Voices from the lab: highlights of my internship at Mazingira

The natural, physical, and social studies of climate change, the environment, and our food systems are vital to tackling today’s environmental challenges. For young students looking to dive deep into research, gaining field and laboratory experience is essential. My internship at the International Livestock Research Institute’s (ILRI) Mazingira Centre offered me the means of doing just that at a leading international research institution. My name is Emma Dabelko, and I’m studying Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the Hamilton Lugar School at Indiana University.

During my two months at the Mazingira Centre, I served as a research assistant, supporting various research projects studying the dynamic relationship between livestock and the environment. I contributed to three studies. 

The first project focused on sheep and greenhouse gas emissions. There are currently no measurements of greenhouse gas emissions from sheep excreta from the African continent, and this study addresses this knowledge gap. I helped collect gas samples from soils where we applied either dung, urine, or water to analyze them for carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in the laboratory. We also collected soil samples from the same experiment. After organizing, weighing, and drying the samples, we analyzed soil nitrate and ammonium concentrations in the lab. As sheep are a significant part of Kenya’s overall livestock production, this project is necessary to help develop the country’s livestock greenhouse gas inventory. A robust inventory can identify the sectors in need of the most attention and funding, as well as provide insight to set reasonable goals to cut emissions both in Kenya and in other countries with significant livestock sectors.

Greenhouse gas flux chambers with addition of sheep dung (front left), sheep urine (middle), and water as control (right). The row in the back shows closed flux chambers during gas sample collection (Photo credit: Emma Dabelko).

Next, I had the privilege of accompanying Mazingira scientist Sonja Leitner and her research partner Anton Vrieling from the University of Twente to ILRI’s Kapiti Research Station for a one-day trip during which we collaborated with ranch staff to install vegetation cameras (“phenocams”). These cameras track the vegetation regrowth at livestock bomas, enclosed sites which are commonly used by pastoralists to protect their animals over night. This project investigates how vegetation regrowth may differ among livestock species as well as how boma usage impacts greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient cycling. With the findings from this study, scientists will be able to make recommendations for improved rangeland management strategies while considering the needs of pastoralists, livestock, and the environment.

Installing a vegetation tracking camera (“phenocam”) to test the effect of cattle and sheep bomas on vegetation regrowth at ILRI’s Kapiti Research Station (Photo credit: Emma Dabelko).

Lastly, my internship also included the opportunity to travel to Taita-Taveta County and the ILRI Kapiti Research Station for a ten-day trip with the Mazingira team members Collins Muhadia (PhD student) and Victor Odipo (big data specialist). I helped to measure greenhouse gas emissions and the physical and chemical parameters of water pans. Just like bomas, water pans are key sites in local pastoralist systems. In particular, we studied rain-fed water pans that are used by livestock, wildlife, and local communities as water source. Our team measured carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide released from the water pans, as well as from the soil surrounding them. We also tracked the water’s physical and chemical parameters and took water samples, which will help clarify what conditions promote or minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Because these water pans are natural, there is no drainage which causes a nutrient buildup as over time, high nutrient concentrations accumulate, creating a greenhouse gas emission hotspot and also contaminating drinking water. This research will allow for a better understanding of the contribution of water pans to national GHG emissions.

Greenhouse gas flux measurements from water pans require special dedication… (Photo credit: Emma Dabelko)

Throughout my internship at ILRI’s Mazingira Centre, I learned an incredible amount of new skills and knowledge that would be difficult to obtain from my traditional university coursework. As someone with a social sciences academic background, interning in this environment diversified my toolbox through experiencing a whole new side to environmental and sustainability studies. Being a bachelor’s student with a social studies background posed some early challenges for my work in the laboratory, but my colleagues offered invaluable advice and guidance on how to achieve my goals and develop my skills. Acting as a research assistant allowed me to apply myself to different projects and gain a wide variety of experiences. I return to my studies at the Hamilton Lugar School at Indiana University with a more nuanced understanding of climate change, environment, and livelihoods for pastoralists in East Africa. I am confident this interdisciplinary perspective will serve me well as I pursue a career in environment and development. 

Dried out water pan during the dry season in the semi-arid lowlands of Taita Taveta County, Kenya. (Photo credit: Emma Dabelko)