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NMSU biology Regents professor to lead Sundt seminar students on Hawaii research trip

Many New Mexico State University students will probably spend their spring break next year in some tropical location, enjoying the sun and sand. One class of honors students will travel to Hawaii ? not to bask in the tropical climate, but to learn about how changes to that climate are affecting corals and the other species that make up the island ecosystem.

Portrait of woman next to fish tank
New Mexico State University biology Regents Professor Michele Nishiguchi was recently named to the William Conroy Honors College?s M. Eugene Sundt Professorship. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

NMSU biology Regents Professor Michele Nishiguchi, who was recently named to the William Conroy Honors College?s M. Eugene Sundt Professorship, will take 14 undergraduate students on a field trip to a University of Hawaii research station on a tiny Hawaiian island to learn about the effects of climate change on corals, as well as the policies of managing protected marine reserves and the use of those reserves for education and training in both cultural and natural resource sustainability for local communities.

?The students will see that natural resources such as coral reefs are not only important biological communities that sustain countless numbers of species,? Nishiguchi said, ?but that they also provide income through tourism and preserve the natural history of the Native Hawaiian culture.?

Nishiguchi?s Sundt Honors Seminar course will combine lectures here on campus with hands-on field experiences and interaction with Hawaiian community organizations, she said, providing exposure to students regarding biologically important processes that are driving climate change and thus affecting coral reefs and their communities. Students will learn about the role of coral reefs in the larger ecosystem and will each conduct their own individualized research project, which will be presented at the annual spring Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium next year.

?Coral reefs are one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world today,? Nishiguchi said. ?Because of climate change, we?re losing those ecosystems in a very quick way. Students are going to be involved in not just doing scientific research, but trying to see the impact of how, if we lose our corals, that?s going to impact tourism and the cultural economic status of the nonprofit organizations that are trying to increase diversity of the natural resources.?

Part of the research the students will work on involves community outreach and education of the local population, she said.

?The students are going to be able to see what their little bit of research does, and how it involves the community and economy,? Nishiguchi added.

The Sundt Professorship was established to support the development of exceptional and innovative teaching ideas, and to foster unique, experience-based classes in the Honors College. Funded by the Sundt estate, the endowment permits the Honors College to appoint a Sundt professor for a two-year term.

?Experiential learning opportunities such as the Sundt seminar offer students unparalleled opportunities for growth, and will broaden their horizons as they visit the tropical coral reef setting,? said Miriam Chaiken, dean of the Honors College. ?Many of the participants will experience their first trip to an exotic location, all made possible from the generosity of Eugene Sundt and his family. We are very excited to be able to offer this amazing opportunity to students in the Conroy Honors College.?

Previous recipients of the Sundt Professorship include Rani Alexander, whose class studied the collapse and resilience of the Mayan culture in Mexico, and Connie Falk, who traveled to Nicaragua with students to examine environmental challenges in that region.

Applications for the spring 2016 Sundt Honors Seminar will be accepted this fall. For more information about applying, call the Honors College at 575-646-2005.

For more information about Nishiguchi?s NMSU lab and her research on marine symbiosis, visit http://biology-web.nmsu.edu/~nish/index.html. For more information about the William Conroy Honors College and the M. Eugene Sundt Professorship, visit honors.nmsu.edu.