Anja van Genderen: Dart Scholar Update

Anja van Genderen, a 2015 Dart High School Scholar and a 2018 William A. Dart Memorial University Scholar, studies biological science at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. Last summer, she participated in a two-week research expedition in Romania, collecting data to help governments and researchers study changes in our biodiversity. Read on to learn more about Anja, her experience as a Dart Scholar and her plans for the year ahead.

Tell us about Operation Wallacea.

Operation Wallacea is an organisation that arranges expeditions to different parts of the world for university and high school students. Last summer, I visited Romania to participate in a two-week research expedition led by experienced scientists and dissertation students. The data collected is provided to governments and researchers to monitor and study changes in biodiversity. Our expedition was very international, with students from universities around the world.

It was such a great experience to visit the wilderness of the Tarnava Mare region in Transylvania. During the expedition, we camped in two villages, Crit and Malancrav, which were both beautiful.

What was your day to day routine in Romania?

We participated in fieldwork activities throughout the day, often involving hikes through beautiful pristine natural areas. Each day involved a different task so we collected a wide variety of data. The whole expedition was terrestrial, and focused mainly on mammals, birds, butterflies and botany. We were involved in bird point counting, which helps determine the distribution and density of bird species in a variety of habitats (mostly forest and meadows). It's based on hearing bird calls and, or seeing them. I wasn't very good at recognising the different calls, but by the end I could name a few species at a distance.

Our other bird activity was ringing where we caught birds in large mist nets and took their measurements relating to age, size and breeding status, as well as giving them a tag so they could be identified again. This provides data on the condition of the birds before migration, but is most useful because if an individual is captured again, you can make estimates about its movements, health and lifespan.

Our botany surveys involved long treks in the heat of the day to visit multiple sites. We mostly conducted transect surveys and looked for indicator species to determine the quality of the hay meadows. When compared with data over time, this can be useful to see how more intensive versus traditional methods of farming affect the plant biodiversity.

I also enjoyed the butterfly surveys where we hiked to various transect sites and keep an eye out for rare butterflies along the way. At the sites, we walked a 50 meter transect and had to catch as many butterflies that crossed our path as possible. We recorded the species we caught and the most interesting ones were brought back to camp to photograph and then we released them.

Small mammals like woodmice, were caught in small traps and weighed along with taking some measurements and checking for parasites. We also trimmed a small patch of hair so we could identify mammals that were caught again. For large mammals, we went on hikes in the forest to set up camera traps to capture images and video of any animals in the area. We also kept an eye out for signs of animals like prints in the mud. After leaving the cameras up for a few days, we assessed the footage and recorded all animals seen and their behaviour. It was so amazing to see videos of deer, bears, boars and wildcats where we had just been hiking. A definite highlight of the trip was going out in the evening to watch bears forage in the valley – there’s nothing like seeing a huge bear in the wild!

After our expeditions, we had lectures in the evenings, where we learned the wider implications of the research we were helping with and about interesting discoveries in the various fields the researchers worked in.

What else did the course involve?

The course also involved lectures and discussions, where we learned about how the traditional agriculture of the villagers helps maintain the biodiversity of the grasslands and forests. We were also lucky enough to see the European Red Listed plant, Red Viper’s Bugloss, a beautiful red flower that I am unlikely to ever see again.

Overall, visiting Romania for this research expedition gave me great practical skills in field biology, and strengthened my love for the natural world.

Did the course help guide or confirm your future career goals?

My career goals are actually in the field of biochemistry and microbiology, however I am always interested in learning about the wider implications of what I study. On this course I learned about the importance of having different people of different backgrounds working on the same project, which really inspired me to do more outside reading and study the practical applications of what I learn in university.

How has being a Dart Scholar helped you throughout high school and university?  

Being a Dart Scholar has allowed me to have many opportunities, including travel - my favourite trip was visiting CERN in Switzerland. The trips and opportunities provided by Dart help me expand my worldview and give me valuable experiences. The Dart Scholarship has allowed me to expand my horizons and encouraged me to dream big. I am now completing a year abroad as an exchange student at Uppsala University in Sweden, and am so grateful for the support that the scholarship offers me.