by Stacy Shoemake
When Assistant Professor of Biology Wendy Anderson, Ph.D. and her students return to Baja California each year, they have a unique opportunity to study how life has an impact on the land. Their naturally balanced experiment is Baja de los Angeles, a group of 14 islands off the Mexico coast, seven with substantial bird life and seven without.
"I just love that nature gave me a really balanced experiment," says Anderson. "The extreme juxtaposition in productivity between the terrestrial environment and the marine environment is amazing. This is one of the few places in the world where you have these extremes in productivity."
This spring, four Drury students made the trip for a week of intensive field studies.
This year will be of particular interest because an "El Niño" is moving across North America. El Niño alters the trade winds over the Pacific Ocean, allowing pools of warm water to move east; when it blocks rising cold water, massive rains come to the usually parched desert in Baja.
"This year is everything that we dream of because an El Niño is hitting again. The effects on our hyper-arid desert region will be phenomenal. We will see hundreds of different annual plant species growing and flowering that we usually don't get to see in the usual typical dry years," she says.
Anderson and Ioana Popescu, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, also collaborate with researchers from Southwest Missouri State University to survey the islands, identify plant species that are growing and determine which seeds only exist in the soil seed bank. Teams will record species diversity patterns on islands and gather data from plots set up on previous trips to Baja.
Drury students Kate Heckman and Mandy Perryman are accompanying Anderson on the trip. This is Heckman's fourth trip to the islands with Ander son. She continues her studies on the crusts of cyanobacteria which are essential to the arid ecosystems.
Heckman is one of only a handful of people in the world conducting research of this nature. Perryman will help Kate collect plants near crusts, evaluate soil moisture and transplant rocks from one island to another for future research.
Molly Fusselman and Rhizza Renfro, the other two Drury students, will focus on surveying biological productivity in areas defined on previous trips. They will work with Anderson and Popescu to inventory individual plants and identify species diversity on several islands.
"It's going to be so amazing. It's just beautiful," says Heckman of the islands they are studying. "I'm continually thankful for the generosity of Dr. Anderson. If I hadn't had Dr. Anderson as my mentor I don't even know what I'd be doing right now."
Wendy Anderson is one of several faculty at Drury participating in Opening the Horizons program, a project between Drury and Southwest Missouri State University designed to keep rural middle school girls interested in science. (Previous studies suggest girls and boys are equally interested in science until middle school, when girls' interest wanes.) This spring, Anderson is taking Kirsten Chodrick, an eighth grade student from Carl Junction, Mo., to Baja. The two met at Crowder College in Neosho where Anderson conducts her workshops for the Opening the Horizons program.
"Her parents suggested it," Anderson says. "They sat me down and had a packet with four letters of recommendation, references from teachers she had gone on school trips with, standardized test scores and science fair projects from the past four years. Then this 13-year-old girl goes into a 10- minute speech on why I should take her to Baja for the research! How can I say no? I really tried!" laughs Anderson.
Kirsten hopes to study at Drury. "I have always believed that I want to become a marine biologist and get my undergraduate degree from Drury. I heard about the trip from Dr. Anderson at the Opening the Horizons meeting and I thought it sounded like a great experience. I have always had a love for science."