Parr McQueen, ’19, has always been interested in ecology. “I like learning how organisms interact with outside influences; different animals in the wild react differently to the same thing, and I find that interesting,” he said.

McQueen found that the best way to pursue his passion was through field work. He began field work the summer after his first year, researching how nematodes, or microscopic worms, responded to soil disturbances at Richmond’s East End cemetery. When his research advisor Amy Treonis announced in the fall she would be co-teaching a course on field ecology, offering McQueen another opportunity in field work, this time in Belize, he immediately signed up.

The field ecology course focused on scientific inquiry that occurs outdoors and the techniques used to design and conduct field studies. “We learned a wide range of skills that professionals use every day, and then were able to design our own experiments that we conducted while we were in Belize,” he said. Alongside his classmates, McQueen spent spring break in Belize measuring rainforest biodiversity, conducting field experiments, and learning about the intersection of agriculture and ecosystem function. Upon their return, they developed an interactive map describing their work.

Inspired by his experience in the field ecology course, McQueen wanted to take his hands-on learning one step further by returning to Belize to conduct experiments of his own design. He worked with Treonis to devise a project that would allow him to independently research at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), one of the sites their class visited. 

“My research examines cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest,” he said. “In much of the developing world, forests are being cut down at increasing rates for traditional agriculture, reducing habitat for endangered species and contributing to climate change.” Cacao agroforestry is being explored as a more sustainable method that still provides income to farmers; rather than cutting the forest to the ground, smaller plants are thinned out and large trees are left in place. “While this has been shown to preserve biodiversity by providing habitat for birds and other animals, no work has been done examining the impact on microorganisms, and that’s what I want to study,” McQueen said.

McQueen spent five weeks this summer living at BFREE and working independently in the rainforest to collect soil samples from agroforestry sites, as well as undisturbed rainforest land. Working independently, rather than with an established program meant that he was responsible for everything from securing permits to bring the soil back to the U.S., securing the permission needed to take his samples, and hiring transportation to take him to the sample locations, all without Internet access. “It was very much me forming my own path, and deciding what needed to be done to strengthen my study,” he said.

Now that he’s back in Richmond with his soil samples, McQueen is processing them to extract the nematode worms. “I’ll be looking at the makeup of the nematode communities present in the soils to get an idea of the health of the soil in the agroforestry systems, compared to the health of the undisturbed rainforest,” he said. “We need to know if the cacao agroforestry is impacting the health and biodiversity within the soil, because soil microorganisms carry out important nutrient cycling and decomposition processes that are essential to a fully functioning ecosystem.”

While he appreciated his adventures in the rainforest, McQueen says the most exciting part of his project is happening now, as he waits for the results of his experiments. “We have an idea of what we expect to see, but until you process the data and look at the results, you really don’t know. The intrigue of what we’re going to find is what’s really exciting,” he said.