By: Karen Obertubbesing

Posted: November 27, 2019
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Staff Post

A Day in the (Research) Life of an SFS Student


Our students are halfway through the data collection portion of Directed Research, otherwise affectionately known as “DR.” This component of an SFS program is a highlight and a distinguishing feature of the SFS experience, with undergraduate students working closely with their faculty members/principal investigators to have hands-on research experience while contributing to important research projects in the community. Our students have worked hard to develop their skills as budding field researchers all semester, and now they are putting those hard-earned skills to work on three projects.

Dr. Megan English and Dr. Ming Li Yong are working with their students in Kampong Khleang, a stilted village on the Tonle Sap Lake. One research group is focusing on biodiversity in the lake, focusing on fish, snakes, and macroinvertebrates. The other research group is focusing on climate change vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience as well as waste management practices in the village. These projects require that students employ their quantitative and qualitative field research skills, in addition to skills like communication, patience, focus, and flexibility. The data the students are collecting will support the Ministry of the Environment as well as local and international non-governmental organizations doing critical conservation and climate change work.

Dr. Lisa Arensen is working with a group of students in Phnom Kulen National Park. The students here are focusing on natural and religious resource heritage on the mountain as well as the migration histories of the villagers living on the mountain. Cambodian and foreign tourists flock to Phnom Kulen each year to visit the sacred sites, hike the nature trail, and swim in the river. The information our students are collecting will help promote sustainable and ethical tourism to the area, and contribute to the work of the local rangers while supporting the livelihoods of the people who live on Phnom Kulen.

While there is no real “typical” day at SFS, here is a glimpse at what has been going on during DR here in Cambodia!

9:00 AM: SFS student Jyoti and RUPP student Chenda set up for their day at a villager’s home. They go through the morning’s fish catch and sort them by species (including the English, Khmer, and scientific names!), then weigh and measure each one to better understand fish species abundance.


9:30 AM: Fish aren’t the only things in the lake! SFS student Mattea and RUPP student Soksan collect water quality information and then skim the water’s surface for macroinvertebrates. These macroinvertebrates are aquatic bioindicator species, and will be examined and analyzed later to evaluate the ecological health of the Tonle Sap.


9:40 AM: Kameron and Mary are all smiles! When families catch fish here, they quite often also catch water snakes, which are later sold in the markets. Working with a local herpetologist from the Angkor Center for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), these two are measuring and weighing the dead snakes as well as collecting DNA samples and preserving them for taxonomy studies and future conservation initiatives.


9:50 AM: Between interviews, Lilah takes some water quality measurements of a flooded puddle in the village. She is studying waste management perceptions and practices in Kampong Khleang, and collecting data about water quality and pollution levels.


10:20 AM: Students Madison and Keeley are on the trail at Phnom Kulen! Working with local rangers, they are learning about the sacred places on Phnom Kulen and the ecological impacts of tourism to these sites. A perk: getting to explore the trails of the park and listen to local stories and histories of Phnom Kulen!



12:00 PM: Over our lunch break at the lake, the students are eager to share what they are finding through their research…and take a quick break to do a crossword puzzle!


1:45 PM: Back on the mountain, our students Jane and Ashley are identifying commonly used plants along the nature hiking trail. Using field guides, ranger knowledge, and interviews with local mountain residents, they learn the names and uses of dozens of plants. Later, this information will be used for interpretive signage along the trail so tourists can learn while they hike without straying from the trail!


2:00 PM: Robyn, Tori, and Bella are interviewing community members about their livelihoods, perceptions of climate change, and climate change vulnerability and resilience. The community members they interview show them various fishing tools…and the neighborhood kids peek in to see what is happening!



3:45 PM: The lake group has returned to the center in Siem Reap town, where our classroom has turned into a lab! Students are using microscopes to identify macroinvertebrates collected earlier in the day, and working with partners from Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) to study water snakes and preserve them for further taxonomy studies and conservation initiatives.


4:15 PM: On our data analysis day back in town, Jozlyn works with Tally (intern), Sopheak (field assistant/translator), and Karen (SAM) to practice interview skills and learn how to create kinship diagrams as a part of the Phnom Kulen origin and migration histories component of the research project.


7:45 PM: After a long day of research in the field and when dinner has been eaten and cleaned up, the village becomes quiet. There is no cell phone service, and certainly no WiFi, in the village here. Luckily, the mountain group brought some board games to play in the evening hours. This epic game of Pandemic was the perfect way to end the day!


Photos courtesy of Karen Obertubbesing, Lisa Arensen, and Ming Li Yong

→ Conservation and Development Studies in Cambodia

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