If you need to reach me on any given day during the school year, you’re likely to find me in one of two places: studying in between sips of coffee at Caffe Luce, or staring at my computer screen in a quiet corner of the UA library. Rarely do I venture outside of my studious self, and when I do, it’s typically to relieve stress through playing sports.
Last semester I finished up my junior year as a mathematics major with minors in biochemistry and Spanish. By the time finals were over, I felt thoroughly burnt out on school. While many of my peers planned to spend their summers participating in rigorous research or internship programs, I longed for a break from integrals and amino acids. I needed a summer filled with something out of the ordinary, and thus I wound up swimming with sharks and sea turtles in the Galápagos Islands.
During July of 2016 I immersed myself in marine biology on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela, three of the many islands that compose the volcanic Galápagos archipelago. My experience was made possible by the UA’s summer Gálapagos Marine Ecology program, led by Dr. Katrina Mangin of the UA ecology and evolutionary biology department and Dr. Dave Gori of the Nature Conservancy.
I could spend several pages raving about the incredible biodiversity I witnessed on the islands: our group spotted all kinds of Galápagos-endemic species, from penguins to lava lizards. However, the most impactful souvenir I took home from the Galápagos Islands was not my scrapbook filled with pictures of sea lions (though that was certainly an added bonus). Instead, it was my newfound understanding of what it takes to protect our environment.
From high-ranking government officials to hotel janitorial staffs, every single Ecuadorian citizen appears to be deeply invested in the preservation of the Galápagos Islands. The enormous resources expended on island conservation and restoration efforts – including money, time, and human energy – far surpass those invested here in the United States. Of the Galápagos archipelago’s 8,010 square kilometers of land, a full 97% are protected by Ecuador’s national park service. Quite literally, a person cannot travel between islands without having his or her suitcase inspected for invasive species, and only a certain number of tourists per year are allowed to visit the archipelago.
I will probably never earn a Ph.D. in ecology or marine biology. In fact, it is highly possible that I will finish my college career at the UA without taking another class in either subject. Nevertheless, I learned more from my study abroad experience than I have ever learned in a traditional lab-based course.
On the one hand, my studies in the Galápagos Islands made me fearful for the future of our planet. Despite the stunning conservation efforts aimed at protecting the islands’ flora and fauna, the negative impacts of human activity are clear: overfishing continues to threaten species in the waters surrounding the Galápagos, and invasive species have decimated innumerable terrestrial populations. It is difficult to imagine how humankind will succeed in protecting the Earth’s ecosystems, when the most protected area in the world constantly hovers on the brink of catastrophe.
On the other hand, my study abroad experience vastly increased my optimism for the future: if it is possible for one country to devote such impressive resources to environmental protection efforts, it is possible for other countries to do the same. Conservation efforts in the Galápagos should serve as a model for scientists and citizens around the world.
As I prepare to begin my senior year, it is with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for school and learning. Our generation faces a number of daunting challenges, climate change being only one of many. My study abroad experience helped me remember why I invest so heavily in my classes at the UA: the world is an incredible place, and it is our responsibility as students to help keep it beautiful.