Stewart (center) with colleagues

A clean, tidy office lies at the end of the secured hallway. A bobble head turtle sits in the middle of a shelf. Underneath, magazines sport mighty Komodo Dragons on their covers.

Jill Stewart came to UNC for her Master’s and Ph.D. She is now the deputy director of the UNC Galapagos Program and an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. During the summers, Stewart travels to the UNC Science Center in the Galapagos to guide students in their scientific research.

“I love bring down there,” said Stewart, during an interview last Monday. “You can see a living laboratory right in front of you.”

UNC is the only university to have a research facility on the Islands. That means no Duke, N.C State, Harvard, or Yale. Students and faculty get a unique chance to conduct research in the environment of their scientific predecessor, Charles Darwin.

The Center is made possible by UNC’s international connection with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, in Ecuador.

“They help open doors for us,” said Stewart. “Having the science center there has been an opportunity to work across departments and with international partners to address the big environmental challenges affecting us globally.”

It may be hard to picture modern life on the Islands. Start by thinking of fishing villages. Villages make up the core residential areas on the four inhabited Islands. Recent tourism development has led to a number of hotels appearing on the Islands. And as the Galapagos populate, more pathogens enter the waterways. At certain levels, this phenomenon can be unsustainable for the health of the ecosystem and can come back to harm the Islanders.

“As more and more people move to the islands it certainly puts stress on the water resources,” said Stewart. “It creates challenges to supply safe drinking water to the people that are there and to the treatment of the wastewater.”

Previously, the Islands had no way to measure water quality, but through the Galapagos Program, UNC has built that very capacity. For several years Stewart has been running a water-monitoring project that detects and tracks pathogens in the water.

The Islands have complex and extensive animal species, and are relatively undeveloped by people. These facts make them a key area for predicting and understanding the impact of human development on the sustainability of ecosystems.

“We learn lessons in the Galapagos that we can apply to North Carolina and elsewhere across the globe,” said Stewart.

Students who go to the Galapagos live in the community through home-stay. Twice a day, host families and students eat homemade meals together. Students develop lasting relationships and get inside tips for what to do on the Islands. Then, they realize their visits were too short.

Whether you are there to learn Spanish, conduct research, enjoy the Islands, or experience the culture, ending up in the Galapagos may not be the worst thing that could happen to you.

“Being in Darwin’s paradise, seeing iguanas and blue-footed boobies — people are simply outnumbered by the amazing variety of the species around them.”

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