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NNMC Students Participate in Undergraduate Research in the Bahamas

Jazmyn Gutierrez and Vincent Benavidez help study pupfish with Dr. Rhiannon West

Students at Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) benefit from remarkable opportunities for undergraduate research. It is a priority for the college’s STEM disciplines, but research options are also available in humanities, psychology and criminal justice, including on-campus positions, paid summer fellowships and internships with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) or local businesses.

In December, 2022, Dr. Rhiannon West, Associate Professor/Biology at NNMC, took two students, Jazmyn Gutierrez and Vincent Benavidez, to the University of the Bahamas Gerace Research Centre (https://www.geraceresearchcentre.com/) for 28 days to conduct research on indigenous species of pupfish in the interior of San Salvador Island. West has been studying three closely related groups of pupfish since 2011. This was the second time she took student researchers to study the fish in their native habitat. New Mexico-IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research (NM-INBRE) funded the project with a $25,000 grant.

“I think it’s important that Northern invest in these kinds of opportunities, not necessarily to compete in research but to help our students to get where they want to be,” West said “They build their CV and show people they’ve done good work. And when they ask for letters of recommendation, I’ve seen their work ethic and I can say absolutely this person is hardworking and shows up. I had to rely on them and they’re reliable.”

The team and the project

The research center attracts archeologists, marine biologists, ecologists and geologists. Researchers hold intensive classes for their students there. During their trip, Gutierrez and Benavidez interacted with archeology students participating in a live dig and researchers in various fields. “It’s a good opportunity to broaden our students’ horizons and expose them to things they would never be exposed to in any other situation,” West said.

Gutierrez is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Biology and an Associate of Arts in Business Administration. During an introductory biology class with West she was awarded a summer internship. “I love animals, so when I found out I got to work with live fish I was excited.” Since then she has assisted West in research, as a lab assistant and as a tutor. She has also conducted genetic research with West and LANL researchers Dr. Armand Dichosa and Blake Hovde.

West recruited Benavidez for the Bahamas trip from one of her classes. He is currently employed as a respiratory therapist but has decided to change careers.

“I’ve always been interested in the ecology of the environment and nature, but I never really thought about it as a career,” Benavidez said. When he learned about jobs available in state and federal public land agencies, “That really piqued my interest. I also learned that if you were like a state park ranger, you could travel around the nation, staying in different parks and tending to the land.” He decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, since many of those positions required a degree in that field.

West and her students conducted their research at a tidal lake on the island where three distinct species of pupfish coexist. One element of West’s research is determining why the species will interbreed and produce viable offspring in the lab but not in the wild.

“It’s a really great system for asking questions about the diversity of life, like what promotes it, what maintains it, what keeps it from collapsing, because it would be very easy for them to hybridize and lose three distinct species and just have one, but they don’t. And this is the only place where we see this,” West said.

Muck and guck

Research in the Bahamas may sound like a dream assignment, but the group had to contend with heat and humidity, mangroves swamps, numerous species of mosquitos and no-see-ums, stinging red worms in the lake and ant invasions in their rooms. Benavidez spent the first 16 days dealing with a severe respiratory illness, but he refused to let that stop him.

“I was expecting it to be hard, but I don’t think I expected exactly what we were in for. It was beautiful, and the people were kind, but it was a lot of muck and guck,” said Gutierrez, who recounted sinking in mud up to her calves that weighed her pants down with caked mud the rest of the day.

It took two days to clear the trail to the lake of overgrowth and Haulback (a razor wire bush with curved thorns that embedded themselves in clothing and skin), then carry in equipment on a trail that alternated mud with karst (rock that dissolves, creating sharp ridges and pits).

After that ordeal, the fish were missing, nowhere to be found in the location West studied them on her previous trip. West and Benavidez snorkeled the lake for three days, eventually finding them on the opposite side of the lake. They brainstormed for alternatives to cutting a new trail to that location or hauling in a canoe. At Vince’s suggestion, they went back in the afternoon and found the fish at the expected location, and soon discovered that tide was a factor.

“We were teammates in that. It wasn’t me dictating,” West said. “This shows the maturity in our students that you don’t necessarily see with students in other places. The faculty at the center were all surprised. They assumed the students were grad students. Our students have had life experiences that enable them to be good team members who take responsibility.”

One goal of the trip was replenishing Northern’s fish lab to expand the genetic pool and prevent inbreeding, so they carried five-gallon buckets with fish back to the research center, where they also began running trials and collecting data. Transporting the fish to Albuquerque posed more challenges, including drenching one of Gutierrez suitcases with lake water when the bags leaked. In upcoming months, Northern’s students will work on the samples the group brought back in Dr. West's laboratory and with her collaborators at LANL.


Benavidez and Gutierrez value the experience they had and are incorporating what they learned into their decisions about the future.

“I didn’t feel it in the moment, but the trip itself was really a great opportunity,” Benavidez said. “The things I got to do were really unique. They gave me a new perspective about the world. That was the first time I’d been out of the States. I think you see the world as being a lot bigger.”

After working with the fish in the lab so long, Gutierrez was excited to get out into the field to see the fish in their natural habitat. She learned what her capabilities are and overcame some fears, including her terror of a large banana spider in their path to the lake. “Me and that spider became friends, because every time I saw that spider it would help me orient myself and I knew that this was the way I was supposed to go.”

Gutierrez continued working with the fish over the summer and will complete her senior undergraduate research project (Capstone) with West.

West is a strong proponent for creating more opportunities like this for NNMC students.

“Having been at different institutions around the world, the thing I know about our students is that they are as capable as any student anywhere at any institution. And sometimes it seems that due to circumstances they don’t know that they are,” West said. “So I would like Northern to continue to build in a direction where every student has an opportunity to reach the potential they would like to reach in any field.”

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