By Laura Kraft
This post is the fourth in the “Travel Bug” series by Laura Kraft, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, who is chronicling her travels in Asia from an entomological perspective. See earlier posts from the series.
Phallin Heang sits down to talk with me about her master’s thesis. The day I meet her is her one-year anniversary of starting graduate school at the Royal University of Phnom Penh; she has just finished the obligatory year of coursework and is about to start on her project. Her goal is to better understand pollinators in Cambodian crops.
Heang will use the skills she learned as an undergraduate working as a lab technician to collect bees and identify their species. Then, she will focus on the ecology of a few species to advise farmers on how to protect these economically important pollinators in their cucumber, pumpkin, and mango crops.
I asked her how she first became interested in entomology. Heang never really thought about being a scientist, and she had no strong interest in insects as a child. It was when she first started working in Sophany Phauk’s lab as an undergraduate that she decided to get a graduate degree in entomology, in order to help improve agricultural practices and knowledge of insects among Cambodians, who currently do not even distinguish between a lady beetle and a weevil in their common names, calling them all simply “beetle.”
In many ways, Heang is a success story of Cambodian Entomology Initiatives (CEI). Phauk is the team leader of CEI. The group received funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2015 to collect leafhopper (Membracoid) pests of rice and to use this research to train new scientists to collect and classify insects. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and Phauk’s lab is as full of students as it is shelves of collected insects from the USAID grant.
CEI claims victories in recent publications of checklists for Cambodia, including a publication of a study of bees (Apoidea) found in Cambodia, with help from Dr. John Ascher from the National University of Singapore. As Phauk explains, these types of collaborations, including others with the Illinois Natural History Survey as well as funding from the National Science Foundation, are critical to the success of CEI as it builds interest in entomology.
If it seems like the research at the university is just starting to come together, it’s true. Unfortunately, Cambodia has suffered a sad history. After a long civil war, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or the Khmer Rouge as it is sometimes called in English, took over in 1975. Within hours, the new government began to evacuate major cities, forcing citizens to abandon homes and jobs to become field laborers in the country. During this time, many citizens were imprisoned and executed for various reasons, including being an intellectual. While history books often talk about the vandalism of temples around the country, they neglect to note the ruination of insect and museum collections as well as entire faculties of universities that once fostered research.
Tentatively, universities such as the Royal University of Phnom Penh, where Phauk works, are slowly moving forward. Professors like Phauk are making headway in reintroducing subjects to university students. For example, Phauk is working on the curriculum for a class devoted to entomology, which he hopes to teach in a few years. In addition, CEI works to send faculty to study molecular genetics in the United States so they can use and teach those technologies in Cambodia, for use in taxonomy as well as other research.
CEI participates in yearly science festivals, hosted by the Ministry of Education, where school children come to learn more about insects. CEI has also invited high school students in 11th and 12th grade to visit the university and see the laboratory to get more students interested in entomology.
In the meantime, students like Heang will be doing their part to increase understanding of entomology in Cambodia. Hopefully, if research like hers helps farmers, then other university departments under other ministries will recognize the importance of entomology research and provide national funding.
Laura Kraft is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia who is taking a year off to travel the world before returning home to start a Ph.D. program in the fall of 2017.
(Photos by Laura Kraft)