Foreign study more than research
By Becki Francis
While other college students were at home for the summer working or relaxing by the pool, Kiely Clark, a senior animal science major, was surrounded by South African wildlife.
Photo provided by Kiely Clark
(From left) Purdue students Kristen Emsweller and Kiely Clark take an elephant ride with their guide. Emsweller and Clark were part of a Purdue Agriculture study abroad group that conducted research in South Africa.
The Fort Wayne, Ind., native and four other Purdue undergraduate students were part of a research team that traveled with Rebecca Krisher, associate professor in animal sciences, to perfect in vitro fertilization techniques as part of a study abroad course conducting conservation research. The trip taught Clark more than just research methods; it also gave her a new perspective on the world around her. "It really changed the way I look at things," she said. "You really learn to appreciate everything, even being able to shower every day."
The students spent nearly eight weeks in rural eastern South Africa learning about artificial breeding and population control. The goal of the Purdue research is to learn how to artificially breed zebras, wildebeests and impalas in zoos across the world.
Like deer in Indiana, antelope herds in South Africa are routinely thinned out to prevent overcrowding through a practice called culling. By attending culls, the Purdue team obtained samples of the animals' reproductive organs.
Krisher made sure students were prepared before the trip. "I wanted them to know what to expect because I wanted this to be successful," she said. "I had them read about South African culture, including race issues, so they could learn more while they were there. And we discussed this as a group."
Clark said she observed that culture at the animal culls. After the culls, the South Africans would create bonfires and hold big cookouts. During these events, Clark said, one could observe the country's lingering racial inequality, more than a decade after the official end of government-enforced segregation. "At the culls, all of the white people would be around one fire, while the black farm workers had their own fire," said Clark. "Many of the farm helpers made dinner from the discarded organs, like kidneys, livers and hearts, and they seemed to hang out with their friends of the same race."
The techniques the research team developed were published in an academic journal. That's quite an accomplishment for an undergraduate, considering most journals carry articles written by professors with advanced degrees.
In South Africa, Clark, Krisher and the other students lived in a three-bedroom house. Clark said that experience gave her a good chance to observe the daily life of South Africans. "Most of our routine wasn't really normal for us," said Clark. For example, just going to the store required finding and paying someone to guard the car while they were inside. "We were told if we didn't, the car would get stolen. But we didn't mind paying these people because they were so poor," said Clark.
She said her look at daily life touched her and her companions in a way that made them want to help those they met. "When we left (South Africa) we left things like food, clothing and shampoo for our maid, who was very poor and lived in a townshed." A townshed is a one- or two-room shack with a tin roof. "Hopefully, she was able to use that stuff for herself and her family," Clark said.
Some of Clark's favorite memories from the trip include meeting local people, handling a cheetah at the De Wildt Cheetah Centre and riding an African elephant. "Every day was filled with animals, not just in the research," said Kristen Emsweller, a senior animal science major from Lafayette, Ind., who also went on the trip. "We visited wildlife parks, but I remember one time there was a monkey in our car that had gotten in through the sunroof! He was very cute, and we were all laughing."
Being surrounded by animals is a good fit for Clark. In her studies, she specializes in animal behavior and well-being. She's also the president of the Purdue Zoological Society, and wants to research exotic animals, either in a zoo or as a veterinarian, after she graduates. She said her experience in South Africa gave her with more to think about as she ponders her future.
"It didn't help me to define my career goals," Clark said. "It has added another option to what I want to do." As of now, she will see where her interests lead her.