University of California at Berkeley

They Journey Far Afield

UC Research Expeditions Marks 25 Years of Searches, Digs and Studies in Mountains, Jungles and Deserts Around the World

 by Marie Felde

For 20 years, UC Research Expeditions Program has teamed UC scientists and researchers with volunteers who donate their time and funds to support scientific research around the world.

In return, more than 1,000 teams of volunteers have experienced first-hand the excitement of field research, from tracking monkeys in a rain forest to scouring valleys, mountains and bogs in search of artifacts to wading through the wetlands of South America gathering leeches.

For all 20 of those years, Jean Colvin has been directing the unique undertaking. Long before adventure travel had a name, Colvin was teaming volunteers, who pay their own way, with UC scientists and researchers to do field science around the globe.

A UC graduate, she had been "living in Africa doing water turnover studies on goats and sheep." When she returned to campus she had an idea for a program that would allow interested amateurs to work alongside researchers, who could use both free labor and donations to help their work along.

Thanks to an anonymous donation from a faculty member, Colvin set up shop with an old manual typewriter in a cubicle in the botany department.

The exotic part was to come.

In 1976, the first three UREP expeditions were off to track monkeys in the forests of Cameroon with Thelma Rowell; to study traditional agriculture with professor VeVe Clark in Haiti; and to join Donald Savage in Wyoming searching for 50,000-year-old fossils.

"It wasn't hard to find interested volunteers. The hard part was the faculty. They weren't too sure about using volunteer-amateurs," said Colvin.

But thanks to a careful project selection process to be sure it makes sense to bring in volunteers, and the high quality of the volunteers who join UREP expeditions, faculty concerns were quickly arrested.

Many volunteers have been teachers and UREP offers scholarships and special programs for them. "I feel quite proud we have started the first comprehensive teacher research participation program. It guides teachers on how to integrate the research experience and bring the excitement of scientific discovery into their classrooms," said Colvin.

Among the thousands of other volunteers who've joined expeditions are Berkeley staff members.

Katie Menees of the College of Engineering has been on two research expeditions. On the Cooke Islands her team assisted a graduate student excavating household sites. Last year, she joined a project led by Colvin to the rain forest of Ecuador.

"You get to go to more remote places," said Menees, who just returned from a trip of her own to the game parks of East Africa. "With UREP programs you are with locals and can often stay in their homes."

Sangwan Zimmerman, a widely traveled Berkeley staffer, has joined four UREP trips: to Bali to study mask carving traditions, to Beijing for research on the Beijing Opera, a botanical expedition to Greece and to Thailand for a study of temple murals in the northern provinces.

"You get a degree of instant connectedness that a traveler alone cannot experience," said Zimmerman. "You are not just playing at being a scholar. It is a real intellectual experience and participation -- also the most fun I can imagine," she said.

UREP donor-volunteers and researchers will gather Oct. 19 for a 20th anniversary reunion after a symposium with Egyptologist Kent Weeks. One of UREP's first expeditions was led by Weeks and created the first archaeological map of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The symposium is public (see below).

Colvin has tales to tell herself. She recalls a trip to Goa to study Carnival, the pre-Lent festival. UC Davis professor Dan Crowley had been studying Carnivals for years, often with the help of a cadre of UREP volunteers.

"We had traveled 28 hours. We arrived in Bombay at 1 a.m. for the 7 a.m. flight to Goa. As we were going through customs, they asked, "Oh, didn't you hear...Carnival was canceled last night. The Pope is coming for a visit."

As with all true adventurers, the team made the most of the trip, interviewing locals about how they felt about the Pope's visit and the canceling of their festival. "It ended up being fine."

Editor's note: The 1997 expeditions catalog is due in December. Contact UREP at 642-6586 or email


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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