By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Bryan Drew brings a “wow factor” to his biology classes.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney faculty member wants students to get excited about nature and all the potential careers they can pursue in this field.
As a botanist and ecologist, he travels the world to study plants and animals – something they can do, too.
The associate professor has led several research and field class trips since joining UNK in 2015, including a recent adventure that took Drew and a group of students to Baja California Sur. They spent 10 days in the Mexican state – part of the Baja California Peninsula – where they soaked up the sun and soaked in knowledge about the region’s diverse ecosystem.
“The whole idea of these trips is to expose people from Nebraska to something different – culturally different and ecologically different,” Drew said. “I want to open up their world and show them this is something that can be accessible.”
Although Drew is a globetrotter, many of the students who sign up for his trips have never been outside the U.S. That was the case for UNK senior Charlotte Okraska of Clay Center.
An English major with a biology minor, Okraska has conducted research with Drew in the Desert Southwest, but this was a completely different experience.
“I’ve never left the country before, so I was really excited to get out of the States and experience not only the biological aspects of another part of the world, but also the culture,” she said. “It was all so new to me.”
Drew, who’s been to the Baja Peninsula numerous times, definitely hit all the high points.
They hiked in the Sierra de la Laguna mountain range, a UNESCO biosphere reserve that’s home to numerous plant and animal species that can only be found there. With its tallest peak around 7,000 feet, the mountain range offers dramatic views of the surrounding landscape, which transitions from sandy beaches to arid desert to lush forest.
The UNK group also visited cultural sites, including a mission built in the late 1600s, and traveled to both sides of the peninsula. They snorkeled in the Gulf of California to the east, where they saw sea lions, tropical fish and other marine life, and spent time whale watching along the Pacific coastline to the west.
“It was a lot of fun,” said UNK junior Kaylee Gibson, a wildlife biology major from York.
Gibson had vacationed in Mexico before, but this was her first time on the Baja Peninsula. “I’d really like to go back,” she said.
The Mexico trip was offered as a two-credit hour biology course during the January intersession, an optional three-week term that gives students a chance to take online classes or participate in internships and other experiential learning opportunities during the extended winter break.
Naturally, Drew brought plenty of books so they could identify and discuss the plants, birds, fish and insects they encountered throughout the journey.
“It was so cool to walk around and actively try to learn everything, whether it was a new word in Spanish or the name of that bird sitting on top of that cactus,” Okraska said.
“Honestly, anybody in any department could go and they would be able to take away something from the trip,” she said. “Being involved in wildlife, I feel like I took away quite a bit.”
Drew made sure the students got to check out some scorpions and a tarantula – the “cool stuff” you won’t find in Nebraska. He led a similar trip to Baja California Sur in October and plans to take another group of students to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula next fall.
Okraska called the trips “very valuable” and “very affordable,” thanks to grant funding and department scholarships that help cover the costs.
“Being able to go on this trip through UNK really took away that financial burden,” she said. “It was such a great experience.”