Science in Action: WKU Biology Professors and Students Helping People on the Other Side of the Globe

What do hypertension, invasive plant species and elephants have in common?

They’re each the focus of ongoing research in Africa, led by three Western Kentucky University biology professors: Nancy Rice, Ph.D.; Michael Stokes, Ph.D; and Bruce Schulte, Ph.D., head of the Biology Department.

More than 8,000 miles from WKU’s Bowling Green campus in Kasigau, Kenya, and South Africa, the research happens throughout the year in villages, on farms and in private nature reserves. And although each study differs in topic and scope, all of the research shares two commonalities: solve pervasive problems and help improve the quality of life in these captivating countries.

Dr. Michael Stokes: Helping the fight against the invasive prickly pear cactus

Trained as a wildlife ecologist, Stokes described his research style as “a jack of all trades. I find what I think are clever projects for students to work on that they can make their own.”

Stokes has worked in South Africa for well over a decade. His experience and connections there helped him start a partnership with faculty from the University of Nairobi, which, around 2004, led to the creation of a field camp in rural southeastern Kenya.

“We used the field camp for several years and brought in a lot of WKU students and paired them with University of Nairobi students on various projects,” he said.

Stokes now spends more time researching in South Africa at Balule Nature Reserve, which is a roughly 6-hour drive from Johannesburg. The preserve encompasses nearly 100,000 acres that are home to a wealth of wildlife and plant species.

WKU Alumnus (MSc Biology) and Wildlife Works scientist Simon Kasaine oversees Chimanga, a local farmer who is grinding chili peppers with a traditional mortar and pestle for chili pepper elephant deterrent fences.

Yet not all of the reserve’s natural residents are welcome. One of the biggest nuisances: the prickly pear cactus, which Stokes said was imported from the Americas as cattle feed.

“It’s spreading all over and you can’t just walk the landscape easily to find and eradicate it—the landscape is full of animal predators, rocky terrain and other challenges,” he said.

A WKU student researcher, under the guidance of Stokes, is using a multispectral sensor—a specialized camera that takes digital video in narrow parts of the spectrum, including infrared—attached to a UAV to fly over test areas in the reserve and map where prickly pear cactus grows.

“They have a very different moisture content than surrounding plants, so we can locate the major outbreaks, then go directly there to deal with them,” Stokes said.

Another student research is tackling a different problem: a decline in large native trees. Stokes said that elephants are often blamed as the culprits, a conclusion that doesn’t quite make sense.

“Elephants have been part of that ecosystem for more than three million years and have co-evolved with these trees,” he said. “Why the decline now?”

Instead, Stokes and his student researcher are focusing on rodent species and what impact they have on emerging seedlings, as well as their seed-related behavior: are they predators, dispersers or a combination of both?

“I had a master’s student just finish his project on that, and he’s now pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Arizona to continue the same project,” Stokes said. “We’ll also have several undergraduate students working on it.”

Although much of his research-related focus is on South Africa, Stokes is in the midst of developing a new internship program in Kenya.

“I’ve done a fair amount of research on the impact that wildlife can have on subsistence farms and I’m working with the head of WKU’s Agriculture Department [Fred DeGraves, Ph.D.]  to create a program through which people can experience daily subsistence farming—carry water 10 kilometers, eat beans every day, experience what it feels like to lose your crops overnight,” he said. “I’ve been interviewing farmers and community leaders, and we’re hoping to roll out the program in the next two years.”

Dr. Nancy Rice: Working to solve high rates of hypertension

Rice, a molecular biologist, began taking students to Kenya in 2009 as part of an international service learning program called Partners in Caring: Medicine in Kenya (PiC:MiK). Through this program, students learn about Kenya, the Kenyan healthcare system and the epidemiology of tropical disease in the classroom, followed by two weeks in Kenya partnering with the community and providing healthcare services in Kasigau.

“Through leading this program in Kenya, we anecdotally recognized a lot of high blood pressure in the community,” she said. “We would hold community meetings and get input about the biggest healthcare needs, and it was always high blood pressure, a lack of equipment to detect it and the lack of medicine from the Ministry of Health to manage it.”

Those discussions prompted Rice to shift her research focus to hypertension and, more specifically, what’s causing it. In 2010, she received a small grant from the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network to begin investigating the epidemiology of high blood pressure in Kasigau. A large part of that work includes identifying a cultural context for the increased rates of hypertension. For example, hypertension factors that are typically observed in Western countries—high cholesterol, smoking, drinking and obesity, for example—don’t occur nearly as much in Kenya, where most residents walk miles each day and don’t drink or smoke.

WKU Alumnus (MSc Biology) and Wildlife Works scientist Simon Kasaine enjoys a day at the Sasenyi primary school with students and Earthwatch volunteers who bring much needed supplies with each team visit.

Instead, a possible link Rice’s lab is investigating is household indoor air pollution. In drawing parallels between pollution and health, research typically focuses on industrial pollution in big cities and countries, which often have the budgets to fund large-scale research studies.

Yet household pollution poses a significant environmental health risk, including for Kenyans, who often burn wood and/or charcoal and cook over the smoke throughout the day.

“We’re trying to link exposure to hypertension and measure how much pollution is really there,” Rice said. “Additionally, environmental factors can cause changes in people’s DNA, and that might be the mechanism that’s leading to this.”

The link between indoor air pollution and hypertension hasn’t yet been established, but that’s the long-term goal. With evidence-backed findings, initiatives like clean cookstoves could be implemented to help Kenyans lower indoor air pollution and, over time, decrease rates of hypertension.

Although the research isn’t yet finished, Rice said small changes are already taking place. The PiC:MiK group, for example, provides some free anti-hypertensive medicine to people in the community.

“There’s a new push by both the World Health Organization and the Kenyan Ministry to make, at least initially, surveillance of high blood pressure a priority in the country,” she said. “I think you’re going to see things changing.”

Dr. Bruce Schulte: Resolving human-elephant conflict while encouraging conservation

Schulte, a behavioral biologist, has studied elephant behavior for more than 20 years. His work has taken him throughout North America, as well as to South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya.

Throughout the last two years, Schulte has been working with Wildlife Works in Kenya to help ease conflict between humans and elephants.

“Elephants are a major raider of crops and can decimate them,” he said. “We started looking at understanding elephant behavior and chemical signaling to try and mediate some of the problems between people and elephants.”

Getting to the root of that understanding requires a multi-faceted approach. Schulte and his student researchers gather data to better understand the elephants and their behavior. At the same time, they’re also conducting experimental trials using crop fields leased from local farmers to test different types of fences as deterrents. Not only does the arrangement give the research team the ability to conduct tightly controlled experiments; it also benefits the farmers.

At our field site in southern Kenya, Dr. Bruce Schulte and recent MSc graduate Lynn Von Hagen mount one of several camera traps that will monitor for wildlife entering crop fields.

“We employ local people as part of the research—they make some money by working with us, then also have the potential benefit of getting some crops out of it,” Schulte said.

Because the research is long-running, Schulte has been able to host a variety of student groups, including American high school students, to assist with the project. Additionally, one of Schulte’s graduate students, Lynn Von Hagen, spent more than two years on the project while completing her master’s degree and is now identifying opportunities to pursue her Ph.D. while staying on the project. With different angles to explore, there’s no shortage of work to be done.

“Student researchers do everything from helping to construct the fences, measuring which plants were damaged and conducting diversity surveys that can help us find indicator species that tell us when elephants are more likely to raid,” Schulte said.

Throughout the course of the work, Schulte and his researchers also encourage conservation. Elephants are less likely to raid crops and go into human areas if the natural habitats are thriving. Yet if the natural areas lack adequate food, the elephants can veer from their travel corridors in search of alternate food sources, often at the devastating expense of farmers.

Bruce Schulte, Ph.D., head of Western Kentucky University’s Biology department, has studied elephants for more than 20 years. He’s currently working with Wildlife Works in Kenya to better understand the needs of people and the science of the elephant to develop comprehensive actions that can help reduce elephant damage to crops.

Even as the research continues, Schulte said one single solution is unlikely, in part because elephants are so smart. He described one deterrent developed by Lucy King, Ph.D., founder of the Elephants and Bees Project, which involves hanging active beehives on wires. The beehives move in response to elephant movement, and the bees emerge from their hives and sting the elephants. Over time, however, elephants may figure out how to knock the hives down or otherwise ‘outsmart’ the deterrent, then, as Schulte explained, pass that knowledge on to other elephants.

Instead, Schulte and his fellow researchers are hoping to better understand the needs of people and the science of the elephant to develop comprehensive actions that can help reduce elephant damage to crops.

Across the miles: the power of community and collaboration

In addition to amassing a wealth of data and knowledge throughout the last several years, Rice, Schulte and Stokes have helped contribute to a partnership that spans universities, colleges, organizations and individuals. That partnership plays a key role in helping Rice, Schulte and Stokes continue their research from afar. And it’s also helped them develop a community that helps ensure each study is rooted in purpose.

“Our work is driven by the community,” Rice said. “Now it’s sustainable and we have a relationship, but the approach has always been, ‘Tell us what you need from us.’”

Added Schulte, “If you try to do these things in a top-down manner, it doesn’t work. We learn from the people in Kenya, and they’re great teachers. We’ll say, ‘Let’s set up the study this way,’ then they’ll tell us why that won’t work. We modify our experiments and designs based on their input.”

The three professors also agree that WKU has played an instrumental role not only in enabling these opportunities, but also supporting them while they juggle work on two continents.

“The school has been very supportive of me going away, even as department head,” Schulte said. “You can’t do this type of work if your home base isn’t behind you, so it’s been very important to me that all the way up to our university president, everyone has been supportive of this research.”

The university’s commitment to encouraging research in Kenya and throughout Africa has also resulted in a wealth of opportunities for data collection, analysis and hands-on learning.

“We have quite an array of African programs, and not just in the sciences,” Stokes said. “Africa is an amazing place as a continent. The opportunities it offers students to do service learning, research and have their eyes opened to what’s going on in the world—it’s a wonderful place to take students. I encourage people to get out of their comfort zones and go there.”