Ha Nguyen, MS candidate

Conservation Biology

Studying Trillium in Bat Cave Preserve

Ha N. Nguyen, a master's student in environmental studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE), spent the last three springs in North Carolina's Bat Cave Preserve, working on the "Wine-Red" Floral Guild Project. As a research assistant, Ha is comparing the flowering phenology, breeding system and pollination of two trillium species, Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum Small, red) and Southern Nodding Trillium (Trillium rugelii Rendle, white). Both species are found in the Bat Cave Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy.

Southern Nodding Trillium has a sweet scent and attracts bees. Sweet Betsy, on the other hand, is one of the wine-red guild of flowers, which, unlike most spring-blooming flowers in the southeastern United States, smells like sweet, fermenting fruit. It attracts flies and beetles that feed on fermenting starches and sugars. The project's goal is to learn more about whether Sweet Betsy is part of a floral guild whose components exhibit a floral syndrome that is functionally specialized and ecologically generalized, attracting a range of atypical floral visitors.

Dr. Peter Palmiotto, core faculty in AUNE's Department of Environmental Studies, is a principal investigator on the project along with Dr. Robert A. Raguso of Cornell University and Dr. Amy Boyd of Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. Ha will spend this spring semester doing an internship with Raguso, a professor of neurobiology and behavior.

Ha comes back to the AUNE campus for classes in summer and fall. Here, she works in a small laboratory she set up, identifying the insects collected in the spring. “I just love the work and what I'm doing,“ Ha said. “I like the support of the teachers. They have a lot of interest in the students.“

The AUNE-Vietnam Connection

It's a long way to Bat Cave Preserve from Vietnam, Ha's home. She was an assistant in the botany-ecology laboratory of the University of Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008 when Dr. Michelle Zjhra, then an AUNE associate professor and a Fulbright scholar, arrived in Vietnam to work on faculty development. Zjhra also showed the staff at the laboratory in which Ha worked how to maintain the herbarium. During a field trip with Zjhra, Ha talked about her interest in pollinator ecology, pollinator-plant interaction and medicinal plants. Ha also took a class with Zjhra's husband, Dr. James Hutcheon, while in Vietnam.

Zjhra and Ha stayed in touch and, back in the United States, Zjhra emailed Ha an offer to be a research assistant on the trillium research project, funded by the National Science Foundation. Ha says she was lucky-her undergraduate coursework was finished and she would be able to use the research work in her thesis. She was accepted into AUNE's program and, in early 2009, arrived in Florida for a month of training on researching pollinators of the trillium. Her first AUNE course was a practicum at Bat Cave; she returned to Vietnam that summer to finish her undergraduate degree, then came back to AUNE in the fall.

“When I came here at first, there were a lot of new experiences, especially because the education system is a little different,“ Ha said. In Vietnam, classes are large and professors are few-there is steep competition for the professors' attention.

Next: a Pollination Ecology Lab in Vietnam

Ha plans to spend another year on the project and graduate in May 2012. Then, she said, “I really want to get a PhD in pollination ecology and bring what I have learned to Vietnam. We didn't have a major like that, and it will be great if I can develop a laboratory that specializes in pollination ecology. I also want to create a friendly environment for eager students, especially females who want to advance their studies, and furthermore, to help them experience what I am learning now.“

“I'm the luckiest girl in the world, because everything is just right at the same time. It's a wonderful experience and I really want to bring this type of education back to Vietnam.“

“When I was a child, my mom got me some interesting books on nature and adventure books related to nature-I loved to read,“ Ha said. She discovered in high school that she loved biology. “I just follow what I like, and I think I am lucky because I met a lot of people who guided me around and I was inspired by them.“