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Expedition to South Africa

Undergraduate research assistants for Associate Professor Roland de Gouvenain, from left, Eric O’Rourke, Bruno Ramos, Keya Thakkar and Hector Nuñez.

Undergraduate research assistants for Associate Professor Roland de Gouvenain, from left, Eric O’Rourke, Bruno Ramos, Keya Thakkar and Hector Nuñez.

Associate Professor Roland de Gouvenain

On July 24 RIC Associate Professor of Biology Roland de Gouvenain and two of his lab students, Eric O’Rourke and Bruno Ramos, will travel to one of the most biodiverse hotspots in the world – South Africa.

They will join Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology John Silander of the University of Connecticut (UConn), as well as UConn graduate students and post-docs, in field research on plant evolutionary ecology. 

Funded by a Dimensions of Biodiversity grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), this five-year project (now in its third year) is being conducted by experts in ecology, evolution and genetics from UConn, University of California-Davis, Yale University and the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The team totals 25. Their mission is to understand the ecology and evolution of two genera: Protea and Pelargonium.

Protea is both the botanical name and the English common name of a genus of South African flowering plants also called sugarbushes. Pelargonium is a genus of flowering plants commonly known as geraniums. Both plants are common in two ecosystems: the Fynbos (the natural shrubland vegetation occurring in a small belt of the Western Cape of South Africa) and the Succulent Karoo (a desert ecoregion of South Africa).

RIC became involved in the project when de Gouvenain invited one of the leaders of the project – Silander – to give a talk at the RIC Biology Department Symposium series last fall.

“Dr. Silander was so impressed with the level of questions and interest by our students that he suggested I collaborate with him in applying for an NSF supplemental research grant to piggyback his five-year grant,” said de Gouvenain.

Called Research Experiences for Undergraduates, this one-year supplemental grant provides a field research opportunity for undergraduate minority and underrepresented students who do not attend college at a major research institution.

RIC students Ramos is from Cape Verde and O’Rourke will be the first in his family to graduate from college, said de Gouvenain. “They’re good students. They’re excited about the opportunity and committed to make the most of it and learn as much as they can,” he said.

Ramos and O’Rourke will split their time in South Africa collecting plant specimens and plant trait data from the field and measuring and analyzing the data at a base station located 200 miles north of Cape Town. 

In addition, they will collect data for his own smaller research project as part of their RIC departmental honors thesis.

Upon the team's return on Aug. 28, they will meet at UConn over the course of the fall semester to analyze the field data and possibly contribute to scientific papers for publication.