PHOTO: Nikki Henderson and Jessie Giguiere (left) with fellow students Megan Hayes and Sam Bourret.

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Research in Ecuador

Nikki Henderson and Jessie Giguere in EcuadorMartin Institute students study water resources through NSF grant, international research partnership

by Victoria Hart

Nikki Henderson knew since she left Argentina in 2012 that she would return to Latin America someday. She didn’t know someday would be just a year later.

“When I saw an email in my inbox one day explaining this research trip to Ecuador that was fully funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and actually offered to pay me,” Henderson said. “I about jumped out of my chair and contacted David Roon.”

Roon, director of the University of Idaho’s ecology and conservation biology program, coordinated the summer 2013 trip to Ecuador, the third year of ongoing summer research in partnership with the Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja (UTPL) funded by a NSF grant. He led graduate and undergraduate teams from UI in genetics, soil erosion, water and aquatic research in the region.

“Our projects all synthesized a better portrait of the landscape and the peoples within it,” said Henderson, who earned undergraduate degrees in international studies, Spanish, and geography in May 2013.

Jessie Giguiere, a Martin Scholar with a second major in environmental science, joined Henderson on the social science project assigned to the water team, which investigated whether local leaders and farmers needed or desired wetland protection for the lakes that feed their villages.

“This whole thing revolves around water,” Giguiere said.

Their goal, Henderson said, was to determine past, present and future agricultural practices, especially as they related to water and access to water, including changes to benefit farms. Giguiere’s study included questions regarding the impacts of climate change on the region as well.

Henderson said she spent the months preceding the journey researching Ecuadorian culture and history, as well as developing a formal research proposal that would further existing research.

“I was passionate about the topic and was excited to finally see an opportunity for social scientists,” Henderson said.

She and Giguiere worked with Ecuadorian advisers from UTPL to establish contacts in the region and arrange interviews. Giguiere had success in connecting with locals, and said her study revealed interest in protecting water sources as well as evidence of climate change. But valuable information comes at a price, and the system calls for a fair trade — an hour-long interview for an hour of farmwork. Giguiere fondly remembers cutting grass for a woman’s guinea pig farm in exchange for her participation in the research project.

Henderson, on the other hand, encountered trouble when a landslide forced her to switch sites and conduct her research in an area where she had made few contacts.

“In this region especially, it was important to build rapport with people — thus many leaders remained skeptical of us, especially because I was a young foreign female,” Henderson said. “Despite the setbacks that essentially led to me having no research, it fostered relationship-building and exposure to not just a new culture but a research topic to be explored in the future.”

Relationships grew fast in Loja, the Southern Andes city where Giguiere and Henderson lived with other UI students in host families from the end of May through July. Giguiere stayed with a mother, her two grown daughters, and two additional UI students. Loja is a fairly modern city, she said, housing UTPL and serving as an artistic center in Ecuador.

The research teams took full advantage of their location and made weekend excursions to nearby coastal and mountain towns, including Vilcabamba, historical Cuenca, and coastal Huaquillas and Montañita, where Henderson spotted birds from the Galapagos Islands.

Henderson remembers an afternoon near Huaquillas when a UTPL professor organized a trip to a small, tranquil island.

“We arrived and we were the only ones there (and nobody else ever came), and were welcomed by warm water, light waves and perhaps the greatest lunch I’ve ever eaten in my life,” Henderson said. “I will never forget that day and how I could hardly believe a place like that existed on earth and that Jorge shared it with us.”

Henderson said such generosity and hospitality were common among Ecuadorians. During her last week in the country, she got a job teaching English, and a UTPL student said she could stay with his family for a while.

Instead, she returned to Idaho and is living in Boise, saving up for a move to Seattle or Washington, D.C., where she’ll be closer to international job opportunities. Giguiere is finishing her fourth of five years as an undergraduate, and hopes to return to Latin America.

“I would like to go back and continue that work or similar work,” she said.

Henderson sees the ongoing connection between UI and UTPL as hopeful for the future and a legacy of past innovators.

“[These projects are] demonstrating the fact that … we look towards the world and really seek to connect with it,” she said. “And have for a very long time.”