Assistant Professor Melissa Morris is spending the spring semester in the Netherlands researching her next book — thanks to a Fulbright award.

Morris’s biography subject is Juan Rodriquez, a free man of African descent who lived in the western half of the island of Hispaniola, or present-day Haiti. “Although he was a Spanish subject, Rodriguez was likely involved in illegal trade with the Dutch and others who visited the island regularly,” says Morris. “In 1612, Rodriguez boarded the Dutch ship Jonge Tobias. The ship was bound for the Hudson Valley, a region that the Dutch had recently explored and were then starting to colonize. When the ship departed, Rodriguez stayed behind, becoming the first non-Indigenous person to live in what later became the colony of New Netherland. He formed a crucial link between Dutch traders and Indigenous peoples of the Hudson Valley, serving as a middleman in their trade. Rodriguez stayed in the area for at least a couple years and maybe longer. By that time, the Dutch had established Fort Nassau near present-day Albany. A Black man from Hispaniola was a key player in the birth of New York City.”

Morris’s work as a historian focuses on 17th century Americas and is particularly focused on cross-cultural encounters. Her research impacts her teaching, where she expands the cast of characters for her students, showing them how diverse the continent is and was.

“Students are often surprised and interested to learn about this, because it’s not often covered in high school,” Morris says.

She is also using her Fulbright to expand international opportunities for UW students.

“While I am in the Netherlands, I will work with professors there on creating virtual exchanges — where students in Wyoming and the Netherlands studying similar subjects will be able to connect and learn from one another without leaving home,” Morris says. She is also working to establish more opportunities for Dutch students to come to UW and designing a UW education-abroad course to the Netherlands.

Morris says that international research is common among her history colleagues — this past summer alone, UW history professors traveled to Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Canada, the UK, Uruguay and more.

For more about Fulbright opportunities contact the Global Engagement Office:

person holding a bird
Zoology undergraduate Elizabeth Howard in Panama. (Courtesy image)

Birds and Ants, Oh My

Building upon many years of work in Panama, Department of Zoology and Physiology Associate Professor Corey Tarwater is joined by UW Research Scientist Patrick Kelley and Professor of Practice Bethann Garramon Merkle, as well as colleagues at the University of Illinois and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, as they study species interactions in tropical forests. The project also includes more than 20 UW students and is funded by a National Science Foundation grant. In addition to research, the project also creates educational materials and includes an education-abroad field course to Panama.

“Natural species interactions are being disrupted globally, and these disruptions are expected to get worse as anthropogenic change intensifies,” Tarwater says. “But we still know very little about what leads to these changes or how the loss of species interactions impacts communities.”

To better understand these issues and interactions, the team is studying flocks of birds that follow army ant swarms in Panama.

“Army ants form large raids on the forest floor, flushing up arthropods and eating them,” Tarwater says. “As the arthropods flee the army ants, up to 80 different bird species take advantage — the arthropods trying to flee the ants also get eaten by these birds. Army ants are considered keystone species and ecosystem engineers, meaning that they play a large role in influencing biodiversity and in altering their environment, similar to prairie dogs in Wyoming.”

Changes in species interactions can reduce biodiversity and change what nature looks like and how it works.

Merkle and two UW students are also working with Chad Hutchens of UW Libraries Open Education Resources to produce interactive video-based educational resources that will share the research with more students, filling an educational gap in undergraduate biology courses. 

Saving Endangered Dogs

In 2015, Dedan Kabuu Ngatia earned a scholarship to take UW Professor Jacob Goheen’s field course in Kenya, which invites UW and Kenyan undergraduate students to learn methods in wildlife ecology and conservation. It was this course that ignited Ngatia’s passion for studying the globally endangered African wild dogs in his home county of Laikipia in central Kenya. He’s now finishing the third year of his Ph.D. in zoology at UW.

“I was really attracted to the social structure of the wild dogs and how they hunt and live,” he says. “They have suffered massive decline from half a million individuals 50 years ago to approximately 6,000 individuals today. We’ve identified the main causes of mortality to wild dogs to be infectious diseases and persecution by people.”

Soon after he began studying the dogs, they suffered an outbreak of canine distemper, taking his area’s population of 300 dogs down to just three. But the population is starting to grow again.

The research touches on a larger issue: the fact that conservation areas are not enough to maintain large carnivores. To thrive, these species must coexist with humans.

“The most amazing thing about the region is the wildlife, plants and landscape,” he says. “It attracts a lot of international researchers and tourists. Our ecosystem has the second largest population of wildlife in Kenya, but it occurs outside of protected areas. We have people, livestock and wildlife sharing space. This creates lots of interesting questions about coexistence.”

He hopes to help create a safe environment for the wild dogs where they can recover and thrive.

Choosing UW was a great decision, Ngatia says, allowing him to spend time researching in Kenya while also gaining teaching experience. He believes international students bring diversity and new perspectives to Wyoming.

man with headlamp examining a rock
Professor Jim Ahern excavating at Abri Kontija rock shelter in Lim Channel, Istria, Croatia. (Courtesy photo)

Examining the Past

Like lots of kids, Jim Ahern liked digging in the dirt as a youngster. Little did he or his parents know that one day it would become his career as a biological anthropologist. Professor Ahern also serves as UW’s vice provost and dean of the School of Graduate Education. The foundation of his work started when he was in graduate school and his adviser invited him to study Neandertal fossils in Yugoslavia.

“I’ve been working there ever since,” Ahern says. “My current research in Croatia is in collaboration with colleagues and institutions all over Europe and America. It’s a project looking at the people of the last ice age and how they adapted to changing landscapes, environments and new populations over the past 100,000 years up through the origin of agriculture about 7,000–8,000 years ago.”

Ahern’s specialty is the analysis of human remains and is largely focusing on the Neandertal-to-modern-human transition. Croatia is home to the largest sample of these fossils from a single site, Krapina Rockshelter.

“Doing fieldwork is very different than how I spend the rest of the year,” he says. “It’s a very nice change. You never know what you’re going to find next.”

Large research questions he looks at include how modern-day humans evolved into our current diversity, early Neandertal and human interactions, and how these issues were impacted by changing climates. Many summers, you can find Ahern in the field in Croatia with a group of UW and international students.

“The field school is something I’m really proud of because it’s not about just my site or what I’m researching,” Ahern says. “Because of the long collaborations and friendships I have in Croatia, our students get to work at a variety of archaeological sites.”

This hands-on research is critical to students, just as it was to Ahern.

“Doing research and teaching internationally has really transformed what I know,” he says, adding that experiencing different ways of understanding, different linguistic environments and differences in thinking is enlightening to him and his students. 

Into the Arctic

A Q&A with Assistant Professor Jamie McFarlin

What do you research and where? The broad focus of my research is to understand how aspects of the environment are altered by climate warming. I am particularly interested in the Arctic because it is undergoing rapid changes, and I have worked at field sites across Greenland, arctic Canada and Alaska. As a geoscientist, I largely use geologic records from the Arctic that date back tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago and were deposited during past periods of warmth to observe via materials like molecular fossils preserved in these archives changes in biology, geology, chemistry and climate through time. One of the major questions my current work is focused on is understanding how conditions important to the microbiome of Arctic lakes changed with past warming and how that impacted carbon cycling and methane production in these complex systems.

There is a need both to understand what is happening within Arctic landscapes and to predict what will happen in the future because as warming continues it will have global impacts.

How does this work benefit students? While many of my field sampling sites are in the Arctic, most of the research will be performed in the organic geochemistry laboratory on the UW campus. This research will provide students at UW opportunities to learn about and be involved in climate research and exposure to techniques used widely in organic geochemistry, including mass spectrometry. These techniques can also be applied to a myriad of scientific questions, including, for example, questions in modern ecology or questions related to understanding changing landscapes across Wyoming.

underwater formation
A hydrothermal vent from an expedition to Pito Deep in the Pacific Ocean that Cheadle and Professor Barbara John led in 2016. (Photo by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Cheadle & Kavanagh)

The Final Frontier

“Imagine you are the very first person to step foot on the top on the Medicine Bow Mountains,” geophysics Professor Mike Cheadle likes to say to prospective graduate students. It’s his analogy for the sea floor explorations he and structural geology Professor Barbara John conduct around the world.

“The seafloor makes up 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, but because it’s under approximately 6 kilometers of ocean water, it’s hard to get to — and so it’s relatively unexplored,” Cheadle says. “To explore it in detail, one has to use submarines. This means we actually know the topography of the moon and Mars better than we do the seafloor on Earth.”

The rocks they collect from the ocean floor are brought back to UW in order to better understand the geological processes going on at the bottom of the oceans. In particular, they’re working to understand how the ocean crust is created. This crust makes up 60 percent of the Earth’s surface.

“We have sailed on U.S., French, German and Japanese research vessels and have taken many UW graduate and undergraduates to sea as part of these studies,” Cheadle says. “We’ve worked in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and the Caribbean Sea and have participated in over 25 research expeditions on at least 10 different research vessels.”

This past spring, John set out on a French research vessel to investigate peridotite-hosted hydrothermal vent systems and tectonics at slow-spreading ridges. Hydrothermal vents are found on underwater volcanoes and commonly host complex biological communities and critical elements such as cobalt, nickel and manganese that are required to support future energy needs.

“Some think hydrothermal vents may have been the place where life first started on Earth,” John says.

The Atlantis Massif is a prominent undersea massif in the North Atlantic Ocean. A massif is a section of a planet’s crust that is demarcated by faults or flexures or a group of mountains formed by such a structure.

Next spring, John will participate in the International Ocean Discovery Program to Atlantis Massif in the North Atlantic Ocean with an international science party sailing out of the Azores — an autonomous archipelago region of Portugal.

“The aim of this expedition is to study the processes of formation of the Atlantis Massif, as well as the microbes living within the rocks, to help better understand this little-recognized host to extreme biodiversity,” she says.

Summing up this pioneering work, Cheadle says: “We’ve probably only mapped in detail 15 percent of the world’s seafloor, so for geologists, it is the final frontier, and we excitedly go where no one has gone before.” 

Bringing Archeology to Students Everywhere

Not all students can travel to international archeology sites, so UW Coe Library Makerspace Coordinator Jane Crayton and UW Extension Instructional Technology Education Specialist Derek Osterlund are working to bring the experience to them by developing a virtual field experience game where participants can use 3D models to perform archaeology tasks as if they were working with real artifacts.

The work is part of the larger Rio Verde Archaeology Project in Oaxaca, Mexico, that several universities take part in, including Professor Arthur Joyce from University of Colorado – Boulder, who received a National Science Foundation grant. Crayton and Osterlund also earned a UW Center for Global Studies grant. In 2022 alone, the Center for Global Studies awarded grants to 22 students and 18 faculty in support of international research.

Over the next three years, Crayton will visit the site regularly to gather spherical photography, a type of panoramic photo, and photogrammetry, which uses photography to create a 3D model of an object. These images will allow them to build 3D assets of artifacts and archaeology sites. She will then develop the virtual field experience using Unity Game Engine technology, allowing students to engage in excavations, artifact collection, core sampling and more using a virtual reality headset or basic computer.

“The opportunity to develop new ways to use emergent technologies for student engagement using virtual technology is exciting,” Crayton says. “This will provide a greater number of students an opportunity to experience what it is like to work in the field of archaeology.”

Osterlund sees the work as putting a large puzzle together. “We are working with over-4,000-year-old artifacts that can tell a story of the past and future,” he says. “The work can unravel deeper understanding of climate change and how it led to past migration. We also benefit from the development of new technology that can be applied to other projects down the road.”

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