BRANCHBURG TOWNSHIP, NJ (Somerset County) – While many college students relax and sleep late during their winter break, several Raritan Valley Community College students embarked on an educational adventure between the fall and spring semesters.
The students spent early January visiting the Michelin Ecological Reserve in Bahia, Brazil, where they learned about tropical ecology, conservation, and restoration.
The six RVCC students—all Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, or Biology majors—and one RVCC alumna (who is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at Rutgers University, New Brunswick) visited Brazil as part of the Ecology Experience Abroad class at RVCC.
The January 1-13 excursion was led by RVCC faculty members Dr. Jay Kelly, Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and Dr. Emilie Stander, Associate Professor of Environmental Science.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Brazil, and this trip seemed like an amazing opportunity,” said RVCC student Amber Fine of Lebanon Borough, who participated in the program. For the Environmental Studies major, the highlight of the experience was seeing the biodiversity of the Atlantic rainforest, as well as visiting the Pancada Grande waterfall. “I learned so much about forest restoration and how increasing tree diversity increases mammal diversity as well,” said Fine.
While in Brazil, the group visited multiple forest patches and restoration sites within the Michelin Ecological Reserve. “The reserve is owned and managed by Michelin, and many of the forest patches and restoration sites are in areas that Michelin previously used for rubber production. Michelin is now restoring these areas back to tropical rainforest, as they move their commercial rubber operations to other parts of the globe,” explained Dr. Stander.
The trip was “academic in nature,” continued Dr. Stander, who co-directs the College’s Center for Environmental Studies with Dr. Kelly. In addition to the outdoor exploration and research, the itinerary included class assignments as well as discussions. The RVCC program in Brazil has run several times in the past, but this was the first time it was held since the pandemic began.
Students learned firsthand about tropical ecology by visiting the Atlantic rainforest in northeastern Brazil. According to Dr. Stander, the coastal, tropical ecosystem, which is distinct from the Amazonian rainforest, is a global biodiversity hotspot and is well known for having a high percentage of species that are not found anywhere else on the planet. The area also has a long history of human use, from indigenous groups to European colonists dating back several hundred years. “The areas we visited have experienced a combination of logging and clearing for agriculture, and animal populations have been heavily impacted by hunting,” she explained.
Citing many of the program’s benefits, Dr. Stander said, “Students were able to see firsthand the ecological impacts of past land use, as well as current protection and restoration efforts on a tropical rainforest ecosystem.”
Added Fine, “In class we learned about different ecological terms and restoration here in New Jersey. It was cool getting to see how restoration works in not only a different county, but in another biome as well. Brazil was so incredible, and it was interesting to see how some of the same things we learned in class can be applied in other parts of the world.”
Participating in the trip also affirmed Fine’s desire to continue her studies in the area. After she graduates from RVCC in May, she plans to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Ecology at a four-year college or university.