Beginning next week, more than a dozen students, staff and faculty from Penn’s Department of Biology will begin a long and arduous trek into the steppes of Northern Mongolia as part of the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE).
Penn’s involvement with the PIRE project began in 2008, through an association with Bazartseren Boldgiv, a Penn alumnus and an assistant professor of ecology and environmental science at the National University of Mongolia. Faculty and students from his department will connect with the Penn contingent in the field.
“The project is about trying to understand how climate change will effect that part of the world,” says Penn biology professor Brenda Casper, one of the operation’s principal investigators. “We don’t know very much about the ecology there.”
Finding an answer requires simulating the effects of climate change on the remote, semi-arid region’s plant population. With as much as a third of Mongolia’s population living as nomadic herders, small changes in local plant life could have a profound effect.
The researchers will use miniature greenhouse chambers to alter the temperature of the ground, and will also experiment with changes to the amount and frequency of rain and animal grazing the chambers receive.
“We can project into the future the kinds of changes the plants and soil microbes will experience,” Casper says.
Dan Brickley, a 2010 Penn alumnus who now serves as project coordinator of the PIRE Mongolia grant, says working with the locals, both herders and scientists, is crucial to the project’s success. He says the exchange of research methods and cultures, and hearing their personal accounts of changes in recent growing seasons, are irreplaceable experiences.
Beyond preparing some of the projects logistics, Brickley is helping connect Penn undergraduates with their Mongolian counterparts so they can start collaborating on their own experiments. He is also setting up a blog where students can write about their experiences from the field.
“Science doesn’t just happen in this sterile lab, where we’re all wearing white jackets,” Brickley says. “It can happen in the field, where things go terribly wrong—or terribly right.”
That kind of public education is important for the next generation of scientists.
“Climate change is such a big issue, especially how it is affecting a developing country like Mongolia,” he says. “It’s important for students to see how the science is done and see if this is a career they might be interested in pursuing.”
Originally published on May 19, 2011