Chanchanok Sudta was recently named one of three Neville Schulman Earthwatch Award winners for 2022-2023. The doctoral student, who works in Lee Dyer’s lab, received a £4000, roughly $4600, grant for her research proposal involving students in rural Thailand.
Earthwatch, founded in 1971, pairs scientists with non-scientists in research locations to get people involved in citizen science. Earthwatch’s larger goals are to get people excited about science, which is exactly what Sudta’s project is poised to accomplish. Most of the award money will go toward travel expenses, and Sudta will likely use the rest to purchase equipment for the classroom lessons.
Sudta has been doing work with Earthwatch for several years, escorting people around field sites and teaching them about how the science works, even traveling to Costa Rica for one, though much of her travel and research was interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sudta’s research focuses on the interactions between caterpillars and their host plants, particularly whether certain caterpillars are generalists or specialists when it comes to plant-pickiness.
Sudta applied for the Earthwatch award with a proposal to bring caterpillar ecology research back to Thailand. Sudta’s parents are both teachers at different schools in Thailand, where Sudta is from. Schools in rural Thailand are small, but there are only a few teachers to teach many different subjects. The small schools provide a good opportunity, however, for Sudta to go to classrooms and teach the students about caterpillars for a week. Sudta plans to teach the children about the life cycle of caterpillars and how they metamorphosize, how they interact with their host plants and why some of them are picky eaters.
Sudta said that educating young children about ecology and conservation is important. In Thailand, there is not a great emphasis on protecting species. Sudta said that many Thai people in her hometown rely on subsistence agriculture, so killing species perceived as pests is a priority and pesticides are used widely, just as they are in the U.S.
Sudta’s family was primarily supported by her parent’s teacher salaries, so farming was less critical for her family, and they didn’t use pesticides. Sudta said that her neighbors who used pesticides became sick from using the harsh chemicals so heavily to protect their crops, but the parasitoids that affect caterpillars and other “pests,” which tend to be larvae, kept the populations under control and mitigated the need for using pesticides in her parent’s garden.
The lesson plans Sudta has developed cater to different age groups. The younger students will help Sudta collect caterpillars by venturing out into the forest and searching for clues of where caterpillars are, like leaves with bites taken out of them and curled up leaves where caterpillars form shelters. The younger students will help Sudta build “zoos” for the caterpillars where they will be fed and raised. Older students will help to “maintain” the zoos, cleaning the caterpillar poop, and taking the caterpillar “portraits” for identification with a camera.
Sudta, who is studying in the U.S. on a scholarship from the Thai government, will return to Thailand after completing her Ph.D. She hopes to continue her caterpillar ecology and conservation research there, but that work can be difficult to find.
“Basic science isn’t really a focus of the government in Thailand. There aren’t a lot of grants supporting basic science. They care more about public health and technology,” she said.
Nonetheless, Sudta plans to help younger students in Thailand view the caterpillars as beneficial, and hopes that sharing this with younger generations will bring changes in Thailand’s ecological perspective.