Francis Marion University Branches Out to … Ecuador?

April 17, 2012

Investigative Reports

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BirdFrancis Marion University might appear to be straying a bit afield with its new research station in the Andes, but it’s doing so almost entirely with private funding.

That’s according to Darryl Bridges, vice president for public and community affairs for the Florence-based institution.

The Wildsumaco Biological Station is a three-building compound situated high above the Amazon River basin in the South American nation of Ecuador. It sits at a height of 4,500 feet and is operated by Francis Marion associate biology professor Travis Knowles.

It cost $55,000 to open the station, which was funded with money from foundations, including the FMU Foundation, and private donations, according to Bridges.

The research station’s missions include scientific research; conservation of Ecuador’s biodiversity; and “service to scientists, students, and citizens of Ecuador, the United States and Planet Earth,” Knowles said during a dedication ceremony last month in Ecuador.

Francis Marion is partnering with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in operating the location, which is six hours southeast of the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.

This summer Knowles will teach a one-month class at the station – Biology 314: Tropical Ecology.

The idea behind the remote location is that students and scientists will have an opportunity to explore unknown flora and fauna in the virtually untouched area, where it is anticipated that the discovery of new species will occur.

When not in use by students, the station will serve as an ecotourism destination, Bridges said.

Bridges said he’s not heard any criticism of Francis Marion for so-called “higher-education  mission creep,” the idea of colleges and universities expanding as they aspire to be more comprehensive, even if it means duplicating programs available elsewhere in the state or region.

“If you’re going to educate students in topics of certain expertise, some of those aren’t going to be found in the Pee Dee,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go to where the subject is, which is what we’ve done here.”

Bridges added that the school is optimistic that discoveries and advances made at the Wildsumaco Biological Station will help generate grants for research.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.