University of Minnesota
Her big adventure
U undergraduate takes part in Thailand’s tiger research
By Bill Magdalene
“It felt like Jurassic Park,” Laura Nelson says. “We were in the middle of the jungle.”
Nelson, a University of Minnesota honors student who’s entering her junior year as a forest resources major, spent three weeks over winter break 2011 in western Thailand with twelve classmates and two professors. The students went there to learn how to track tigers and other large mammals, including leopards and Asiatic black bear.
Each day, they would split into groups of three or four and go into the jungle. They hiked all day, looking for signs of tiger to determine how many were in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Their research helped Thailand’s tiger conservation efforts.
They didn’t actually see the tigers, Nelson says. “Tigers are elusive. They know where you are at all times. I’m sure they were circling our hiking group.” She was alert, however, to possibility of encountering elephants. “They’re the most dangerous animal in the jungle. They’re aggressive and erratic.” The students didn’t meet any elephants either, but heard them trumpeting in the distance.
ADVICE FOR FRESHMEN
Take classes outside of your discipline. "In addition to my science courses, I took several art history courses. They were some of my favorites.”
Take freshman seminars. "They’re a great way to interact with professors and have a small class atmosphere.”
Meet new people. "It’s rewarding to go by yourself to different club events. I really branched out when I was willing to do things by myself.”
Research experience is especially fulfilling. "You get to see every part of the process. You might help design a research project, and then go collect and analyze your data and present your research. You get the whole spectrum.”
More rugged for being there
The bungalow at the Khao Nang Rum Research Station, where the students lived, had no electricity or running water. The students took turns helping cook and doing dishes. Nelson remembers them all joking that the trip was “a three-week lesson in gratefulness” because they didn’t have the comforts they were used to. “I feel more rugged for being there,” she says. “I felt like I was doing something important and helping with tiger conservation research. It was one of the biggest adventures I’ve ever had.”
To preserve what she loves
Laura Nelson grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Her home was right next to forest service land. “I would go out hiking in my backyard,” she says. In high school she had a “great” biology teacher who led a field trip to Rapid Creek, which runs through Rapid City. “We did water experiments and looked for bugs. I thought that was cool.”
At the University of Minnesota she picked forestry as a major because she wanted something “application-based.” Before coming to the U she had experience volunteering for the park service. “That’s what I’m planning on doing in the future, she says, “work for the forest service or the park service.”
When Nelson was applying to the U of M, her honors admissions counselor told her to apply for the Undergraduate Research Scholarship for incoming freshmen. She did apply, and got it.
“Knowing that I had that made me even more excited to come and do research here,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in the environment and conservation. That’s what motivates me. To conserve something that I love—the outdoors. To interact with people and tell them why it’s important. To help them know about the issues and be able to address them themselves.”