Goessel college student spends most of summer in Mexican rainforest

Ben Wiens, a Bethel College senior biology major from Goessel, displays a bat he studied during a summer science internship at Chiapas University of Sciences and Arts, and relationship the Bethel College is pursuing with the school in southern Mexico.
Ben Wiens, a Bethel College senior biology major from Goessel, displays a bat he studied during a summer science internship at Chiapas University of Sciences and Arts, and relationship the Bethel College is pursuing with the school in southern Mexico.
As Bethel College moves toward a more formal relationship with a university in southern Mexico, one student has already gotten a head start on the exchange.

Ben Wiens, a senior biology major from Goessel, spent the better part of his summer in a science internship at Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas (Chiapas University of Sciences and Arts), or UNICACH.

Bethel’s connection to the university originated with Francisca Méndez-Harcle­rode, associate professor of biology.

Méndez-Harclerode spent her recent sabbatical developing a biology field and travel course. A native of Mexico, she wants students not only to learn science and biology in natural settings that can’t be found in the United States, but also to experience the complexity and variety of Mexico that most U.S. citizens miss.

“It is easy to overlook Mexico’s richness and have a one-dimensional view that focuses exclusively on social disparity, violence and poverty,” she said.

Sergio Lopez, professor of evolutionary ecology, and Juan Carlos Najera, a professor of public health, visited Bethel last spring, and that’s where Wiens’ idea began to grow.

“I was trying to figure out what I could do for the summer,” he said.

The more he learned about UNICACH, the more he realized it might be the place for him.

“It’s a bigger university, with master’s and doctoral programs, and more equipment for research,” Wiens said. “And I would be able to set up several different projects, not just one—that was a draw.”

Méndez-Harclerode said: “Ben was grasping for a different awareness of what to do in biology. He doesn’t have a drive like some of his friends for specific (areas or careers), such as veterinary medicine. He’s trying to decide on his options.”

Wiens contributed to three major projects. One involved extracting plant DNA for analysis and study, with the possible end of identifying a new species of palm.

Another required trapping bats in two different locations to make biological comparisons.

A third had him working on a field guide—taking photos and making notes—to the plants in a biology reserve that also caters to tourists.

Overall, it was a valuable summer, Wiens said.

Although there were problems with having multiple projects, that was one of the things he appreciated most.

“It helped me get experience while also learning about what work I liked and didn’t like,” he said.

Méndez-Harclerode said, “Ben discovered he is interested in organismal and field biology, but he also did well in the lab,”

Wiens said, “I really enjoyed the work I did with the genetics in the lab, but I think that (kind of) work can be done in labs in a variety of locations. And I appreciated the work I did in the herbarium in that I learned I didn’t like it.

“I would not change my experiences doing field work in the rainforest. It was definitely worthwhile, especially since there is nothing like that in the United States.”