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At “Lizard Camp,” Scientific and Personal Discovery on the Dell City Dunes

photographs courtesy Doug Eifler. This June, five students – all emerging women in science – spent a month tracking a singular creature across the West Texas white sands, as part of the Erell Institute's Lizard Camp.

Women have made critical contributions to the sciences for centuries. But despite efforts to increase female participation in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – there's still a yawning gap. Both globally and in the United States, less than 30 percent of scientific researchers are women.  

The Kansas-based Erell Institute is dedicated to enabling students from underrepresented backgrounds to become scientists, through mentoring and hands-on training. And at Guadalupe Mountains National Park this summer, the institute led a “Lizard Camp.” The expedition yielded new insights into a singular West Texas creature – and fueled the creativity and confidence of a cadre of emerging scientists.

Kaera Utsumi is a master's grad from Kansas University.

“It was 108,” she said, “and it was the first week we got there, so there was no intro – it was just, 'Bam!'”

Utsumi was one of five female students who braved the brutal heat of the Salt Basin Dunes, east of Dell City in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, this June. The dunefield – a smaller version of the famous dunes found at White Sands National Park – is a fierce place. It also sustains unique plants and animals.

“Bleached” or “blanched” lizards have long been known from New Mexico's White Sands. But in 2016, biologist Drew Dittmer was hiking the dunes here – when he encountered a lizard as white as the shifting sands themselves. The lesser earless lizard – Holbrookia maculata – is found throughout West Texas. But here, earless lizards had adapted to the distinctive white-sands ecosystem. It's evolution-in-action.

Lizard Camp participants stayed in Dell City, where they bonded with the small town's business owners and shopkeepers. And each morning, they set out for the dunes – to conduct pioneering research on a little-known creature.

“The first three days we found, maximum, three lizards,” Utsumi said. “It took us a couple days, but we figured out how to find them – and what habitat to look at to find them.”

The blanched lizards favor the dunes margins, Utsumi said – where nearby vegetation offers refuge from predators. Indeed, escape behavior became a focus of Lizard Camp research.

Janey Haddock served eight years in the U.S. Army, working as a special agent and criminal investigator. But the military was primarily a way to fund her education – and support her passion for biology. She's volunteering now at Kansas University, and is preparing to start graduate studies in animal cognition.

“One of the interesting things we observed in this population is they like to perch, when scared,” Haddock said. “We have pictures of them spread-eagle about a foot and a half off the ground, and us just standing over them, to the point where one of us could reach out and grab them – it's not a very efficient position, but they would do it. And then the burying – every now and again they would get so stressed they would quickly bury themselves.”

The West Texas blanched lizards evolved independently of those found in New Mexico's White Sands, and their escape behavior is distinctive. The Lizard Camp team helped collect DNA samples from 83 lizards, which will allow genetic comparisons with the New Mexico population. 

The team also learned that these blanched lizards are especially “skittish” – an encounter with a human can alter their behavior in enduring ways. Guadalupes park officials want to encourage visitation to the Salt Basin Dunes. The Lizard Camp findings could help guide visitation, so as to minimize the disturbance to these remarkable animals.

The science was significant. So was the personal growth for those involved.

There's abundant research showing male students tend to dominate classroom conversations – especially in the sciences. Women with scientific gifts can find themselves marginalized, and so discouraged they forsake the field.

Daanya Siddiqui, a University of Washington undergrad, said Lizard Camp was a powerful corrective for that.

“I think I've grown a lot in my ability to speak my opinion,” Siddiqui said. “Back home, I don't really talk very much, especially in a school setting, especially in a scientific setting. Oftentimes my voice goes unheard. But I've learned to speak my opinion a bit more, and that's something that I will take away and utilize for the rest of my life.”

Experiences like Siddiqui's are why Lizard Camp exists, Doug Eifler said. Doug and his wife Maria founded the Erell Institute, and lead the camps – with Doug as the “token male”.

“It's about doing the science,” Doug Eifler said, “but we're using the science as education, as growth, as ways to help another generation get into this – another generation that hopefully will then help change the face of the science in this country, for the better. That's kind of what we do. Of course, you can always summarize it as just – we chase lizards.”

Erell's mission is rooted in the Eiflers' own unconventional journey as scientists and educators.

The two met as PhD students – and envisioned a future in which they could share both professional pursuits and a rich family life. But when Maria started in a tenure-track position, they learned academia didn't lend itself to that. The job was all-consuming, Maria said. It left her virtually no time for her young children.

Unwilling to accept that, the couple took a leap – and moved back to Kansas, where they had roots. Doug taught at a tribal college. Maria worked as the science resource staffer at their children's Montessori School, before herself joining the staff at Haskell Indian Nations University. 

Their experience at the tribal university confirmed their passion for mentoring underrepresented groups in the sciences, and Lizard Camp was born.

“Two people in this field working full-time jobs would not have allowed us to have the life that we wanted,” Maria Eifler said. “And so Erell was our answer to being able to navigate between the bureaucracy of the bigger organizations, attend to what we thought our family needed, and continue with our passion for science and biology and behavior.”

The Eiflers often mentor students long after an initial field session – Drew Dittmer, who discovered the West Texas bleached lizards, was one such student. And they've led Lizard Camps across the U.S., and abroad. Several have been held at the Dalquest Desert Research Station, south of Marfa. 

The Eiflers support emerging scientists – but they also model the idea that a science career can coexist with a balanced life.  

Makenna Orton, a staffer at Kansas University's Natural History Museum, was part of this summer's camp. 

“In this group, we have such a range of different levels of experience,” Orton said. “You have people with post docs coming in. You have people from completely different undergraduate fields coming in. This has also shown the idea that – if you're interested in something you can go out and pursue it, and it'll work out. There are a lot of opportunities out there, if you're interested to go and find them.” 

photograph courtesy Doug Eifler.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.