“I still don’t have a degree!” Capilano alumnus, Daniel Zayonc, says jokingly.
Even though he has yet to finish his bachelor’s degree, Daniel already has a wealth of field experience in biology to draw from, thanks to the nine months he spent in Ecuador: four months studying at Universidad San Francisco de Quito and five months working at the school’s research station, located in the Amazon on the Tiputini River.
“At one point I had over 100 tick bites,” he laughs. “I loved being in the field—I don’t mind bugs and these sorts of things.”
Capitalizing on an opportunity to go on exchange, Daniel would find himself in for an experience that would change his life and inspire him to pursue his main love: biology.
Dreams of medical school
Originally having dreams of going to medical school, Daniel switched directions after a field trip with one of his biology instructors.
Professor Marja de Jong Westman, from Capilano’s Biology department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, brought Daniel’s class to the Okanagan to meet with well-known biologists Dick Cannings and his son.
Daniel says that trip was his first insight into the life of a day-to-day biologist. He says that the Cannings’ knowledge of conservation issues in B.C. inspired the whole class.
“They really had an effect on me,” he says. “At some point I thought, ‘Why am I wanting to go to medical school, when this is really what I want to be doing?’”
On exchange in Ecuador
After graduating from Capilano’s biology program in 2012, and spending two semesters studying at SFU, Daniel decided to take his love for biology abroad.
“People always say one of their biggest regrets is not going on exchange,” Daniel says. “I thought, well, it doesn’t matter if I don’t get any credits, I’m going to go on an exchange.”
Established in 1995 and located deep in the eastern Ecuadorian Amazon, the remote Tiputini station provided Daniel with a whole array of flora and fauna to study.
Insects, colourful butterflies and the occasional jaguar were just a few of the types of creatures he encountered in the rainforest.
Video footage from Daniel’s time in Ecuador:
But it wasn’t just the diverse biology that attracted him. Daniel wanted to build relationships and get involved with the research and work there.
Already having a solid understanding of Spanish, he spent his first days at the station doing translation for a number of different student groups that came into the centre.
Inspiring future biologists
Part of his job was teaching students the importance of protecting Ecuador’s ecosystems.
Daniel says Ecuador has some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. While he adds that it is “difficult to put all the blame on a developing country that has an impressive amount of foreign debt,” he says that in his view, the track record of the country’s dealings with the oil industry have been less than stellar.
He adds that one of Ecuador’s biggest conservation problems is a lack of biologists. In his time there, he learned from his Ecuadorian colleagues that there is not enough money being invested in research.
“There are not a lot of people studying biology [down there],” he says. “The tropics are the place where there is the most [biological diversity], and yet it’s the area where there are the fewest biologists.”
At dinner, Daniel says he would sometimes sit with the students—rather than the researchers— to continue teaching beyond the day’s tours and presentations.
He says he enjoyed showing the young students what being a biologist was really like— hopefully inspiring some of them to pursue it in higher education.
“It involved a lot of teaching,” Daniel says. “I love passing on knowledge, because that’s realistically how you’re going to create change.”
Preparing for field work
Daniel attributes his love for teaching to his experiences in the classroom at Capilano University. He says that the practical elements of his education at the university prepared him for the realities of biological fieldwork.
“Being able to identify a plant in the field, or use a dichotomous key—I think that the whole lab and field component in Cap’s biology classes really helped me out in terms of being comfortable in the field,” says Daniel.
Daniel adds that the small class sizes helped him feel less intimidated when it came to talking to his instructors and getting valuable one-on-one time.
Professor de Jong Westman, who took Daniel on the field trip that inspired his biology career, was one of the regular instructors who held him to a high standard of learning.
“She’s incredibly passionate about what she does and about inspiring the next group of students,” says Daniel. “She’s so into having her students do well. I think that’s something you don’t get at other universities.”
Returning to Ecuador
Although Daniel is working in a biology-related field here in Canada and still gets to occasionally travel, he says he eventually wants to return to Ecuador.
“When you’re working at that station, you’re directly involved with some incredible conservation projects,” he says.
“You’re at the forefront at one of only a couple research stations in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and you’re really facilitating the research that is going into influencing the government on policy decisions that they make.”
Daniel says he sees himself doing master’s-degree level research in Ecuador some day.
“It’s because I’m passionate about what that station represents,” he says. He says that while the people of Ecuador are incredibly proud of their ‘naturaleza,’ more work needs to be done.
“When a country has the Galapagos, an incredible coastline, the Andes and the Amazon, it is astounding that conservation isn’t at the forefront of people’s minds.”
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