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KEYSA ROSAS-RODRIGUEZ, Mexico, 2018-2019

Fulbright Year: 2018-2019
Country: Mexico
Proposal Type: Research
Field of Study: Environmental Conservation and Ecology
Title: Oil Palm Expansion and the Integrity of Freshwater Resources in Southern Mexico
UGA Degree Program: Integrative Conservation and Ecology, Ph.D.
Hometown: Hormigueros, Puerto Rico

Obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree, palm oil is a versatile substance that can be used for cooking, making soaps and shampoos, and creating biodiesel fuel, among many other uses. Globally, palm oil is in high demand, and palm oil plantations are expanding throughout tropical and Neotropical regions.

But what sort of effect does the manufacture of palm oil have on the environment where it is produced, specifically on water quality?

Keysa Rosas-Rodriguez, a Ph.D. candidate in Integrative Conservation and Ecology at the University of Georgia who expects to earn her degree in 2020, says that across the globe, the impacts of palm expansion on rivers and streams have been largely unstudied, so she plans to spend her Fulbright year in the Mexican community of Tabasco investigating the consequences of land conversion to palm oil production on the quality and quantity of freshwater resources available to the community.

“The little work that has been conducted has focused primarily on the conversion of forested lands to palm, rather than land conversion in regions with a long history of agricultural development,” says Keysa, pointing out that her study will be among the first to examine impacts on water sources in the Neotropics.

“I propose to identify changes in structural and functional attributes of stream ecosystems in response to palm oil conversion and estimate subsequent changes in provisioning of ecosystem services by these systems.”

Keysa, who will work in collaboration with scientists at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur Unidad Villahermosa, earned her bachelor’s degree in 2004 in biology from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez and her master’s degree in biology in 2016 from Georgia Southern University.

She says she will assess water quality and quantity in streams with different levels of palm oil development within the Grijalva-Usumacinta watershed in Tabasco, Mexico. Keysa will use structural and functional metrics in her assessments and will address the potability of water resources by comparing them to Mexican water-quality standards.

With the information she’s obtained, Keysa says she will create accessible data products for local communities, first with a research summary that describes the condition of the community’s streams as they relate to human use and details how local contributions to the project (such as providing historical knowledge of the sites) create scientific knowledge; and then by developing freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem-service workshops for K-12 students.

Keysa has a wealth of experience in the field as she worked as a biologist for the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and as a technician at the University of Puerto Rico’s Piedras campus, supervising two long-term projects studying water chemistry and macroinvertebrate relationships to land use. While at Georgia Southern, Keysa studied the assemblage structure, production, and food web dynamics of macroinvertebrates in tropical headwater streams.

In addition to serving as classifieds editor for the Society of Freshwater Science and taking part in the society’s Instars diversity program (because she’s seen “a striking lack of people of color in freshwater sciences”), Keysa is part of a network of researchers that study freshwater macroinvertibrates in Latin America with the primary goal of connecting scientists who otherwise lack the access and resources to share information via the web.

When she completes her Fulbright assignment, Keysa—who is a member of the Odum School of Ecology’s Ph.D program in integrative conservation—will finish her dissertation and pursue a career in tropical-stream ecology.

“I will continue doing research on stream ecosystems impacted by human interventions, especially the effects we have on services such as water and food provisioning,” she says. “I wish to contribute research that will help develop conservation strategies that mitigate some of these impacts, as well as maintain healthy ecosystem processes.”