Conservation State of Mind
Student Fulbright Fellow delves into caves, devoting her scholarship to preserving bat communities.
by Rachel Pierce
Demanding doesn’t begin to describe the schedule that Kendra Phelps keeps. The zoology doctoral candidate spends much of her days reviewing data she’s collected and plugging away at her computer in a shared office on the Biology Building’s fourth floor. When she’s not hard at work on her dissertation, she’s teaching an anatomy course in the afternoons. In addition to teaching and writing her dissertation, she’s also settling into life as a newlywed.
Phelps’ commitment to her scholarship is especially apparent when one considers that it’s only been a few months since she returned to Lubbock from her Fulbright-funded research trip, which spanned more than a year and took her halfway around the world.
In 2012 Phelps was named a Student Fulbright Fellow. (This was actually the second year in a row that she was selected for a Fulbright Scholarship. In 2011 she was named a Fellow but declined the honor.) Through funding from the State Department fellowship, Phelps was based in the Philippines from May 2012 to August 2013 to investigate communities of cave-dwelling bats. She concentrated her studies on the effects that human disturbances have on caves where bats settle.
Her work is rooted in the area of conservation biology, which focuses on how humans and wildlife interact in the environment. Conservation biology also emphasizes remediating, or minimizing, the impacts and conflicts between humans and wildlife. Phelps explained that she was drawn to the Philippines because of its unique cave protection laws and felt that, through her research, she might be able to make a difference there.
Based on Bohol Island in the Central Philippines, Phelps researched and quantified the levels of disturbance at a range of caves, starting with those situated at sea-level elevation and rising into the mountainous interior areas of the island. She and her team explored one cave each week, more than 60 caves explored during her Fulbright fellowship, though there are an estimated 1,000 caves on Bohol. She kept track of the forms of disturbances, some of the most common being bat hunting, guano gathering and guided tour stops. Also, she recorded the bat species found in the caves and the health status of each colony. Since returning stateside, Phelps has been comparing the data sets to confirm whether increasing levels of human disturbances impact the bats’ health.
In addition to collecting valuable facts and figures, Phelps noted that her Fulbright experience was enriching for providing opportunities to teach. She said it has been important to educate lay Filipinos that bats are responsible for pollinating fruit, regenerating forests through the spread of seeds, and controlling insects, which helps to minimize the spread of diseases such as dengue fever and malaria.
“Most of this comes back to education because many people don’t understand the importance of wildlife,” Phelps said. “If we talk about bats, many people think of the myths of bats–that all bats drink blood, they get into your hair, they can’t see and will run right into you–so many people fear bats and will try to eliminate them from their environment. Conservation biology really focuses on educating people, so they understand the importance of the animals.”
Along with educating the island’s citizens, Phelps put together a research crew composed of more than two dozen undergraduate students from collaborating institutions in the Philippines. (Coincidentally, Phelps met the man who became her husband at a university in the Philippines, and eventually, he joined her research crew.) The students learned how to conduct wildlife research projects, how to measure caves, and how to identify bats. Some students used the experience to develop senior thesis projects. Most importantly, Phelps said, she has trained a new generation of bat biologists who can identify different species and can advocate for the protection of caves.
“We really try to get them jobs with the government wildlife department because it actually has a cave survey team,” Phelps said. “However, the department is not trained in identification of the bats, so it’s hard for them to label a cave as needing protection when they don’t know what species are using the cave and how important it is for wildlife.”
Back in the U.S., Phelps’ efforts are also fostering collaborations. She has brought back tissue samples for genetic analysis as well as parasites for further study.
Many Roads Traveled
Though Phelps has settled back into Texas Tech’s campus environs, Lubbock is just one of many places that she has called home throughout her scholastic journey. The place where she spent many of her formative years is far from West Texas.
Phelps grew up on a farm in rural Iowa. She explained that her surroundings helped to shape her interests, and she imagined that one day she would get to work with animals.
“As a farm kid you don’t have a lot of friends nearby, so I would spend my days roaming about the countryside with my dog,” Phelps said. “I remember walking dry river beds looking for coyote dens or a badger or rabbits, anything. So that’s kind of how I grew up and got really interested in the outdoors.”
Zoology doctoral candidate Kendra Phelps was named a Student of Integrated Scholarship in 2013 by Texas Tech University’s Office of the Provost. Read more about her commitment to academic excellence and research in this Integrated Scholar profile.
After completing an associate’s degree at an area community college in Iowa, Phelps followed her interest in zoology to Auburn University in Alabama, where she finished her undergraduate studies. Though she had strong interests in marine biology, Phelps had a breakthrough moment when she decided to enroll in a summer course that covered bats of the southwestern United States.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll get to go across the country to a completely different habitat type and learn how to catch bats, identify bats and work with wildlife,’” she said. “I hadn’t done much of that up to then as an undergrad. So I took that class, and ever since then, I’ve worked on bats.”
From Auburn, Phelps headed to Oklahoma State University to complete a master’s degree in zoology. She began her doctoral studies at Texas Tech in 2008 under adviser Tigga Kingston, a professor of zoology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Similar to Phelps, Kingston’s scholarship also is in the area of conservation biology and focuses on bats in Southeast Asia.
“I first traveled and did some work with Dr. Kingston before I started with her, actually, just to see how I would deal with working internationally, adapting to cultures, and adjusting to different environmental conditions,” Phelps said.
Research and Results
Back in the office she shares with a few other graduate students, Phelps toils at her workstation.
She said she intends to return to the Philippines to continue her scholarship.
“I really enjoy doing international research,” Phelps said. “In the United States we have a large number of bat biologists. Whereas expanding outside the United States, there are not as many people working on bats. So you can really get in and make a difference by training more bat biologists, and there are a lot of research questions there.”
Phelps is on track to complete her doctorate in December. She has been brainstorming ideas for postdoctoral work that would return her to Bohol. In her favor, Phelps explained that she has documented a large number of caves for future projects and developed valuable connections with the country’s wildlife department. Also, knowing that policymakers have used her research to further protect cave–dependent bat populations in the Philippines has brought meaning to Phelps and her work.
“I still work with the government,” she said, “because if I just took all the data, wrote up my dissertation, graduated and left, what was really the impact for conservation biology and the point of my spending the last two years there?”
Rachel Pierce is Senior Editor of Research and Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Main image courtesy of Neal Hinkle. Other images courtesy of Phelps. Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.