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Summer in southern Mexico proves valuable for biology student

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As Bethel College moves toward a more formal relationship with a university in southern Mexico, one student has already gotten a head-start on the exchange.

Ben Wiens, a senior biology major from Goessel, spent the better part of his summer in a science internship at Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas (Chiapas University of Sciences and Arts), or UNICACH.

Bethel’s connection to UNICACH originated with Francisca Méndez-Harclerode, associate professor of biology.

Méndez-Harclerode spent her recent sabbatical developing a biology field and travel course. A native of Mexico, she wants students not only to learn science and biology in natural settings that can’t be found in the United States, but also to experience the complexity and variety of Mexico that most U.S. citizens miss.

To that end, Mendez-Harclerode is calling her course, to be run for the first time this coming January, “Biological and Cultural Diversity of Mexico.”

“It is easy to overlook Mexico’s richness and have a one-dimensional view that focuses exclusively on social disparity, violence and poverty,” she says.

As she worked on her class, Méndez-Harclerode looked for contacts in Mexico and found some from her graduate school days at Texas Tech University. She connected with Eduardo Espinoza Medinilla, whom she had known as a Ph.D. student and who is now a professor at UNICACH.

Eventually, this contact led to a growing collaboration between Bethel and UNICACH, which have a long-term goal of signing a formal cooperation agreement.

UNICACH faculty Sergio Lopez, professor of evolutionary ecology, and Juan Carlos Najera, a professor of public health, visited Bethel last spring, and that’s where Wiens’ idea began to grow.

“I was trying to figure out what I could do for the summer,” he says. The more he learned about UNICACH, the more he realized it might be the place for him.

“It’s a bigger university, with master’s and doctoral programs, and more equipment for research. And I would be able to set up several different projects, not just one – that was a draw.”

“Ben was grasping for a different awareness of what to do in biology,” says Méndez-Harclerode. “He doesn’t have a drive like some of his friends for specific [areas or careers], such as veterinary medicine. He’s trying to decide on his options.”

Wiens ended up contributing to three major projects.

One involved extracting plant DNA for analysis and study, with the possible end of identifying a new species of palm. Another required trapping bats in two different locations to make biological comparisons. A third had him working on a field guide (taking photos and making notes) to the plants in a biology reserve that also caters to tourists.

Overall, he says, it was a valuable summer.

Although there were problems – related to schedules and expectations – with having multiple projects, that was still one of the things he appreciated most.

“It helped me get experience while also learning about what work I liked and didn’t like,” he said. “I think it is a pretty unique situation in that regard and it is worth taking advantage of, especially for students who are still trying to narrow down their interests.”

“Ben discovered he is interested in organismal and field biology, but he also did well in the lab,” Méndez-Harclerode says. “He had a very authentic experience, in that there weren’t lightbulbs going off, but also no regrets about what he did learn. We need those kinds of authentic experiences.”

“I really enjoyed the work I did with the genetics in the lab,” Wiens says, “but I think that [kind of] work can be done in labs in a variety of locations. And I appreciated the work I did in the herbarium in that I learned I didn’t like it.

“I would not change my experiences doing field work in the rainforest. The university has a great location with its easy access to rainforests. It was definitely worthwhile to spend time there, especially since there is nothing like that in the United States.”

He recommends the interterm trip – and perhaps more, like his research summer or an internship – to other students. “It was good to experience another culture,” he says. “And it’s important to [the study of] biology to have the climate” that southern Mexico offers.

In addition to visiting historical, cultural and biological sites (and at least one beach) in Mexico City, Chiapas and the Yucatan, students in Biological and Cultural Richness of Mexico will be paired with peers from UNICACH to work in ongoing undergraduate research there. The bulk of the three weeks will be based at the university.

Méndez-Harclerode hopes her new interterm class results in “nobody getting hurt and everybody falling in love with Mexico – or at least coming home with a positive view.”

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.

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