May 15, 2015

AAUW grant supports doctoral student’s research

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. – A Southern Illinois University Carbondale student from Nairobi, Kenya, will pursue her doctoral degree at SIU with the help of an International Grant from the American Association of University Women. 

Clara Mundia, a student in the interdisciplinary Environmental Resources and Policy doctoral program, earned an award that supports her for at least one year so that she can focus on her research. Mundia specializes in landscape genetics, a new research area that combines population genetics, landscape ecology and analysis of spatial statistics gathered using GIS technology that measures such factors as topography and geography. 

The discipline is so new researchers are still determining the best ways to use the data they collect. Mundia hopes her research will contribute to the foundation of this new area by establishing a methodology – a way to use information about species genetics in a given area, and how the gene flow and population structure are affected by the landscape of the area. 

Her research involves a study of sorghum, which she said is the second most important crop in Africa. Sorghum is a multipurpose member of the grass family, grown for grain or pasture fodder and used for, among other things, food, syrup, biofuels and alcoholic beverages. The plant is known for its resistance to heat and drought, which makes it an important crop in desert areas. There are many cultivated landraces, or varieties, of sorghum. Mundia will look most closely at the sorghum grown in Western Sahel, which she described as one of the poorest regions of the world. 

The Sahel is a biogeographic belt that stretches across the continent of Africa, separating the Sahara Desert from the Sudanese Savanna. It is a hot area, often sunny and subject to long-lasting droughts. The droughts lead to widespread famine, most recently and severely in the region including Niger, Chad and Sudan. The land in drought is not able to support the level of grazing and farming needed to feed and sustain the population, so the land becomes degraded, losing vegetation, biodiversity and water reserves. 

The type of data collection and analysis Mundia is interested in applies to conservation and ecology. She hopes she can use her grant and the research it supports to contribute to making lasting improvements in an impoverished part of the world.

“AAUW supports research that caters to improving the lives of vulnerable women and children,” Mundia said. “My research aims to do that by providing a possible gateway to better understanding the species-environment interaction, and in turn, to tailor conservation and farm management practices that can drive food security in subsistent populations.” 

Mundia earned her master’s degree from the Department of Geography and Environmental Resources at SIU in 2010, and returned last year to work on her doctoral degree. 

The International Fellowship she earned funds full-time study in the United States by women who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Mundia is one of 50 recipients from a world-wide pool of applicants. Other recipients will study at universities around the nation, including Georgetown, Harvard, Emory, Johns Hopkins and Northwestern. 

AAUW also presents annual American Fellowships and Career Development Fellowships to women scholars.