Labouisse prize winner hopes to 'cross-pollinate' with her research

Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- As an ecology and evolutionary biology major, senior Elizabeth Bernier has had a long-standing interest in insects and pollination. As the winner of this year's Henry Richardson Labouisse '26 Prize, she will have a chance to carry out some cross-pollination of her own.

Elizabeth Bernier


Bernier will travel to the Peruvian Andes for a year to study traditional organic farming and conservation issues in small indigenous communities. Her hope is not only to conduct research that helps the Andean farmers, but also to return to the United States with data that will be useful to North American farmers and conservationists.

"I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned in terms of how we do agriculture here," she said. Bernier also plans to help teach children in Peru about local ecology, wildlife conservation and other environmental matters.

The Labouisse fellowship is an annual award that supports research in developing countries by a graduating senior or a first-year alumnus or alumna who intends to pursue a career devoted to problems of development and modernization. The fellowship provides $25,000 in funding for a yearlong project.

Bernier traces her interest in ecology and the environment to her childhood in Los Angeles. "Ever since I was little, I was always psyched about all those books like '50 Ways to Save the Earth,'" she said.

But her resolve to become involved scientifically did not sharpen until she came to Princeton and took a freshman seminar, "Sustainable Development and the Environment," from Richard Golden, now retired associate dean of the engineering school.

"I kept coming to him with these stories I had read about awful things happening in the world and he would just say, 'Show me the data,'" she recalled. "And that was it. I had nothing more to say."

In many ways, Bernier has been looking for the data ever since.

She spent part of the summer between her sophomore and junior years, as well as the following spring break, studying wildlife conservation in Belize under a research fellowship she won from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. That same summer Bernier studied the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on plants and insects in waterside ecosystems under a National Science Foundation fellowship at the University of Michigan Biological Research Station. As a junior, she spent the spring semester in Panama working on research projects under faculty members Martin Wikelski and Stephen Pacala.

Her most rigorous research experience came last summer when she gathered data for her senior thesis, a project with assistant professor Claire Kremen to examine the population distribution of pollinating bees. The work was partially funded by a two-year grant Bernier won from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and a grant from the Princeton Environmental Institute. The research required creating identical bee-attracting conditions in different locations, so Bernier grew 240 sunflower plants in pots, rented a trailer and hauled them every day to locations near Highway 16 about an hour outside Davis, Calif.

She then spent the day riding a bike back and forth between different sunflower clumps counting bees for three minutes at a time. "It turned out to be a lot more involved than I thought," she said. "I had some long days."

Her Labouisse research in Peru may involve long days as well, but she will be able to draw on experience traveling to Mexico and Belize during her sophomore and junior summers with Princeton Projects in the International Community. While they were not research projects, those trips gave her hands-on experience helping to build a school, working in a national park and teaching children. Bernier credits faculty members Henry Horn and Simon Levin with helping her become involved in so many projects.

As she looks to the year ahead, Bernier knows she will need more trusted advisers. She already has been helped by a Latin American organization called the Center of Investigation, Education and Development, which has agreed to provide her with guidance and logistical support. "They have been very accommodating," she said.

"When I was applying (for the Labouisse fellowship), I didn't let myself get excited," she said. After she won, the immediate thrill soon began to be tempered by the thought of making all the necessary arrangements. "I am still definitely excited, but I realize that there will be a lot of challenges," she said.

In Peru, Bernier, who speaks Spanish, expects to select a village in which her supporting organization already has a presence and spend a few months working in and learning about the community. Based on what she learns about what the farmers need, she then plans to develop research projects to provide them information about such issues as soil fertility, erosion, pests and pollination. At the same time, she plans to teach children about conservation issues and the environment.

Ultimately, Bernier plans to return to school to pursue a Ph.D. in conservation biology, then work in international conservation and eventually teach. In the meantime, however, she said she is eager simply to work in the field and "do something really on the ground."


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