Bernadette Arakwiye, MS candidate

Conservation Biology
"Antioch is bringing more theory to the practical job I was doing in my earlier work. I like to find the connection between what I was doing and what's in the book."

A Role Model for Rwandan Women

It wasn't until Bernadette Arakwiye was in college that she found her love of the outdoors. Bernadette grew up in Kigali, Rwanda's capital and a city of one million people. In her second year of undergraduate study at the National University of Rwanda, in Butare, Rwanda, she went on a field trip to Volcanoes National Park. "I discovered that I liked to be outside and that I like biology," she said. She was hooked, and went on to earn a degree in zoology and conservation.

"At first my family said, 'Why? Why do you want to go into the forest?' " Bernadette said. "I said 'I like it, and I'm really good in my class, and I enjoy outside activities. It's fun, like an adventure.' When they saw that I'm really interested, they started to support me."

Bernadette graduated in 2009 at the top of her class and the top female in the faculty of science. She immediately went to work for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International at the Karisoke Research Center in Volcanoes National Park, where she had studied the endangered golden monkey for her undergraduate thesis, and continued her research there.

The work led to an invitation to present a poster at the annual conference of the International Primatological Society in Kyoto, Japan. She also attended training in tropical biodiversity conservation in Madagascar sponsored by the Tropical Biology Association. At both events, she met and talked with primatologists from many countries.

In 2010, as one of only two women working on the Virunga Massif census of the endangered mountain gorilla, Bernadette was the assistant leader of a team of twelve people. The census covered three countries—Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda—and demanded twelve-hour days slogging through thick forest. But the results of the census found that the mountain gorilla population had grown by more than twenty-five percent since the previous count in 2003.

Connecting the Theoretical and the Practical

Bernadette had often worked with Beth Kaplin, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE), and her advisor at NUR, where Beth is a lecturer. She also helped Bernadette with her thesis research at Karisoke.

Bernadette had bigger plans. "I wanted to do more than just collect data—I wanted to publish and do other things," she said. "So I thought a graduate program would help me in improving my science skills." Beth steered Bernadette toward the master's program in conservation biology at AUNE, and Bernadette found that the program fits what she wants to do. "Antioch is bringing more theory to the practical job I was doing in my earlier work," she said. "I like to find the connection between what I was doing and what's in the book."

"I read a lot—we don't have many such resources in Rwanda—and we write a lot, a useful skill for a scientist. I'm also able to connect with other scientists and make useful contacts." She likes the quiet atmosphere of Keene and that the town is surrounded by "wild places."

Her AUNE education is supported by the Philanthropic Educational Organization International Peace Scholarship, a U.S. organization that helps international women in graduate studies; an AUNE Jonathan Daniels scholarship; and a private, anonymous Fossey Fund donor.

Plants and GIS

Animals were Bernadette's first interest. "Now I'm thinking of learning more about plants, because they are all linked and it's a big ecosystem." She also wants to know more about geographic information systems (GIS) and how they can be used in the field of ecology besides mapping. She's taking a GIS class this semester and in the summer will intern with Conservation International in Arlington, Virginia, working on a project that includes GIS technology. And she hopes to present a paper on her golden monkey research in August, at the International Primatological Society's twenty-fourth Congress, in Mexico.

When she finishes at AUNE, she plans to return to Rwanda. "I still want my job in research, but I would also like to teach in a university, like Beth does, in Rwanda. That's my dream."

In addition to teaching and research, Bernadette will serve as a role model. "These days, there are more women going into the biology program, but there are still few that consider staying in that domain, because they become wives and then they quit or get an easier job," she said. "I think we need to change that."

Read more about Beth Kaplin's work in Rwanda here.

Read more about Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International here.

--February 2012