Name: Kwasi Wrensford
Hometown: Albany, Georgia
Department: Integrative biology at UC Berkeley
Research topic: Behavioral adaptations to climate change, focusing on two Californian species of chipmunk.
Like all good naturalists, Kwasi Wrensford notices things that the rest of us don’t. This is a guy who conducts research in some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful sites in the Sierra Nevada mountains, spending up to a month at a time camping between alpine lakes and snowy peaks. But when I ask him about his most memorable moment of doing research, the scale is much smaller: It’s a single chipmunk.
When he’s working up in the mountains, Kwasi catches his chipmunks in Sherman traps: long metal boxes with a trap door on one end. After being weighed and measured, the chipmunks are put into an “arena,” a sort of cage built out of PVC pipes and clear tarps, and filmed for 10 minutes — these are the videos he later analyzes, recording different behaviors and measuring variation between species.
As he tells me, this particular chipmunk seemed to love going into the traps, sometimes showing up multiple times a day. But when it was put into the arena, the chipmunk would sit perfectly still, terrified.
“When you’re doing your observations in these experiments, you tend to notice little quirks in the animals,” Kwasi says. “I think about that little chipmunk a lot.”
Now, Kwasi isn’t some sort of chipmunk psychologist — his research focuses on the behavioral variations between alpine chipmunks (Tamias alpinus) and lodgepole chipmunks (Tamias speciosus), which have informed their different responses to climate change.
Using archival data from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, past UC Berkeley researchers have determined that over the past 100 years, alpine chipmunks have been moving to higher and higher elevations, while lodgepole chipmunks have stayed in roughly the same area. The behavioral trials in the arena that Kwasi conducts help him quantify these differences.
Chipmunks like the one that Kwasi remembers — that pick a corner of the cage and hunker down — are responding with more stress, meaning that they have more trouble adapting to new environments. The individuals that run around looking for escape routes, on the other hand, are showing boldness in response to a novel stimulus, which can shed light on their responses to a changing environment and warming climate.
“Climate change is real. Climate change is affecting everything alive on the planet, but it’s not affecting things in the same way,” Kwasi says. “So this sets up an interesting comparison: What is different about these two species, where one seems to be reacting acutely to a change in climate, and the other isn’t?”
This research puts Kwasi and a couple of research assistants out in the woods each summer, and when I call him, he’s about to leave for another month of fieldwork. Often there is no cell service, sometimes there are no bathrooms, and, especially at dawn and dusk, there are always a lot of mosquitos. Mostly, though, these concerns seem to go by the wayside. Kwasi talks of falling into a groove — running trap lines, handling animals, and ending the day around a campfire eating Spam or ramen or some other classic campfire food — and I can hear how much he loves the routine of fieldwork.
He takes me back to the work he did before he started his PhD, researching yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Aspen, Colorado. He describes it as a research hub with more than 100 people from around the world out there, sharing a place to live and building a sort of idyllic outpost around their curiosity and their love for nature.
“When I made the decision to go to grad school or pursue research, I knew that my day-to-day work wouldn’t be like that, but in my head, that was the kind of community I wanted,” Kwasi says. “I wanted that community of like-minded, passionate individuals.”
I look up pictures of the field station a few days later, and it surprises me how similar it looks to what I was fantasizing. There’s a scattering of rough wooden buildings topped with metallic roofs nestled into these rolling green hills. Thick fog conceals the tops of craggy mountains, the slopes covered in clumps of dark trees.
But beautiful as it is, this isn’t the place where his passion for field research began. He tells me he had a “kind of obsession” with animals when he was growing up — zoos, animal books, you name it. The only exception was a few years in high school when he wanted to be a musician, or maybe a journalist.
“Still kind of do, but it’s fine,” he tells me, smiling a little so I know it really is fine.
I find out that he never completely gave up on either of those other careers — he started a band in college and toured around for small gigs, and last year, he founded a blog called Dark Matter with his childhood friends after he went back to Georgia to be a groomsman at one of their weddings. But right there, at the core, there’s always been his passion for animals and the outdoors — it’s what led him into academia and it will lead him out of it, too. If anything, it’s academia that might not stick.
Kwasi tells me that he’s heard professors tell new graduate students that they’re “here to get [a] degree [and] everything else is secondary.” He says that there’s this sort of romantic idea that scientists live and breathe their work, but, to him, this part of academia is what undermines people’s “whole selves.”
“People are trying to build lives and build identities and become the people that they want to be. And that’s going to take work and attention and experiences beyond our work as researchers,” Kwasi says. “We are people, we have hopes and dreams, and we have needs and desires outside of our data.”
This is one of the reasons why he “waffles” about wanting to continue on in academia after he finishes his PhD. He tells me that he loves doing research and educating people, and most of all, he loves mentorship. The more he’s become comfortable sharing his full self, the more he wants to help other individuals that are marginalized in academia do that, too.
“Now that I’ve grown up more, I’ve realized having a just world involves having a just world, you know? You can’t talk about environmental tragedy or environmental catastrophe without talking about environmental racism, without talking about capitalism, without talking about inequality, and how those interact and exacerbate each other,” Kwasi says. “And I think my research has the potential to help in some ways, but I think my advocacy, and my mentorship, and my education — if I make it into that space as a professional — I think that is just as critical in being a positive force as a scientist.”
When he says this, I think it dawns on me that everyone is dedicated to their work in graduate school, and everyone is passionate and talented and definitely very smart. But Kwasi has a level of care and compassion that, to me, seems unrivaled.
He cares about the environment; he cares about the students he brings to the Sierra Nevada; he cares about making graduate school accessible to every single person who wants to be there. And he cares about that one small, scared chipmunk. Regardless of the scale of the matter — overhauling academia, preventing climate change, or protecting a whole species from extinction — Kwasi doesn’t lose sight of the individuals.