Of Grasslands and Gerbils

I first heard about PIRE Mongolia while sitting in my first introductory biology class. Dr. Brent Helliker, put a powerpoint up for the class to see. I remember the first slide being of some alien-looking land that I had never seen of, despite all of my Google image searches of faraway places. Dr. Helliker enthusiastically told the class tales of delicious food, grass, and mysterious Mongolian yurt things (which I now know as gers!). The whole project sounded so exotic and exciting. How could I not apply to go on this wild adventure? Plus, the daily activities were going to consist of all science all day! What more could a wannabe biologist want in a summer adventure?

One wannabe biologist working in the lab…


After listening to past participants tell stories about riding little horses and eating yak meat, I have high hopes for this trip. I think every day in Mongolia is going to be awesome. In the early morning, maybe I’ll see the grazers munching along a fairy ring for a yummy nitrogenous breakfast. On some days I’ll run up to the upper slope to help complete a vegetation census, and on the way back roll all the way down the hill (Pierre says there are no pokey plants at the field site!). For lunch, perhaps I’ll eat yak soup while conversing with Mongolian undergrads. Later, in the late afternoon, I’ll spend my time at eye level with the Festuca grasses and their friends, piecing together clues to unlock every detail of their secret plant world. Perhaps in the evening I’ll wade into the third purest form of water of Lake Hövsgöl for an evening bath with my biodegradable soap. And when night has finally fallen, I’ll lay in my sleeping bag, dreaming of tomorrow’s adventures while the fire crackles softer and softer.

Though no one from the field has ever reported a wild Mongolian gerbil sighting, it could just be that they mistook a gerbil to be a ground squirrel. I am semi-determined to see a wild gerbil.


-Alysen Vilhena, rising Junior, University of Pennsylvania biology major, Philadelphia, PA, USA

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One response to “Of Grasslands and Gerbils

  1. Yea! Alysen, what a fun adventure. I’m not sure but is that a marshmellow you’re so excited about seeing up close? And I’m pretty sure all gerbils are wild, even the ones in captivity.

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