Frog researcher named Fulbright scholar

Biological sciences Ph.D. student Michelle Thompson has been granted a 2014-2015 Fulbright U.S. Student Award.

In September, Thompson will travel to Costa Rica to conduct research on amphibian and reptile community composition in the country’s tropical lowland forests. She will also serve as a cultural ambassador, helping to enhance mutual understanding between Americans and the people in Costa Rica.

“It feels amazing to receive this research grant. I honestly jumped out of my chair when I found out,” Thompson said. “I had just arrived to La Selva Biological Station and had sat down with my laptop to catch up on emails. I saw the email from the scholarship board and started dancing. I was elated.”

Thompson holds a frog in Costa Rica.

Thompson holds a masked treefrog in San Vito de Coto Brus, Costa Rica.

This is the fifth time the herpetologist (someone who studies amphibians and reptiles) will visit the Central American country. Thompson has traveled there twice through study abroad programs as an undergraduate and graduate student. She most recently went in April to conduct a pilot study to test the methodologies for her upcoming research, which will serve as the basis of her doctoral dissertation.

Thompson’s dissertation focuses on how amphibians and reptiles respond to habitat change, particularly on secondary forest regrowing on land that used to be pastures. Secondary forests are increasingly becoming the dominant type of forests, particularly in the region, yet, the value of these forests to fauna is poorly understood.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program provides grants for individually designed study/research projects or for English Teaching Assistant Programs. Fulbright scholars will meet, work, live with and learn from the people of the host country, sharing daily experiences. The program facilitates cultural exchange through direct interaction on an individual basis in the classroom, field and home, allowing the scholar to gain an appreciation of others’ viewpoints and beliefs, the way they do things, and the way they think.

“The point isn’t to just go to another country, gather data and leave, it is to interact with people of a completely different culture and learn from each other,” Thompson said. “The part of my Fulbright research grant activities that embraces cultural exchange is to help build scientific capacity with Costa Rican students by volunteering to work with local school children.”

Originally from Los Angeles, CA, Thomspon earned a bachelor’s degree in ecology behavior and evolution from the University of California, San Diego and a master’s degree in ecology and systematic biology from San Francisco State University. She credits an undergraduate field course that required her to sample lizards and other reptile species with first exposing her to these animals.

“I find frogs and reptiles to be very interesting. They’re so understudied. There’s great opportunity to do research and find new things,” Thompson said. “Not only is studying them important because we rely on them for all types of ecosystems services, but it’s a responsibility of ours to care for and conserve our biodiversity. To develop successful conservation initiatives for amphibians and reptiles, it is important that we understand how these species respond to changes in the environment, which is a major focus of my dissertation research.”