Alumni Stories


Cassie Freund

Kenya Summer '09

Cassie Freund

Columbia University, M.S. student


My SFS experience affirmed what I already knew about myself. I wanted to spend my life doing ecological field research.

I chose SFS as my study abroad program because I was looking for two things: first, the opportunity to travel somewhere out of the ordinary, and second, to do ecological field research.  SFS seemed like the perfect choice to fulfill both of those goals.

One of my most vivid memories from Kenya is the first time we saw a lion up close; it was an amazing experience! My classmates and I had been on expedition in Lake Nakuru for a few days and all anyone could talk about was seeing a lion.  We hadn’t been lucky enough to, yet, but on the way back from a game drive we turned the corner about 50 meters from camp and everyone gasped.   There was a big female lioness sitting in the grass feeding on a freshly killed warthog. Everyone was enthralled, and we must have stayed there taking pictures for at least 30 minutes.

In addition to the incredible wildlife sightings, I also gained some practical fieldwork and analytical skills. But, first and foremost, my SFS experience affirmed what I already knew: that I want to spend my life doing field research in ecology and conservation. This was so important, because it gave me the confidence to go forward and apply to graduate programs, putting me on the path I’m on today.

I am now beginning the second year of Master’s program at Columbia University in conservation biology. I always thought I would return to Africa for my graduate research, but an opportunity to do work in Indonesia came up and I took it, and I’m really glad I did.  During my three month long research trip, I was looking at seed dispersal into burned forest patches in the ex-Mega Rice project area in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. This project entails collecting data on forest composition inside the forest as well as vegetation data in the burned area, in order to learn what trees are being dispersed into the burned areas and how they are being dispersed.

On a typical day, we would wake up at about 6am and to head into the forest, where we collected data on seedlings, saplings, and adult trees in order to learn about forest composition in an area with high fire frequency. I learned that when doing field research, adaptability is extremely important. Things rarely ever go according to plan in the field, so it helps to be prepared for anything and to be able to adjust when necessary.

If I could offer any bit of advice to future SFS students, I would tell them to soak in every second of their experience.  Here’s some advice that was given to me: take lots of pictures, but not so many that you forget to enjoy your surroundings!   To my fellow SFS alumni, I would say to take every opportunity that comes your way, whether it be for travel, research, employment, or anything.  It’s tempting to keep doing what you’re familiar with, but it’s also important to push your personal boundaries and see the world from a different perspective.  Happy research!