When most people think of The Bahamas, they think of fun-filled vacations on white sandy beaches. However, Northern New Mexico College students Estrella Gonzalez and Jonathan Madrid had a completely different experience. For them, being in The Bahamas meant waking up at 5 a.m. every day and taking a 30-minute hike through challenging jungle terrain, while sustaining a barrage of mosquito and gnat bites in stiflingly hot and humid weather.
Their destination: a pair of inland ponds to study three unique species of fish as part of a three-week undergraduate research experience trip supervised by Dr. Rhiannon West, assistant professor of Biology at Northern.
The Northern team was based at the Gerace Research Centre in San Salvador to study the behavior and inter-species interactions of the fish. This involved trapping the fish and taking them back to the wet lab at the research center for methodical study and analysis.
“It’s amazing how much work goes into making scientific discoveries,” Madrid said upon returning from the research trip.
“You have to go out there [to the ponds] for hours, catch the fish and bring them back, but things don’t always go according to plan as the fish would sometimes change color, which makes identifying their sex very hard,” he added.
Despite the tough conditions, the Northern duo continued to carry out their research with complete dedication and a positive attitude.
“The students got up at 5 a.m. to get to our field site before the heat and humidity of the day for days on end and dealt with 100s of mosquito and gnat bites and uncomfortable field conditions without a complaint,” Dr. West said. “They worked hard until the job was accomplished. And they did all this with never-ending positive and can-do attitudes.”
Gonzalez said she felt guilty on Sundays, which were their days off, and wanted to get back into the field instead of relaxing.
“There were times where the mosquitos really ate me, and times where I felt miserable, but I did miss it on the days we didn’t go out to the field,” she said.
The students also learned what life was like for researchers working on a sparsely populated island.
“My major is in biology, and this was an insight into research related work, so I’m happy I experienced it,” Madrid said.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez, who is planning to pursue a degree in medicine said the trip has encouraged her to consider a career in scientific research.
According to Dr. West, the hard work and dedication of the Northern students did not go unnoticed at the research center, which housed faculty and students from universities around the world. Faculty at the center even thought that Gonzalez and Madrid were graduate students, and were shocked to learn they were freshman.
“It’s really important for students from Northern New Mexico to take part in this kind of research trip, as it opens their eyes to the realities of scientific research and can be pretty life changing,” Dr. West said.
The students agree with Dr. West. Madrid expressed disbelief at the experience he’s just had.
“I never thought that I’d go to The Bahamas. We’re from Española. Who goes to the Bahamas from Española?” he said.
Now he wants other students from the Española Valley to have similar experiences that serve to expand their educational and personal horizons, and so does Gonzalez.
“It was great knowing that we were the first students at the center from Northern New Mexico College, and that everyone at the center liked having us there,” she said. “I know that Dr. West did a lot of work to get us there, and it would be great if other [Northern] students can go in the future.”
Both students will present their research findings later this summer at the New Mexico Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (NM-INBRE) Symposium in Albuquerque.