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Conservation Stars

Around the world, environmental crises are making headlines, from the potential extinction of species and ecosystems to climate change. Students in George Mason University’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy (ESP) are driven to make a difference.

In 2020, five Mason PhD students received grants from the Cosmos Club Foundation to tackle a wide range of conservation efforts. In any given year, Mason has received one or two Cosmos grants, says Kathryn Agoston, director of graduate fellowships at Mason. “To earn five is very exciting.”

The role Mason students play in helping the Earth is extremely fundamental, says A. Alonso Aguirre, ESP department chair, adding that Mason’s top-tier faculty, R1 research status, and unparalleled opportunities in the backyard of the nation’s capital help take their impact to a new level.

“Now more than ever you see the passion of students to work with species and ecosystems that are threatened, mostly by human impact,” Aguirre says. “They are committed to solving actual problems.”

“This is the time to get involved in conservation of species and ecosystems, as many factors are threatening the health of all,” Aguirre says.

Read on to learn how Mason’s Cosmos Scholars are making an impact:

 

Chase LaDue: Where the Elephants Are

African elephants have had time in the spotlight when it comes to research and media attention due to the ivory crisis. But a different elephant species, one doing worse in terms of survival, has received far less attention. Chase LaDue is changing that with his research on male Asian elephants in Sri Lanka.

Chase LaDue with an elephant at the Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo provided

“I study male Asian elephants in particular because they’ve been less studied than African elephants, and male elephants are unique because they go through this period called musth,” says LaDue, a Dallas, Texas, native. “It’s completely unique, only elephants do it.”

Musth, which means “intoxicated” in Urdu, is similar to rutting season for a deer, LaDue explains. Testosterone levels and aggression are high, but unlike for other animals, there is no predictable musth season.

Elephants in musth can also pose an economic burden, he says.

“Elephants will raid farmers’ crops, so that can be dangerous to the people who live around elephants, and a single elephant can wipe out a farmer’s crop for the entire year,” LaDue says.

Through behavioral observations and hormone analysis in fecal samples, LaDue will examine what environmental and social factors influence musth. Because Asian elephants are classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the findings could also contribute to understanding how to better conserve their populations.

This year marks the second time LaDue has earned a Cosmos grant. He also received a Fulbright scholarship to go to Sri Lanka in 2019 but had to return to the United States early due to terrorism in the country.

LaDue works closely with two Mason alumnae: Mason professor Elizabeth Freeman, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’05, who is his research advisor, and Wendy Kiso, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’12, who is the conservation science manager for White Oak Conservation Foundation in Yulee, Florida.

“I’m happy to say that the three of us continue to actively collaborate on elephant studies here in the U.S. and abroad in Sri Lanka, even despite the challenges imposed by the pandemic,” LaDue says.

 

Meadhbh Molloy: Exploring beyond Face Value 

In one of her first graduate classes on disease ecology, Meadhbh Molloy, BS Biology ’15, MS Environmental Science ’15, read a paper projecting the extinction of Tasmanian devils. An aggressive and highly contagious facial cancer would likely be the cause of termination within a couple decades, the researcher estimated. Yet, while the species currently remains endangered, they have not become extinct.

Meadhbh Molloy. Provided photo

“[The cancer] spreads like crazy and almost always leads to death,” says Molloy, who also works as a graduate teaching assistant. “But [Tasmanian devils] are persisting in the wild, and no one really knows exactly how.”

Since the class, Molloy said she became fascinated by how species co-evolve with diseases.

“When I learned that diseases were in a way caused by pathogens trying to survive, I started to understand their role in ecology and how they’ve shaped the evolution of other life forms,” Molloy says.

Through the Cosmos grant and an award from the American Australian Association, Molloy will spend up to a year in Australia, working in a lab at the University of Sydney, where she will be analyzing devil fecal samples. She will also be potentially looking at the species’ microbiomes and parasite loads to see if there are differences between diseased and cancer-free wild devils.

“It’s all about making sure they are successful when they’re released into their native habitat,” says Molloy, who first realized she could have a career with endangered species after a field trip and Mason courses at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal, Virginia.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” the Northern Virginia native says. “I’m looking forward to a lot of personal growth and being able to work with the species that I have been thinking about since I first started my master’s.”

 

Tovah Siegel: Her Own Best Advocate

Tovah Siegel, pictured here in the Peruvian Amazon, holds a few piranhas she caught for dinner that night. Provided photo

Tovah Siegel had never met or spoken to Thomas Lovejoy, and knew him only as the world’s preeminent conservation biologist. But that did not stop Siegel from emailing the Mason University Professor to ask if he would be her advisor as she pursued her PhD in environmental science and policy at Mason.

One return email and three or four phone calls later, he agreed.

“You have to advocate for yourself,” says Siegel, who is from Oregon and earned her undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Puget Sound in Washington.

Siegel, who is also a Smithsonian Fellow at the National Museum of Natural History, is studying the interactions of species and how forest fragmentation in the Brazilian Amazon impacts those interactions.

“A lot of research looks at how one species responds individually to fragmentation. But there isn’t a lot of research about how species A impacts species B that relies on species A,” Siegel says. “You can take that information and say we shouldn’t be looking at one species. We should be looking at these ecosystems as a complex array of interactions.”

Siegel, who previously used a Boren Fellowship to take field courses in the Amazon, will continue her research with the help of the Cosmos grant.

 

Betsy Collins: Leafing for Answers

From churches to yoga studios to individual homes, communities have been burning palo santo—holy wood—for generations. The South American plant similar to frankincense and myrrh is primarily used as incense, and it has been so widely marketed that its populations are declining due to habitat loss. Betsy Collins hopes her research can help save the species.

Betsy Collins stands next to a palo santo tree (Bursera graveolens in the family Burseraceae) in the Marañón valley, Peru. Photo provided

“It’s really important when you’re planting for reforestation that what you’re planting is genetically diverse,” says Collins, who is from West Palm Beach, Florida, and completed a BS in botany and an MS in environmental engineering sciences at the University of Florida.

“I’m looking at comparing the genetics of the replanted populations with the natural population to see [whether] they are in line or can be doing better in our reforestation projects.”

A National Geographic grant in 2018 took Collins to Peru, Mexico, and Colombia to collect leaf samples and preserve the plants’ DNA. With her Cosmos grant, she will work in Mason’s labs to extract and analyze the DNA from those hundreds of samples, she says.

“No country has unlimited sources for conservation,” Collins says. “I hope that this research can give some ideas as to where are some really unique genetically diverse populations that we should look at protecting.”

 

Charles Coddington: Flocking to the Amazon

Birds of a feather may flock together, but to avoid predators, birds of different species will do the same. Once the birds reach their destination, Charles Coddington, MS Biology ’18, wants to know how deforestation and habitat fragmentation affect them.

Charles Coddington says he has been able to continue his research during the pandemic, although not in Brazil. Photo by Ron Aira

“One of the most critical [threats] to conservation is the loss of diversity,” says Coddington, who has a bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. “I hope that my research will help contribute to better restoring biodiversity to fragmented landscapes.”

Mix-species flocks are found on every continent except Antarctica, Coddington says, and they are especially prevalent in the Amazon. Hundreds of birds and dozens of species fly there.

Going into Amazonian forests, Coddington will study how these birds use regenerating forest fragments, and how their nesting behaviors are affected in forests that have developed naturally (primary forests) versus forests that are recovering from human disturbances (secondary forests).

After finding the nests, Coddington says he will set up camera traps to record what happens when predators are near. He will also set up artificial nests in primary and secondary forests “to see if predation is one of the limiting factors that’s preventing [birds] from successfully breeding in secondary forests.”

The opportunities Coddington has had at Mason, including a fellowship with the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation and now the Cosmos grant, have allowed him to foster a community and conduct meaningful research, he says.