Science and Technology

Mud, sweat, exhaustion

Study abroad in Southeast Asia full of adventure

by Eric Gorton

Student in Brunei study abroad course
Biology graduate student Sarah McGrath befriends an Asian vine snake.

SUMMARY: JMU biologist David McLeod led the trip from mid-May to early June. "This really is a fantastic opportunity because it gets me out into some of the most beautiful places of the world," he said.

profile image of Kaitlyn Staples leaning over as a local student looks on.
Kaitlyn Staples at an international school, telling children about amphibians they can find in their own backyards.

The course description warns students to expect to be wet, muddy and dirty most of the day and night; to wade through rivers, streams and ponds; to encounter terrestrial leeches, some mosquitos and stinging plants; and to come back to base camp tired each day.

Toma Matveeva, a fifth-year senior double majoring in biology and computer information systems, said the description was spot on. "During the whole trip I felt like I was Indiana Jones except I’m not scared of snakes," said Matveeva, an international student from Russia who is taking courses in the pre-med track.

Matveeva joined nine other JMU undergraduates and a graduate student on a study abroad course in Brunei, a country about the size of Delaware on the island of Borneo. The trip started and ended at Universiti Brunei Darussalam in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan, but most of it was spent at the remote Kuala Belalong Field Studies Center deep in a region called the “Heart of Borneo.”

"We were hiking in the rainforest during the day and during the night (that was scary and exciting) searching the creeks for species diversity," Matveeva said.

The experience included nighttime hikes where the students forged rivers wearing headlamps. "Sometimes we had to swim and the adrenaline kicks in when you don’t feel the bottom and at the same time you are not able to look through the water," Matveeva said.

Biology major Kaitlyn Staples does a lot of her frog research by examining specimens and skeletons in the laboratory of JMU biology Professor David McLeod. Much of her work involves using a computer to develop 3D models of frog skeletons. That research has its rewards, but nothing like observing amphibians and other animals in their natural habitat 9,300 miles away from Harrisonburg.

"I wanted to observe mating calls, habitat locations and the morphology of the skin and feet, and how they work," said Staples, who conducts research on the fanged-frog, Limnonectes kuhlii. "This is something we can't do at JMU without live frogs.”

"I learned a lot about what field biology entails," she said. "What I did and learned while in Brunei will significantly help me with my undergrad research in the future."

McLeod led the trip from mid-May to early June. "This really is a fantastic opportunity because it gets me out into some of the most beautiful places of the world," McLeod stated in a post about the trip on a Facebook page he maintains for his laboratory.

In addition to learning field skills, the students broadened their worldviews working alongside Bruneian university students.

"I learned so much," Staples said. "I learned about the Islamic and Buddhist religions from the Thai and Bruneian students that joined us at the field station."

Biotechnology major Jacob Gumpf, recapping his experience on McLeod's Facebook page, stated he was particularly fascinated with his interaction with the local students. "Working with students from a different cultural background, on the other side of the world, showed me that science is unifying," he said. "Even though we all were raised differently, with different beliefs and ideals, scientific research was a level playing field we all could interact on and provide different levels of skill and knowledge to solve problems. I left the Island of Borneo with a new outlook on science, and in some ways the world. It doesn't seem like such a scary place to go out into."

Said McLeod, "It is responses like this that motivate me and inspire me to continue taking students abroad. No trip is without its risks or challenges (this is true of life in general), but Jake’s response is worth every hurdle I, as a trip organizer and leader, have to jump."

As for the somewhat intimidating disclaimer on the study abroad page, Matveeva said, "I have one advice, even if the course description sounds scary to you, do not let your fear decide for you. You need to try it out in order to know what you are capable of. So go ahead!"

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Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Last Updated: Thursday, January 25, 2018

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