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Mt. Pleasant Area graduate takes environmental trip to Russia

| Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 9:48 p.m.
Ashley Funk of Mt. Pleasant (left) and Laura Riggs, her classmate at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., count and classify species to measure biodiversity at Lake Baikal in Russia during a research trip the students took there with members of the school’s faculty.

Ashley Funk's drive and determination to find solutions to environmental issues recently landed her on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia as part of a National Science Foundation biodiversity project with Wellesley College.

Funk, 19, is a 2012 Mt. Pleasant Area graduate who is pursuing degrees in the fields of environmental studies and mechanical engineering at the college in Wellesley, Mass.

The most rewarding part of the trip, Funk said, came with the chance to learn about and immerse herself in a place and culture that so few people know about.

“Before this experience, I thought of Siberia as a cold, empty and wild place,” she said. “During my trip, though, I found myself exploring one of the most beautiful, culturally diverse places in the world.”

Students prepared for their field work in Siberia with course work at Wellesley in the spring, said Thomas Hodge, a professor of Russian at the school, who in 2000 co-founded the course entitled “Lake Baikal: The Soul of Siberia” with Marianne Moore, a professor in the school's department of biological sciences.

That work included the study of the ecology of the world's oldest, deepest and most biodiverse lake, the Russian environmental movement and the lake's singular, cultural value as viewed by the Russian people, Hodge said.

In August, Funk embarked on the adventure with the two professors and a group of fellow students.

They stayed primarily with locals of the small village of Bol'Shie Koty, located on the shores of the lake, as well as with foundation researchers.

In addition, the group spent a week on a boat traveling the expanse of the lake, she said. Funk also had the opportunity to examine preserved specimens from the lake at a local museum in the village, she said.

She also conducted original environmental field research in which she and the group looked at the impact of docks and dock usage on the biodiversity of the lake, she said.

The group was shown some troubling sites on the lake by a local from Baikal'sk and a member of Baikal Environmental Wave — Russia's most renowned environmental organization — including an infamous pulp and paper mill, Funk said.

During the boat trip, Funk and the group spent time on Ol'khon Island, the largest island on the lake, and a place of spiritual significance to many native Siberians, she said.

Funk said her elementary understanding of the Russian language made it a challenge to interact with people or to understand what was happening at any given time. However, two students from a local university who spoke fluent English aided her as translators and wound up also being friends and mentors to the Wellesley students, she said.

The group participated in two botanical hikes into the Taiga, the forest that sprawls over much of Siberia and Censer Valley-Kadil'naia in Russia, where they learned about various plants from Irkutsk University botanists.

Two weeks of the trip were spent exploring Irkutsk, the largest city in Siberia.

While there, Moore said Funk made quick observations, and got to the heart of the environmental struggles of the area.

“Ashley's dedication to environmental issues is beyond exceptional,” Moore said.

After the group returned from the trip in August, Funk mailed a letter detailing their findings to both the New York Times and Public Radio International's “The World,” a joint production of the BBC and WGBH, Moore said.

The letter, written by Funk and signed by fellow students, prompted a radio program that focused on the fate of the Baikal Wave organization, Moore said.

Despite the fact that the Times did not publish anything about the letter, the paper sent a response to Funk, Moore said.

“(Ashley) walks the talk,” Moore said. “I'm convinced she will be the director of the United States Environmental Protection Agency or the President of the U.S.A. someday,” Moore said.

Kelly Vernon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-547-5722 or