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September 19, 2017

Valdivia, Chile Image

Graduate ASU UREx SRN students seek a holistic understanding of the ecosystem services – such as flood control, water treatment and cultural enrichment – that Valdivia, Chile's urban wetlands provide to residents.

Current research efforts include determining the flood mitigation potential of wetlands by measuring soil and surface water retention through Valdivia's wet and dry seasons, and evaluating how wetlands receive and process nutrients through collecting water samples and conducting nutrient pulse experiments. Future work will involve the final scenarios workshop, as well as distributing surveys to and soliciting "photovoice"-based participatory research from neighborhoods to discern how city residents experience and value their neighborhood wetlands.

Researchers are working with city practitioners, community organizations and unaffiliated citizens in Valdivia to ensure that their results will provide useful support for these groups in planning for their city's future. They hope to export the strategies developed in this work to other UREx SRN cities with similar environments.

Testimonial: Stephen Elser, Graduate UREx Student

Stephen ElserThe most fun part of this research experience has been exploring a new culture and study system. I had never been to South America before this trip or worked in wetlands. While these two facts were initially daunting, it's been a really rewarding experience to work through new challenges in the field, in the lab and while navigating through city life.

My Spanish has also greatly improved with the help of the friendly members of Olga's lab group. We have a communal lunch every day that provides a great opportunity to make friends and practice Spanish in a low-stress environment, not to mention the opportunity to taste lots of tasty Chilean dishes!

As a researcher, I think that this project has helped me become more independent and a more creative problem solver. While I've worked on projects of my own design in the past, I've usually done so in an environment surrounded by mentors and peers to check in with on each step of my work. I've had a safety net, so to speak. While I still have those things in Valdivia, the safety net is smaller. This has forced me to take more responsibilities into my own hands.

Since my line of research is not extensively developed at Universidad Austral (or in the rest of Chile), and resources are limited in general, there are also many fewer physical resources at my disposal in Valdivia (no car for field work, limited lab equipment, no easily accessible deionized water, etc.), which has encouraged me to think of new ways to approach my research.

Testimonial: Jason Sauer, Graduate UREx Student

 Jsaon SauerHonestly, I'm lucky in that most of my research is fun – even when the wetlands are cold and I'm getting rained on and I've just about lost a leg to the wetland muck.

But the most fun part has probably been eating group lunches with Olga’s students. Folks sign up to cook lunch for everyone one day a week (or every other week, depending on how many people are around and interested), so I only bring lunch every so often and I get to eat a wide variety of foods through the week. I did not participate at first because I’m vegan and didn’t want to be a burden, but the students were willing to accommodate with their cooking and invited me to join. In return for their hospitality, I provide the students with keen insights on the few subjects my limited Spanish allows me to speak about, like how it is cold today or how it rained yesterday.

All jokes aside, the students are all kind and funny, and my Spanish language skills and life here have improved greatly because of them.

Working in Valdivia's urban wetlands has, for me, blurred the lines separating urban and natural settings. These wetlands are certainly a more natural setting than, say, the plaza downtown, but they still feel like a proper feature of the city. And the way that scientists and communities organize to protect these urban wetlands and the creatures, like the black-necked swan, that share the wetlands, has made me think about cities being defined by natural features.

So, perhaps the most critical way this project has developed me as a researcher has been making me more aware of alternative trajectories for urban development, and further that city residents may speak out about protecting natural spaces because they are protecting their identities as residents of the cities: Valdivians want to protect the wetlands because the wetlands are Valdivia.