Lessons from the desert

July 8, 2022


It’s tough to get the feeling of the desert in the humid, wooded area just north of the James River that University of Richmond calls home. But put a small, furry Merriam’s kangaroo rat in a student’s hand in the Sonoran Desert in California, and that all changes.

Biology professor Carrie Wu decided to take her desert ecology students on a trip to explore the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California and Arizona to experience the desert first-hand.

“Learning in nature boosts feelings of scientific competence and has been shown to foster a sense of belonging and community, key factors that help retain diversity in STEM fields,” Wu said.

Her students spent a week this past spring trekking through the desert conducting field-based research, meeting scientists in their element, and experiencing the different plants and wildlife they spent the semester studying.

“Immersive field experiences like this trip fully engage students with new ecological environments, while fostering a sense of belonging and building community,” she said.

Matthew Strange, a recent graduate, had studied biology throughout his time at the University of Richmond, but had never experienced a desert in person.

“The big takeaway was that deserts are not lifeless bowls of dust and sand,Strange said. “They are incredibly diverse environments that are teeming with life. It was amazing to experience firsthand just how spectacular and lively deserts could be. From salt flats to forests of saguaro cacti, sand dunes to lush oases, I found myself constantly dumbfounded by the wonders of the desert.”

Throughout the trip, the 15 students and two faculty members piled into passenger vans and traversed nearly 1,500 miles from desert to desert. The trip included a visit to Death Valley to explore the Badwater Basin. The group also traveled to the Amargosa River and the Mojave National Preserve, stopped in the Kelso Dunes, visited Joshua Tree National Park, and explored the Coachella Valley. The class then made the drive to Tucson, Arizona, and spent the final day exploring Saguaro National Park. Each stop included a research project, including studying micro-habitats, removing invasive species, and getting to know the local species. 

“The week out West was one of the most impactful and genuinely pleasurable experiences of my life thus far,” Strange said. “We visited a highly diverse array of inspiringly beautiful natural spaces in a relatively short amount of time. This concentrated experience felt like a whirlwind of learning, exploration, and good old-fashioned fun, the memories and lessons from which will stay with me for the rest of my life.”