May 10, 2017 | Matt Kucinski

Joel Betts doing field work in Puerto Rico at Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research Station.

Joel Betts (Lowell, Mich.), graduated from Calvin College in 2014 with majors in biology and international development studies. He also minored in environmental studies and chemistry. Now, Betts is in the Fisheries and Wildlife graduate program at Michigan State University. He was recently awarded a U.S. Student Fulbright Award for Nicaragua, joining Calvin history professor Bruce Berglund and senior education major Micah Warners as recipients of scholarships through the Fulbright Program this year.

We asked Betts about what he’ll be doing with the scholarship, why he’s passionate about this work and the role Calvin played in his preparation.

What will you be doing with your Fulbright Scholarship?

I will be working on rivers in the biological reserves in the rain forest in Southeast Nicaragua. My research will investigate the impacts of a rapidly advancing agricultural frontier and a recent hurricane on river resources in the Rama-Kriol Indigenous territory. Illegal deforestation, settlement and fishing have started to degrade water quality and fisheries in the region’s rivers, to the detriment of the food security of the Rama-Kriol people. The recent Hurricane Otto has made these impacts worse. The fish and shrimp in these river systems are a critical protein source for these indigenous communities, and the river ecosystems are important to regional biodiversity.

What’s the goal of your research?

My goal is to assess the extent of agricultural and hurricane-induced forest loss in the Rama-Kriol territory via satellite imagery and document the responses of stream macroinvertebrate, shrimp and fish populations to these disturbances via sampling in the field. I plan to communicate my results to our partners in Rama-Kriol communities and the local government, universities and non-profits. I hope that my results can be used as evidence in conservation planning, advocacy and fundraising efforts in order to improve food security and aquatic resource protection in the Rama-Kriol territory.

Why are you passionate about this work?

I am passionate about this work on many levels. It is connected to major global issues that I believe are most pressing, and hope to work on throughout my career—from ecological conservation and climate change to political corruption, indigenous rights and food security.

This region is one of the most well-preserved rainforests in Central America, with very high biodiversity and incredible carbon sink potential (mediates climate change). I hope that our work can be a part of the broader effort to conserve it. The people who live there are facing injustice as their forests are being cut down and settled illegally and their natural resources depleted, while they receive minimal help from uninvolved and sometimes corrupt authorities. I hope our research will serve as evidence (in advocacy efforts) for how this is impacting their livelihoods directly.

I also care about this work because of my fascination with stream ecosystems, a love for cross-cultural work (especially in Latin America), and a desire to learn from different ecosystems and different people’s ways of life.

What role did Calvin College play in you discovering this passion?

When I started at Calvin, I came in with interests in environmental biology and faith-based missions. My experience in both the international development and biology programs at Calvin helped me realize that my desire to make a difference in the world could be very compatible with my love for nature, and that missions are not the best way for most people (me included) to make a positive difference internationally. Classes and study abroad experiences in international development and biology at Calvin not only equipped me with the knowledge and skills to be a better practitioner in this field, but with many of the perspectives that drive and motivate me in this work.

How did your research experience at Calvin contribute to your success now?

Without undergraduate research experiences with professors (Dornbos, Warners and Van Dragt) in the biology department, as well as with Dr. Mahan at the Au Sable Institute, I would not have had the skills or experience needed to get into jobs post-Calvin, a graduate position with Dr. Urquhart in the Fisheries and Wildlife program at MSU, or to be qualified for the Fulbright program. I am so thankful for these professors’ mentorship and all the time and energy they invested in me through my research internships and class projects. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to do my current research through the Fulbright without the help from Dr. Jerry Urquhart, my advisor at MSU, or Dr. Chris Jordan, our main partner in Nicaragua. I am very thankful to these two as well.

How important is your liberal arts foundation to your current work?

I am very glad to have had the broad educational background that Calvin provides. Work in the field of international conservation biology is highly interdisciplinary. Background in history, sociology, policy, religion, language, communication and technology, in addition to the discipline-specific background (environmental biology and international development) is very helpful and even essential in order to better see the whole picture. I think every core class I took at Calvin will help me in some way to be a better conservation biologist.

What are you hoping to do after you get done with your masters?

I hope to continue to work in the area of aquatic ecosystem conservation, whether it is with a non-profit, university, government agency or private contractor. Ideally, I could keep working on forest and stream conservation in Latin America. But I would love to work in the Great Lakes region also.

Joel Betts doing field work in Nicaragua in summer 2016.

Joel Betts doing field work in Puerto Rico.

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