Overseas Trip Strengthens Undergraduates’ Interest in Biology

UC Riverside’s Unique Bañares and Azeem Rahman spent eight weeks researching fish in Brazil

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Undergraduate Unique Bañares at the University of California, Riverside never predicted that one day she would be doing evolutionary biology research, let alone field work in faraway, exotic Brazil.  Four years ago, she was working in the UC Riverside Child Development Center, where, coincidentally, the daughter of David Reznick, a distinguished professor of biology, was a student.

“On a field trip one day, she told me, ‘My daddy works with fish here at UCR.’ This sparked my interest immediately and I thought this would be a great opportunity for research experience,” said Bañares, now a senior biology major and a pre-medical student. “I emailed Dr. Reznick right away about my interest in working in his lab, and he gladly took me in as an intern.”

Little did Bañares know then that she would eventually spend weeks in Brazil, which she did last summer researching Phalloceros fish – distinguishing between different species and examining placenta.

“Phalloceros was thought to be just one species but now we are finding multiple subspecies of the fish,” she said.  “Our goal is to classify each, via examination of traits and molecular data.”

She was joined in Brazil by fellow-undergraduate Azeem Rahman, a third-year biology major who is minoring in anthropology.  Rahman, unlike Bañares and most other biology majors at UCR, is planning a career in a biological field instead of medical school.

“We left for Rio de Janeiro in mid-July and returned mid-September,” he said. “We worked on quite a range of projects in Brazil, helping other graduate students there as well as working on our own project. This included traveling to a sparsely inhabited jungle island to take part in research on nutrient uptake of rivers and streams. Our own project included analyzing closely related guppy species by catching and dissecting them to find their life histories. We did not know what we would find, as we did not know the extent of the fish species relationships.”

Rahman and Bañares worked at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ for Universidad do Estado do Rio de Janeiro) in an ecology lab run by Eugenia Zandonà, a biologist who has worked on several projects with Reznick.  Reznick and Zandonà have an exchange program that facilitates students from Brazil coming to UCR to do research, and vice versa.  The research project, called “Placenta and life-history traits: evolution in the fish genus Phalloceros,” is being done in association with the International Research Experience for Undergraduates, and is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and CAPES, the Brazilian equivalent of NSF.

“Doing research in Brazil was such an amazing experience,” Bañares said. “Here in Riverside, we work with fishes in tanks but in Brazil we actually got a chance to work out in the field. We had the opportunity to collect our own fish at different rivers and we also got the chance to travel to Ilha Grande, an island close to Rio de Janeiro, where we helped one of the UERJ post-docs conduct some experiments in environmental ecology.”

Brazil also impacted Rahman in many ways.  It was the first time he did fieldwork biology.

“I found this type of research to be much more appealing,” he said. “I also met many Ph.D. students from around the world in Brazil who gave me great insight into the life of a research student.”

For both students, doing research on Ilha Grande turned out to be a rewarding experience.

“At one point we were jumping from boulder to boulder in the middle of streams there, going barefoot so that our feet could better grip on the moss,” Rahman said. “I even managed to catch a parasite after diving into a jungle pool above a waterfall.”

Not surprisingly, the trip to Brazil strengthened Bañares’s and Rahman’s interest in biology.

“As a pre-medical student, I tend to be more interested in the side of biology that deals with the human body and the science involved with diseases,” Bañares said. “However, since Brazil, I have gained more appreciation for my research position and the other fields of my major such as evolution and ecology. Also the trip overall has made me a more independent person. I gained a new sense of responsibility and I have learned so much about myself and working with others during my time there.”

Rahman did not expect Brazil would change his international outlook.

“For the last five weeks there, I lived with a local family and became close to many local Brazilians,” he said. “The neighborhood that I lived in was not affluent, and it was difficult to get around without knowing how to blend in with the locals. I quickly learned Portuguese and I am still practicing it with many friends I made there. What surprised me is the good English most people spoke in Brazil. I am currently tutoring some people there in English via video chatting.”

A lover of spicy foods, he admits the food in Brazil was a challenge for him.

“Brazilians seem to have no liking for spicy food,” he said. “I ultimately found much of the food very bland. Due to this, while I was there I lost 33 pounds.”

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-6050
E-mail: iqbal@ucr.edu
Twitter: UCR_Sciencenews

Additional Contacts

David Reznick
Tel: (951) 827-5820
E-mail: david.reznick@ucr.edu

Unique Bañares
E-mail: ubana001@ucr.edu

Azeem Rahman
E-mail: arahm003@ucr.edu

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