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Rwandan university students arrive at our Ellen campus

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has been hosting students from the University of Rwanda since 2003, to facilitate their senior thesis research. But this year is extra special because it’s the first time we are hosting this important program at our new Ellen DeGeneres campus, which opened in February.

Eleven top students from the University of Rwanda have just arrived at our campus to start their research projects. Before beginning their five weeks of data collection for their studies, they participate in one week of intensive training with our scientists, finalizing their research proposals and learning skills they may need once their research is underway.

The Ellen campus provides a perfect infrastructure for hosting and training students, with its large classrooms, library, multiple purpose-built laboratories, and its outdoor areas with native plants and an increasing variety of animal life. We now also have on-site accommodations for these students and the campus is located close to the park, where many of them will conduct their studies.

What will they study?

A little bit of everything! Some of the students will of course be studying various aspects of gorilla life, ranging from gorilla social networks to how young gorillas learn to process and eat bamboo shoots. And several will be working with golden monkeys, the only other primate living in the forest with the gorillas.

But other students are branching out into wider areas of research, including measuring the impact of our community programs, studying the guest experience in the new Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery at our campus, observing butterfly life cycles on selected plants, and conducting a survey of large mammals living in an area near the park that is scheduled for park expansion.

Creating future leaders in science and conservation

This senior thesis program has proven to be highly successful in achieving one of the Fossey Fund’s key goals – helping to develop a strong new generation of conservationists in Rwanda. More than 80% of our graduates continue on to employment in conservation or pursue higher education degrees in conservation-related fields in Rwanda and the region.

“This program provides students with intense one-on-one training in how to plan and conduct research,” says Winnie Eckardt, Ph.D., our senior manager of primate research. “They gain new skills in data collection techniques as well as in analysis and presenting their research outcomes. The program also aims to fuel their passion for science and its importance for effective conservation.”

Many of our current research staff in Rwanda are also graduates of this program. For example, our biodiversity program manager, Dr. Deogratias Tuyisingize, completed his senior thesis work through this program in 2004, focusing on the endangered golden monkeys that live in the forest with the gorillas. One of his responsibilities at the Fossey Fund now is to mentor other undergraduates, like those arriving this week.

“Every student in the biology department at the University of Rwanda dreams of conducting senior thesis research at the Fossey Fund,” says Fanny Sekobwa Abijuru, a University of Rwanda biology student.

“Being one of the top 11 students chosen to participate in this program is a privilege for a variety of reasons,” she says. “We get exposure to high-quality conservation knowledge, as well as being mentored by experts and working in a pleasant environment to complete our projects.”