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Student explores lizards in the Middle East

February 3, 2012

KOKOMO, Ind. – Rachel Marschand slept in a truck one night in the Jordan desert, fearing a scorpion would crawl into her sleeping bag. By day, she fearlessly captured lizards to study how they’ve adapted to climate change. She even grabbed a juvenile Egyptian spiny-tailed lizard, nicknaming him “Dumbo” for allowing himself to be caught.

Rachel and the Egyptian spiny-tailed lizard they nicknamed Rachel and the Egyptian spiny-tailed lizard they nicknamed "Dumbo".

Marschand, a senior at Indiana University Kokomo, spent three weeks in the Middle East researching lizards with Lina Rifai, assistant professor of biology. When she chose IU Kokomo, she had no idea travel and research would be part of her experience, but said it has enriched her life and prepared her for graduate school.

“I didn’t know I could do research outside the labs we have on campus. I was thrilled when Dr. Rifai decided I was the right type of student to go with her,” Marschand said. “I knew the experience would not only be a blast, but also it would help me get experience I need to succeed and to see if this is what I want to do as a career.”

They spent long days in the scorching desert heat searching for lizards, as an indicator of climate change. Lizards adapt well to environmental change, “so they’re a good indicator of the health of an environment. You can tell how healthy it is by how many species are there,” Marschand said. 

Their research required hours of walking and digging in the desert sand, at all times of day, because different species are active at different times of the day. Some nights they stayed in a research station, with beds and showers, while others, they slept outside. Rifai said daytime temperatures were close to 100 degrees, and the nights were unusually cold for Jordan during the summer, in the mid-50s.

She warned Marschand to expect rough conditions, and commended her for her work.

“It was very hard field work we did. We really never got any rest. We worked at all hours of the day,” Rifai said. “Rachel did an excellent job out there with the conditions.”

Rifai and Marschand published their research, and Marschand will present their abstract at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research this March in Ogden, Utah. She was chosen from more than 3,000 applicants.

Marschand said her research experience and opportunities to present it and publish it are good preparation for graduate school.

“To be an undergraduate student having published and had my name on something is really unusual. IU Kokomo offered me a unique opportunity that will help my research career.”

Marschand is applying for grant funding to attend the conference.

In addition to gaining professional research experience, Marschand had a valuable cultural experience, traveling in the Middle East and meeting people who live there. They traveled with a Bedouin driver and guide, and while their languages were different, she felt she got to know them.

“The cultural experience was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip. It opened my eyes to how that part of the world is. I liked getting to know some of the people. You realize they’re not really much different from us.”

She also climbed to the ancient rock city of Petra and swam in the Red Sea. She joked that while she was never bitten by one of the lizards she studied, “Nemo bit me,” because a clownfish nibbled one of her fingers while she was diving.

She hopes that experience will set her apart from other graduate school candidates.

“The trip to Jordan gave me an opportunity to explore a different culture while studying in my field. Graduate schools want their applicants to have research experience, and having that experience outside the United States is a huge plus,” she said. “It is a big of a statement about a student if she is willing to open herself up to a new culture.”

Marschand said the hard work and the expense of traveling overseas was worth it for the experience she’s gained. She lives at home and paid for her airline ticket from savings.

“I’m not going to turn down an opportunity to travel and do research,” she said. “I was excited to go to the Middle East. There’s been so much unrest in some of those countries; they can be hard to access. This was a safer Middle East country.”

Christian Chauret, associate dean of science, mathematics, and informatics, is proud of the research and publishing opportunities his department offers its students, but said Marschand’s was unusual because it was in Jordan, not in a campus lab. He wants more students to have overseas research options.

Rifai plans to offer the Jordan research opportunity as a class in summer 2013, giving more IU Kokomo students the chance to study in the Middle East. 

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 08/14/2014