For biologists like Texas A&M University’s Gil Rosenthal, the remote Mexican village of Calnali is a bona fide bonanza of research opportunities, from its bustling streams to its dense and diverse vegetation.
In fact, it seems the only people who haven’t made good on Calnali’s bounty of natural-resource riches are its natives, who meagerly persevere despite long socioeconomic odds and simple, agrarian ways of life.
Inspired by a recent National Science Foundation grant, Rosenthal and his lab group have spawned an idea intended to help change that — an annual environmental awareness program for the citizens of Calnali called “Día de la Ciencia” or “Day of Science.”
“We just wanted to share our knowledge with them,” said Rosenthal, a member of the Texas A&M Department of Biology faculty since 2006. “We also wanted to relay important conservation techniques and explain the natural resources that are available to them.”
The Calnali Connection
Calnali is located deep in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains of Hidalgo, one of Mexico’s poorest states. As it is in many underdeveloped regions, daily life in Calnali is simple and dictated by tradition. Many locals rely on subsistence agriculture, supplemented by remittances from relatives living in urban areas or abroad.
What Calnali may lack in the way of economic opportunity is compensated by its rich ecosystem and abundance of freshwater reservoirs, making it a popular spot for field biologists from around the world. Rosenthal, a respected expert in animal behavior, first began making pilgrimages there a decade ago to probe mating preferences among swordtail fish native to the Río Calnali as a model species for understanding evolutionary genomics. In 2005, Rosenthal co-founded the Centro de Investigaciones Científicas de las Huastecas “Aguazarca” (CICHAZ) research center in Calnali.
Despite all Calnali has to offer for researchers, its citizens have precious little to show for it in the way of educational, environmental or economic benefits. Whenever older townspeople lamented the decline of the once-formidable Río Calnali — now reduced to a polluted slough in some areas, compared to the rushing brook it once had been — Rosenthal took note.
“If we’re going to center our research on this region, which is still being stewarded by the very people who live there, we have to do our part to give back,” Rosenthal said.
A Plan in Motion
When the Rosenthal Lab was awarded an NSF Long Term Research in Environmental Biology grant last April to study hybridization in swordtails for the next 10 years, Rosenthal’s focus immediately drifted to possible ways the project also could serve the people of Calnali. After several brainstorming sessions, he and his group came up with an idea that would benefit the locals for the duration of the grant as well as, hopefully, for the indefinite future — an annual community-wide symposium on the care and management of Calnali’s agri-environmental assets they envisioned as a “Day of Science.”
“We wanted to give back by communicating with them, not just about our research but also about all the economic resources that the local culture and environment make available to them,” Rosenthal said. “We saw this as an opportunity to do a long-term mentoring and outreach program.”
To that end, one of Rosenthal’s primary priorities was to get local school children involved. During a brief trip to Calnali as part of the 2014 spring break, he proposed a contest for local middle and high school students, inviting them to design a poster presentation in response to the question, “Why is it important to take care of the environment?” To offset the limited resources he knew would be represented in Calnali’s public schools, Rosenthal even worked out an agreement with local Internet café owners so that children could conduct their research at participating establishments for free.
“Whatever we came up with, we wanted to structure it in a way that would help kids maintain that interest in learning and the scientific method for the entirety of those formative years,” Rosenthal said.
A New “Day” Dawns
On a balmy afternoon last June, a throng of locals filed into the town meeting hall for the inaugural “Day of Science.” The program consisted of Rosenthal and his lab explaining the significance of their research on the swordtails — a lively give-and-take discussion that eventually segued into sustainable living tips. In addition, the children who participated in the poster contest were invited to present their finished work.
At the end of the day, Rosenthal calls it a win for both cultures — that of academic research and one local community whose members unhesitatingly asked questions and voiced their opinions across segments and regarding a variety of issues.
“Considering it was our first one, there was a very enthusiastic response from the community,” Rosenthal said. “I think there will be even more buy-in from people who want to be involved in the next ‘Day of Science.'”
Given that many in attendance expressed an interest in participating in something more hands-on, Rosenthal’s group organized a nature hike to Río Calnali two weeks later. Thanks to that initial post-event feedback, about 75 townspeople ranging from school children to senior citizens from a local retirement center enjoyed what Rosenthal says was likely their first structured look at their own ecosystem in action.
Fish Tales and Future Impacts
Pablo Delclós, a Ph.D. candidate in the Rosenthal Lab, says they will continue working closely with the Calnali children as soon as March, when the group will return to install dual-purpose fish tanks in several classrooms within the local elementary school. Each tank will house swordtails trapped by the researchers during the trip, which the children will get to care for and monitor until the group’s next visit in summer 2015.
“Just this exposure to science in general is opening up a whole new area that’s otherwise been closed to them,” Delclós said. “By caring for these fish and making simple notes, we hope that this leads them to ask follow-up questions. These experiences at early ages are what guided many current researchers, so it’s important to let these students know that this is a viable career path that they can pursue.”
Gastón Jofre-Rodríguez, another Ph.D. candidate in Rosenthal’s lab who served as the emcee for “Day of Science,” hopes the group’s educational efforts will give the people of Calnali a new perspective on both science and life.
“Not many locals knew that they can pursue a career in science and then go back to their hometown to apply that knowledge in conservation, sustainable development or for the sake of knowledge,” Jofre-Rodríguez said.
Expectations for the next “Day of Science” are high, and Rosenthal’s efforts are poised to endure well into the future. Next year, he plans to expand the day into a weekend-long event featuring prominent environmental experts from across Mexico.
Already his work has garnered the support of a cluster of Calnali’s more educated families, who have united to help organize and promote subsequent “Day of Science” events. Rosenthal believes their assistance and commitment to the betterment of their community will sustain “Day of Science” for future generations, even after funding from his research grant has ended.
To Rosenthal, it’s all about helping the people of Calnali realize their village’s potential, from its natural resources to its inhabitants.
“They’re raised with this idea that the thing to do is get out and make a life somewhere else,” Rosenthal said. “I think all of us weird gringos coming down here so frequently helps show that this place really has something valuable to offer, and we want them to know that they live in a pretty awesome place that’s worth cherishing.”
To learn more about the Rosenthal Lab’s work in Calnali, visit http://www.cichaz.org/.
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Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Gil Rosenthal, (979) 845-3614 or email@example.com