by Supplied

Alice Cao learns a whole new world through Biology

A unique research trip has given Year 12 student Alice Cao an insight into the ecological systems of lakes in Africa.

The 2018 New Zealand International Biology Olympiad (IBO) team was made up of: Alice Cao (St Paul’s Collegiate School), Joyce Chan (Macleans College), Yang Fan Yun (Macleans College), Alex Pentchev (ASG), and Trulani van der Heyde (Tawa College). The team was led by Shawn Cooper (Avondale College) and Penelope Daddy (Nga Tawa School). The decision was made that the NZIBO team would not compete in the IBO in Iran. Instead they explored a unique international research experience in partnership with Operation Wallacea (OPWAL). This meant that these top scholars had the opportunity to participate in an international scientific collaboration and enjoy new culturally rich experiences, consistent with IBO. OPWAL delivered in every way!

Departing from New Zealand on 9th July, the team travelled via the intensely hot and dry Doha, Qatar to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. A short flight the next morning saw them fly directly over the Great Rift Valley to Mbeya where they boarded a bus which drove them through the highlands of Tanzania to their terrestrial research site based at Kisiba School. The school grounds were perched above an ancient crater lake in the Mbeya Region of Tanzania called Missoko. Virtually unvisited by outsiders, the lush environment of Kisiba provided a world of discovery. The primary goal of the expedition was to characterise the abiotic factors of the lake and explore species of fish living at depth using a remote operated vehicle. As the lake was also used by locals for washing and bathing, the team also examined the macroinvertebrate populations on each side of the lake to get an indication of overall water quality. The team was delighted to find that they had likely discovered a new species of cichlid in the local lake.

Staying at the school provided a rich cultural experience. Most mornings, the team awoke to students who had arrived early to tidy up the school grounds before the 7.30am start. Students followed an English curriculum in very traditional classrooms with rows of desks, blackboards and no modern technologies. Penny and Shawn took up the opportunity to teach a few lessons to the senior Biology class, first in a chalk and talk style to explain the team’s research goals, then with a portable projector and internet hotspot. With the help of a few videos, they explained the evolutionary connections between New Zealand and Tanzania and how evolutionary processes produced the unique animals like the Kiwi and Kea before sharing videos of the All Black’s haka, traditional Poi and Royal Family hip hop dancing.

The final morning ceremony featured a beautiful solo of Pokarekare Ana by Joyce and saw the team present gifts of appreciation (stationery and sports balls) to the school. In response, the whole school sang their joyous school song in perfect harmony, bringing tears to the team’s eyes.

The team then went to Nkhata Bay in Malawi. Views from the Rift Valley ridges to the clear blue waters of Lake Malawi were spectacular. Trulani, Alex, Yang Fan, Joyce and Shawn started with a full day of scuba diving theory, while Alice and Penny got straight into honing their cichlid identification skills to prepare for transect surveying. The dive instructor, Stephanie and dive master, Bethany were impressed by the skills and confidence of the team and signed off their PADI Open Water certification. Learning to dive amongst schools of fish was incredible. Snorkelling was even more spectacular, allowing the team to appreciate the diversity and abundance of cichlids, primarily the product of sympatric speciation processes in the lake. Evening and afternoon lectures provided information about the Rift Valley, fish behaviour, fishing sustainability practices and conservation. Visiting the local fish market and playing volleyball and football with local children provided an insight into life for villagers in Nkhata Bay.

The conclusion of the trip involved a two-night stay in Liwonde National Park, just beyond the southern tip of Lake Malawi. Driving through the park, the team’s safari featured kudu, baboons, antelope, and herds of wild elephants in the distance. Yet nothing could prepare them for the cheetah that they saw, minutes after taking down a waterbuck. After lunch, the team boarded a boat and headed up the Shire River to see what they could find. Hippos, egrets, crocs and various other birds fed on the fish and reeds along the river. It wasn’t until just before sunset that two juvenile male elephants finally made their appearance along the riverbank. Such a spectacular sight to conclude their day on safari.

In summary, serving as OPWAL volunteers on the Great Rift Valley Expedition provided so many rewards for the team. The trip stimulated genuine curiosity and wonder as they experienced the living world up close and personal, reminding them what biology is all about. Tanzania and Malawi were rich with culture – and although they had limited time with the locals, walking amidst sustenance farms and seeing small scale fishing operations provided insight into diverse ways of life and the personal and global responsibility we have. The NZIBO international experience is always life-changing for our students.

More on Alice's story can be viewed here.