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Exploring new heights: ULM student’s research takes her to the Himalayas

Published October 12, 2016

MONROE, La. — University of Louisiana Monroe junior biology major, Melissa Bloch, explored new heights by travelling to the Himalayas in India along with her advisor, Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharjee, as part of a summer research internship.

Bloch was awarded the internship by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a premier research institute focused on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development throughout India. Bhattacharjee has established research collaborations with ATREE and jointly proposed multiple collaborative projects to be carried out soon involving ULM students.

melissa bloch
Bloch in Darjeeling

During her month-long travel through the foothills of the Himalayas, Melissa worked on “ground-truthing,” a necessary step when creating accurate land-use and land-change maps. In the state of West Bengal, Melissa collected geographic coordinates of static structures that were visible in satellite imagery using a high-end GPS. 

These structures included palaces, British-era administrative buildings, and bridges, some of which are over 300 years old. The objective was to align these structures with their precise coordinates on various scaled maps and satellite images from the past 20 years.

While collecting data, Melissa trekked through the Himalayas, spending each night at a different remote village in the mountains. She also stayed in a homestay in Darjeeling, in a bungalow in the middle of an esteemed Darjeeling tea estate, and at the Siliguri family home of Bhattacharjee.

“Trekking through such rich repositories of biodiversity was the most enthralling experience,” said Bloch. I visited villages that were hours from the nearest road. Throughout the trek, I experienced monsoon rains, fresh leopard paw prints, Barking Deer, leech bites and women carrying their weight in fodder across the daunting terrain.”

She hopes her research will provide an insight into the conservation of the Himalayas’ critical ecosystem which is home to many endangered species, including the Red Panda, Asian Elephant, Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros, the Bengal Tiger and a suite of birds that are endemic to the region. She plans to publish her findings in a scientific journal.

Melissa was invited back for summer 2017 to continue the second phase of her research. During the next trip she will use an Unmanned Aerial System to evaluate how the Himalayan tree species are shifting ranges and distribution in response to climatic change. 

Bhattacharjee reflected on this unique opportunity that Melissa had as an undergraduate. In his words, “I am amazed at the pace at which Melissa has grown both professionally and personally through this transformative research experience in India. She has proven that there are no boundaries in the quest for knowledge, except the fact that one must have the determination to do it,” Bhattacharjee said.

According to Bloch, “I have gained understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of a country, culture and society very different from my own. I’m grateful to ULM for equipping me with the tools I need to confidently put one step in front of the other in the direction of my dreams.”