Grad student hopes research in Southeast Asia will improve conservation practices at home
by Michael Haen
UW–Madison's graduate alumni make a global impact, and graduate student and field researcher Aaron Koning will certainly add to this global impact after he completes his Ph.D. in Zoology. Following the completion of his B.S. in Biology at Wheaton College in 2007, Koning started the journey that brought him to his current doctoral work in Southeast Asia. From 2009 to 2011, he worked as an Ecology Curriculum Developer at the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In this position, he developed educational materials and organized ecological field studies for undergraduate courses. Koning aimed to go beyond being an educator when he decided pursue graduate school at UW–Madison. He wanted to conduct research that shaped the design and implementation of conservation efforts in the region.
Currently, Koning spends a lot of time in small villages in Southeast Asia, where he studies freshwater ecosystems with the goal of informing conservation planning. His research proves significant because of the environmental questions and challenges the region faces as nations experience population growth, move towards industrialization, and feel the effects of continuing changes in surrounding economic powers like China.
Specifically, Koning studies the structure and functioning of understudied freshwater ecosystems. For example, he has found that intensified agricultural practices will likely lead to increased algal growth in rivers, with consequences for water quality and biodiversity. Additionally, Koning is studying the effect of conservation actions initiated by local villagers on fish diversity and abundance. Fish form a large part of the diet in many Southeast Asian communities, but overharvest has reduced fish numbers throughout the region. By studying the results of local conservation actions, combined with his own experiments, Koning hopes to be able to help locals improve fish populations, and consequently, local food security.
Even though he works and networks frequently with Thai academics in his research, Koning strongly believes that the local population in the region also helps improve his work. “The people in the region provide a lot of helpful information such as what sorts of fish migrate in certain seasons, and they have also worked with me to conduct experiments,” he explains. After completing his Ph.D., he hopes to pursue a career that impacts the lives of ordinary people. “I would consider a career in academia, but what I’m hoping to do most is continue the research I’m doing now. That might take the form of an academic career or one in a non-profit organization like the World Wildlife Fund or the Nature Conservancy,” he says.
In terms of achieving his graduate school goals, Koning credits his advisor, Peter McIntyre, as well as the collaborative working environment at UW–Madison, and especially the Center for Limnology, with facilitating his success. “I learned from Pete how to ask good questions. And, the graduate students involved at the Center for Limnology have also been great with helping answer my own questions about research methods and approaches. Even though I’m halfway across the world, I still receive support from the Madison community.”
And even though research consumes much of Koning’s time, he values his role as an educator and mentor as well. While in Southeast Asia, he worked as the lead instructor for a course called “Sustainability and the Environment” as part of the University of Minnesota’s Studies in International Development Program. Recently, he also mentored undergraduate student Vera Swanson, who worked as a field assistant with him from January to May 2015.
Reflecting on his time at UW–Madison, Koning appreciates how he has been prepared for his future career as a researcher and hopes to bring back what he learns in Southeast Asian to improve conservation practices in the Midwest. “I want to take my experiences and knowledge from a place where we don’t know much [Thailand] and apply it to asking new questions that will change what we’ve done in Wisconsin for a long time” he noted.
Ultimately, Koning’s story is one that reflects UW-Madison’s global impact as well as how its graduate students pursue knowledge to shape our local community and beyond.