First Person: Gathering Plant Data and Research Experience on my Venture Grant to Bolivia
By Leah Veldhuisen ’19
Although many students choose to pursue Keller Venture Grants that are not directly related to their majors, my Venture Grant in Bolivia provided the first set of data for my senior thesis with the Department of Organismal Biology and Ecology.
The idea first came from Assistant Professor Rachel Jabaily when she heard I would be travelling in Bolivia before my semester abroad program in Chile. There is a species of plant in Bolivia that is endangered, but not well studied, she explained. The species, Puya raimondii, lives at high elevations (11,000 to 14,000 feet) in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia. She suggested that I could gain unique and valuable field research experience by collecting basic data from these plants.
After a little background research and a few emails to Jabaily’s Bolivian colleagues, I decided I would spend a few days of my independent travel time collecting size and reproductive category data on P. raimondii. One day of data collection would be with my dad, who was travelling with me for two weeks, and the other four days I would be accompanied by Bolivian botanist Carolina García Linowho studied P. raimondiifor her undergraduate thesis.
My dad and I travelled around southern Peru and Bolivia for almost two weeks before starting on the data collection, which ended up providing valuable acclimatization time. Hiking off-trail across rocky hills at 13,000 feet was not easy, even after those two weeks. The first data day took place a few hours outside of La Paz, where we easily found the P. raimondiiwith the help of Bolivian graduate students. Fueled by llama chicharrones (fried llama meat) and cookies, I was able to collect data from 40 individual plants.
A week after the first data day, my dad returned home, and I travelled to Cochabamba to convene with García Linoand her husband and new baby. We met in a hotel to plan our data collection and decided to rent a car and stay overnight in the little towns in the area known to have P. raimondii. Although I had a list of GPS coordinates of Puya locations, we spent the first day driving, searching for plants, and not finding any. The area was very rural with patchy cell phone coverage, and locals were suspicious of outsiders. After a day and a half of driving and not seeing a single Puya, we finally found ourselves in the Municipalidad de Vacas, where Bolivia’s largest Puya population lives. Data collection went smoothly from there, despite the rainy weather. After a day and a half of measuring Puya, I had enough data to head back to Cochabamba. Working in Bolivia was quite successful, but there is always room for improvement with methods, and a potential to have more data. In October, I will travel to Colombia, this time with Jabaily, to collect the same types of data in different species of Puya, with the goal of comparing reproductive data for the different species.