UNC Goes Galápagos
As Charles Darwin stepped onto the Galápagos Islands in 1835, his senses were swept into a frenzy of awareness. Birds sang and monkeys called as Darwin calmly absorbed the overwhelming diversity of his new living laboratory. 275 years later, UNC is offering a strikingly similar opportunity to its faculty and students with the birth of the Galápagos Science Center on San Cristobal island in the Galápagos.
“We’re trying to understand the unique challenges of life in the Galápagos, and we’re positioned to make an impact” said Steve Walsh, director of the UNC Center for Galápagos Studies, the organization building the Galápagos Science Center. “I tend to view it as a Carolina family experience — all that Carolina is can offer something to this.”
To create that understanding, the Center has recently partnered with Universidad San Francisco de Quito, the top research university in Ecuador, to build a Galápagos Science Center that will foster education, research, and community outreach in one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the world.
“We tend to think of the Galápagos as an ecological wonderland when in reality it’s much, much more complex,” Walsh said. “We don’t know the harsh realities that it’s a place that services about 200 thousand tourists a year, 30 thousand permanent residents, and still hosts endemic plants and animals and unique ocean currents.”
While only 3 percent of the archipelago is open to development, an increasing number of Ecuadoreans have been migrating to the Galápagos to benefit from the tourism industry. In doing so, they are earning a living and promoting tourism, but altering animal migration patterns and tidal currents at the same time. By attempting to solve the ever-increasing tensions between resource conservation and economic development, the Galápagos Science Center hopes to remedy this problem and develop a global template for similar places suffering from the same concerns.
“Complex social issues have been one of the major obstacles to managing the Galápagos natural areas in a way that satisfies both conservationists and the local society,” said Kim Engie, a doctoral student conducting Galápagos research in sociology. “Complex relationships between the Galápagos, mainland Ecuador and the world also mediate and shape management impacts.”
The CGS has been studying these complex issues for over three years now- it has awarded seed grants for research, offered study abroad programs to UNC undergraduates, and volunteered its students to teach English classes to the local population. Walsh proudly noted that a number of third-year Ph.D. students will be finishing their Galápagos dissertations this year, and that his undergraduate Galápagos course is at maximum capacity yet again. But both details fall into the shadow of what Walsh says is this year’s “top focus” — the building of the Galápagos Science Center on San Cristobal island “where Darwin first set his feet in the archipelago.”
The islands, which are about 1,000 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, provide the ideal setting for hands-on education in what Walsh calls “a unique place in crisis mode.” This crisis is the result of external and relatively new factors, like climate change, migration and tourist patterns, and local demands on a limited set of resources — all issues that the Center addresses through its research and education roles. Specifically, the Center focuses on the interactions among population, health and environment by engaging scientists from UNC and USFQ to increase the understanding of human-environment interactions.
Philip Page, program director of CGS, has spearheaded the effort to create two new study abroad opportunities through UNC. Because students have been researching “everything from sociology to marine science, geography to geological science, and economics to nutrition,” Page wants to foster this growth in the Galápagos Science Center and believes that the involvement of undergraduates will best serve that purpose and offer a unique opportunity, as well.
“The Galápagos is a living laboratory. Students will be taking classes in a facility that is right on the water so they’ll be able to leave the classroom and do field studies in a matter of minutes,” Page said of the 12,000 square foot building that contains four research labs, a conference room, faculty and student offices and access to dormitories, kitchen, and dining room. “We hope to be able to seamlessly move from the lecture areas of a classroom to the laboratory and to field and back and forth.”
Walsh can’t wait to have the building “up and running” so that the CGS can continue to “link to people at other universities, to develop a strong research portfolio, to bring science into the classroom, and to cultivate our study abroad.”
“We want more Carolina students to go into this natural laboratory and learn what it is to live in this island setting, deal with endemic resources and species,” he said.
Emily Willis, a senior international studies major at UNC, can vouch for the opportunities of this type of building provides. She worked as a research assistant for CGS last summer and now is a teaching assistant for Walsh’s geography class on the Galápagos.
“There’s nothing on the island like this,” Willis said. “Having this level of technology makes all of the groundbreaking science being done all the more relevant because these are issues that haven’t really been looked at before. UNC is making a very clear investment in the community and will continue to do so with a permanent dedication to the site through the Science Center.”
For Page and other members of CGS, the opening and dedication of the facility represents a great breakthrough in research potential for the UNC and USFQ communities. The new facility will allow researchers to better answer the questions of how to balance issues of migration and tourism management with its effects on the biodiversity of the Galápagos in the long term. But, in keeping with the goals of CGS, it also will allow both universities to more adequately respond to the immediate needs of the local community.
“Already it is clear that they want help with health and medicine, they want more ESL training, help with science in the schools, help with data and data management, there’s a wealth of areas that we can move into,” Page said. “The question is, what can Carolina really do to help?”
And Page believes that by continuing to offer assistance in the Galápagos, the UNC and USFQ communities are continuing mutually to benefit from each other’s researchers, grants, students, and experience.
“Relationships will only be sustained if were both giving and receiving and I think we’ll continue to do that,” Page said.
With these sustained relationships, Walsh sees the Science Center growing into a household name within the ever-expanding Carolina family.
“My hope is that our presence there will connect us to the very fabric of what it means to be in the Galápagos,” Walsh said. “That our presence will help us understand fundamental and applied science that will enrich policy; make contributions to science and society, and that our campus will identify with the Galápagos as a place that we’ve helped shape and has helped shape us.”