Undergraduate Donovan Loh is Traveling his way through Duke and the Nicholas School

November 9, 2016

Donovan Loh is making the most of his time at Duke. The rising senior from Singapore has studied abroad in Costa Rica, conducted research at the Duke Marine Lab, and taken travel courses to Mexico and the Florida Keys. During breaks and holidays, he has traveled extensively both within the United States and internationally.

Loh entered Duke majoring in biology and decided later to add a major in environmental sciences and policy. “There’s a good amount of overlap between biology and environmental science, especially since my interest in biology is more about biodiversity and ecology,” he says. “I thought, why not try to get the best resources on both sides?”


LIFE AT THE DUKE MARINE LAB

Loh spent this past spring and summer in Beaufort, N.C., first as student and then as a student researcher. In the spring, he took advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of the Marine Lab by enrolling in both natural science and social science courses.

“I’ve always been more of a natural science student, so I didn’t have too much exposure to social science,” Loh says. The first of four classes he took was International Conservation and Development with Lisa Campbell, professor of marine affairs and policy. Loh says he enjoyed seeing conservation from a new perspective.

“It was interesting to learn about narratives that underlie a certain movement, concept, or construct,” he says.

Loh also took a social science class with Xavier Basurto, assistant professor of sustainability science, that included a three-week trip to Baja California, Mexico. The class focused on indicators of social resilience among smallscale fisheries, and offered a wealth of on-the-ground experience.

“That was a great class because we spent a lot of time talking to fishermen about how they manage their fishing stocks, how they make it sustainable, and how they work together amongst themselves. It was great to be out in the field learning from people who have been fishing all their lives.”

In addition to learning about the local fishing industry, the students had the opportunity to explore the natural history of the area, hiking in the desert and camping on the beaches of the Sea of Cortez.

The travel class was “the highlight of my time at the Marine Lab,” says Loh.

“Sometimes you learn about something in class or you read about it in a textbook, but it doesn’t really stick with you. But when you’re seeing it unfold before your eyes, it makes a much more lasting impression.”

Basurto says he enjoyed having Loh in the class: “He showed himself to be an excellent team member. Donovan was always in good spirits, always able and willing to help, always learning, reflecting, and asking good questions.”

This past summer, Loh received a Bookhout Research Scholarship to conduct independent research at the Marine Lab. He worked with Thomas Schultz, director of the Marine Conservation Molecular Facility, and Joseph Morton, a PhD student under Brian Silliman, to study the effect of parasite loads on the tidal rhythms of mole crabs (Emerita talpoida).

“This work contributes to a growing body of knowledge that implicates parasites as important regulators of organismal behavior and potentially, ecosystem structure and function,” says Morton.

Loh video-recorded crab behavior in the wild, and then dissected the crabs in the lab to determine what species of parasites were found in their bodies. Loh found that the quantity of a parasite commonly found in mole crabs was correlated with the crabs’ responses to tidal patterns.

“Donovan was an awesome student,” Schultz says. “He worked hard, stayed focus, and was able to overcome numerous obstacles, for the most part independently.”

“He is incredibly hardworking and a scholar of the highest caliber,” Morton says. “It was an honor and a privilege to get to work with him.”


TRAVEL AT DUKE

Over spring break of his sophomore year, Loh traveled to the Dry Tortugas National Park with Stuart Pimm’s Seabird Survival and Dispersal Analysis course. Twelve students, along with teaching assistant and PhD student Ryan Huang, spent the week camping on the beautiful beaches of the Florida Keys banding sooty terns. Their work was part of an ongoing study and annual census of the islands’ bird colony that has been conducted for more than 50 years.

Loh said he appreciates the hand-on experience offered by many Nicholas School classes.

“These classes really put you out there in the field and get you involved with actual work on the ground, be it research or conservation work done by different organizations,” he says.

This class was one of three that Loh has taken with Pimm. Another was a seminar that Pimm co-teaches with Luke Dollar, director of the Big Cats Initiative (BCI). Students in the seminar work on various projects for the BCI, a program housed at the National Geographic Society that supports research and conservation of seven big cat species in 27 countries.

“That was great to be part of the discussion, meeting people who are really doing good work in their field,” Loh said.

In the fall of his junior year, Loh studied abroad in Costa Rica through the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), a nonprofit consortium of institutions including Duke. He and his fellow students were able to spend much of their time outside, as they were based at a number of field stations in a variety of habitats—including cloud forests and marshes.

“Spending a whole semester out in Costa Rica was probably my favorite semester at Duke so far,” Loh says.

Part of Loh’s time in the OTS program involved developing an independent research project, guided by faculty. Loh’s project focused on avian predation of butterfly larvae. Loh was interested in how the caterpillars’ patterning and coloration affected how likely they were to be seen and eaten by birds.

He predicted that more brightly colored caterpillars would be noticed more frequently by predators— but bright coloration is often a warning that the caterpillar will be distasteful or poisonous, a defense mechanism known as aposematic coloration. Therefore, Loh predicted that more brightly colored caterpillars, even though they are more noticeable, may actually have lower predation rates (be eaten less frequently) than caterpillars that blend in better with their immediate environment.

To test this idea, Loh created models of caterpillars using modeling clay, painted them different colors, and placed them through the forest. After two days, he collected them to examine the number and type of bite marks that any predators might have made in the clay to see if bright or drab caterpillars were more likely to be eaten.

“Because it’s soft, when the birds take a bite, you can see a very clear V-shaped pattern that you know was made from a beak. If it was bitten by a rodent, you would see a more typical incisor mark.

Then there are some parasitic wasps that attack some of these caterpillars as well, so all the bite marks are really distinctive.”

This allowed Loh to identify which predators attempted to eat each caterpillar.

Loh found that almost all the caterpillars—regardless of color—showed about the same rate of predation, based on the number of bite marks. To test how easily each type of model was spotted, Loh ran what he called a “conspicuousness test,” where he placed the model caterpillars along a path and asked fellow students to walk along it and note how many of each type they saw.

The brightly colored models were spotted more frequently than the green models, which blended in with the vegetation.

These results supported Loh’s hypothesis, he explains: “Brightly colored ones were spotted more, but predators tend to avoid them more, so that’s why we get similar predation rates.”


LIFE OUTSIDE OF DUKE

Outside of his studies at Duke, Loh is an avid nature and travel photographer. Over school holidays and breaks, instead of making the 24-hour journey home to Singapore and back, Loh travels to places he may not get a chance to see once he graduates and is working full time. This past spring break, he traveled to Iceland with some fellow students to see and photograph the Northern Lights.

“That was probably one of the trips that took a little more out of our bank accounts than we wished, but I think it was pretty worthwhile because we did manage to catch the lights during one of the nights, and it was pretty amazing.”

Loh’s photos from that trip and many others can be viewed on his photography website, donovanlohphotography.com.

When he’s not traveling or studying abroad, Loh has been involved in the student group SNAP, (Stories for Nature and People) based at the Nicholas School. SNAP was founded in 2014 by PhD students Ryan Huang, Binbin Li, and Wout Salenbien and holds workshops and events for learning and practicing nature photography and videography.

Loh says his interest in photography stems from a love of nature, and is driven by a desire to use storytelling to inspire an appreciation for wildlife and natural areas in others. “When people get excited by animals and nice landscapes, you can convince them that conserving these places and these creatures is important.”


LIFE AFTER DUKE

After he graduates in May, Loh will return to Singapore. He received a scholarship from the Singapore government to study at Duke in exchange for returning to share his knowledge by teaching biology, either at the middle or high school level. He says he hopes to be able to inspire a love of the outdoors in his students. “I really hope to be able to bring some students out in the field and do ecology work,” he says.

After teaching for two to three years, Loh will work in the Singapore Ministry of Education, where he will assess education policies. After that, Loh is not sure what his path will be.

“I’m looking forward to teaching, and if I’m enjoying it at that point, I’ll hang on to it.” He says he also is thinking about pursuing a graduate degree in ecology or environmental studies. He is most interested in exploring programs in Australia, which is much closer to home.

No matter what direction Loh’s pursuits take him, he is sure to make the most of any opportunities that come his way.


Kati Moore MEM’16 served as the Nicholas School’s student communications assistant until she graduated.