International Collaboration in the Desert: A new Aggie Tradition

Namibia-no box

 By: A-Micah Mills and Tobin Redwine

Texas A&M University is fond of tradition. The old saying goes: if it is done once, it is an accident; twice, a tradition. Henceforth, a new A&M tradition was started this summer – a tradition of traveling 8,000 miles around the world into a sea of sand at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre. From this tradition, an international collaboration was born.

The partnership between the ALEC department and the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre will be on display when Mary Seely, Ph.D., Associate for the centre, will be on campus as a part of the Borlaug Seminar Series. Presented by the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, the series features scientists and researchers with global impacts and experiences. Seely’s seminar will be held in the AGLS 129 on Oct. 25 at noon.

Seely will address her research and implications, and she will also highlight the unique role that ALEC students have played in the collaboration between the department and the centre.

This summer five undergraduate students, two graduate students, and two instructors – traveled to Namibia. Located in southwest Africa, Namibia is a country of geographical diversity ranging from sandy desert dunes of the Namib Desert, to the wet Atlantic coast and almost every ecosystem in between.

Since 2012, the ALEC Namibia Study Abroad participants have spent a portion of their time in at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre. The unique partnership between the centre and the ALEC Department is constantly evolving to meet global research needs and foster student achievement.

This past summer was a special experience, because the Namib Desert, where Gobabeb is located, was recently awarded as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site. The prestigious award means the desert is a place of natural and physical significance to the common heritage of humanity on an international level.

“The partnership has been evolving since the start of the program in 2012,” Program Leader Gary Wingenbach, Ph.D., Professor and Senior Scientist for the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, said. “The first group of Aggies in Gobabeb had a specific intent assisting the Centre for their UNESCO World Heritage Site application with a changing mandate for the 2013 group.”

The 2012 group met with scientists, viewed presentations and created posters to help with the UNESCO application. Almost a year later, on June 22, the Namib Desert was certified as a World Heritage site.

The 2012 ALEC students played a crucial role in creating material used in the application. The application is lengthy that must meet a large criteria list, a comprehensive set of paperwork must be submitted through the country of the site and bypass international review committees.

Building on the success from the 2012 trip, this year’s group expanded on that experience.

“Our mandate this summer was to have the students assist of building on Gobabeb’s approved digital archive of flora and fauna,” Wingenbach said. “I suspect that will remain constant for the next 3 years.”

This summer the students had the opportunity to venture into the dunes surrounding the centre and take thousands of pictures of the desert’s natural habitats and occupants. From lizards to plants to sand, the students documented the desert biota with their cameras.

“Being able to leave Gobabeb with a sense of accomplishment was amazing,” said Trotter Heady, senior agricultural communications and journalism student. “As a group we added to a database that will be seen worldwide which is not something many people can say.”

The program is evolving after each passing year, opening up doors and opportunities for students to take an international experience and make it something tangible in America. Wingenbach hopes it will evolve into something more long-term for the students.

“Texas A&M can develop a program out of this where we have medium and long term internships at Gobabeb,” Wingenbach said. “The intent would still be to learn about the lands and people surrounding Gobabeb.”

Next year’s group will dig even deeper to continue fostering the partnership between the ALEC Department and the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre. The partnership is guaranteed for at least another three years with a USDA Higher Education Challenge grant awarded to help fund the program.

“The possibilities for future groups and Gobabeb are limitless. With such a diverse area the future groups could see themselves helping with an array of projects,” Heady said.

The 2014 ALEC Study Abroad to Namibia is currently accepting applications. Students can earn credit during Summer Session II in AGCJ 308, agricultural photography, and ALED 422, cultural pluralism in agriculture. Learn more about previous program experiences here and here.


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