Research in collaboration with community in Aruba

Aruba Field Research is a community-oriented multidisciplinary programme in collaboration with University of Aruba. Currently a Double Master’s student in Environmental Sciences and Biology in Wageningen, Mirre Stevens joined the programme during her Bachelor’s study at University College Utrecht. In this interview she tells what made the empirical research in Aruba so special for her. 

Why did you choose for the Aruba Field Research programme?

I chose it first of all because I wanted to explore whether or not research was for me. I had always been very interested in many different topics, but I felt that a "traditional" University College Utrecht thesis within the Science department was not the best way for me to explore the entire research process and truly figure out if I wanted to become a researcher. I also really wanted to complete a research project with an impact: to answer a scientific question that would matter to a larger group of people than just those in my field of study.  The Aruba programme was a great match. It gave me the opportunity to do research more independently than in an ongoing research group. Next to that, I also learned about theories and practices such as Community Based Research that explicitly links communities, society and researchers. 

What did you do in Aruba?

I looked at the impact of off-road vehicles on landscape functionality by focusing on vegetation organisation and soil quality. I spoke with multiple stakeholders and took the preparatory course about the local context prior to the trip. Eventually, I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on the topic, with the data collected in Aruba. 

Could you describe your collaboration with the local community? What did you gain from it?

The collaboration with the local community was extensive and complex in the sense that the community is not just one body. I collaborated with a multitude of stakeholders in Aruba: the University of Aruba, officials from the local government in various departments, local NGO's, the national park management and research co-ordinators, people involved in the tourism business, and locals with a passion for the environment outside of any institutes. I first listened to their expertise on the topics and used that to find the major questions of interests, as they had knowledge not found in academic literature. What I gained from the collaboration is exactly the awareness that there is a whole world outside of academic literature, and that that world is just as knowledgeable if not more so than academia. But the real reward of the programme is also in many small things that I learned unconsciously. My self-confidence as a researcher grew tremendously in this process, and it made clear to me that I wanted to continue down that road. 

What was your biggest surprise?

My independent position. I realised that I was solely responsible for whatever I worked out. I had supervisors, but in Aruba I was the final expert because I was in the field and made the observations. I was also surprised by how much people were willing to collaborate (and also sometimes not) out of interest in the conclusions, and how political the whole research world is. Finally, my own capacity to work in that environment came to me as a surprise as well. 

How do you use this experience in your further studies?

The confidence I gained - as cheesy as that sounds – is the real profit. The ability to follow my curiosity into new knowledge and new opportunities, as well as the exposure to both methods and ways of thinking that are essential in doing research projects later on. I am much more aware of where opportunities lie, and have chosen to continue at a university where my studies will provide similar research opportunities. I also use the experience of telling about my research to non-academic audiences. 

To whom would you recommend this programme?

To any student who wishes to do an independent research project, and I mean it exactly as broad as it sounds. I think it is especially fit for Earth & Environment and Biology students with an interest in ecology, as they are likely to find matching topics in Aruba. But any student who wants to learn more about the entire research process would enjoy the programme.