Capturing a far-off place: A conversation with wildlife photographer Trevor Frost

Trevor Frost and his father on the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya, on a trip to see the annual migration of wildebeest across the plains.

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Trevor Frost (B.S.’06/LS) is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker who, after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006 at the age of 16, has gone on to work with National Geographic. We caught up with Frost recently to learn about his love of the wild, storytelling and his time at VCU.

What was it that made you so interested in wildlife?

I was always interested in wildlife growing up. They’re just as complicated as us, and while they’ve adapted to live in a human world, they still live completely differently from us. Both of my parents were biologists; they actually met each other in the Galapagos and spent time living in the Venezuelan rainforests.

I grew up watching slideshows of howler monkeys and scarlet macaws. When we moved back to the city, [my parents] often did talks at my elementary school where they’d show off artifacts from their travels and share slides of animals you could find in the rainforest.

Another big reason was the amount of time I spent outdoors. I worked for Passages Adventure Camp, which is based out of the local Richmond rock-climbing group Peak Experiences. I went there as a camper one summer and came back for years as a volunteer and even worked there while I was attending school.

Did you always envision yourself as a photographer?

I originally wanted to be a biologist, and sort of follow in my dad’s footsteps, and stayed on that route through college because I saw it as a natural path. You get your degrees, defend your thesis and there’s always a way forward. It’s far from easy, but it’s different from the path you go in the creative world.

I started taking pictures when I was around 12 years old. My father’s sister was getting married on a cruise to St. Maarten, and while cruise ships aren’t really my thing, I decided I’d make the best of it and bring along a point-and-shoot camera. Afterward, I kept taking pictures, eventually upgraded to a DSLR and shot on film for around 10 years.

What was your time at VCU like?

I really enjoyed it here! I was a kayaker, volunteered to work with coastal ecosystems and the Rice Rivers Center and traveled out of the country by myself for the first time.

VCU was instrumental to my success because it was different than a lot of the other schools I had previously looked at. There were so many continuing education programs, and I had a lot more flexibility to learn the way I wanted to; that was the secret to my success.

You know, I dropped out of public school in seventh grade. I was lucky enough to come from a family that was decidedly middle class, and I had parents who were willing to take the risk. My mom really championed the idea, because she knew that I had to learn in a way that was right for me. I spent a year doing all of the things that a boy dreams of, like riding my bike, building tree forts and exploring the wetlands behind my house, but the novelty wore off. I still had a thirst for knowledge. A year and a half later, I started at VCU at 16.

I had a lot of freedom and my advisers were open to veering off the standard path if they felt it enhanced my education. I’ll never forget the time my adviser, J. Clifford Fox, Ph.D., J.D., went out of his way to grant me permission to do an independent study because I came to him hesitant about taking a required environmental economics class. It was those kinds of experiences for people like me, who don’t quite fit into a traditional learning mold, that allow us to succeed. Without that, I may have never went to class and not finished my degree, but he made it a point to support me and it made all the difference in the world.

How did you get your start with National Geographic?

After graduating, I took two big trips, one to Africa for six months and a second to South America for seven months. I was always keeping my eyes open for field research jobs where you volunteer and they basically cover your costs while you help other researchers collect data. The plans I had to work in Africa fell through so I just backpacked and saw things as you do, but in South America I landed a position with the local wildlife conservation society helping with camera trap studies of jaguars in a new nature reserve. I was also becoming more serious about taking pictures.

When I came back to the States, after a bit, I went on another trip to the Middle East and realized that while these trips were fun, I was having new experiences and learning new things, the novelty began to wear off. I started thinking about how I could travel — because we’re all a little curious about the world and self-serving — and tell these stories. I stumbled across National Geographic’s Young Explorer program, they call them Early Career Grants now, where they’d give you between $1,000-$5,000 to fund science, photography or video projects. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in Richmond at summer camp with one of the people who received one of the first grants, and he encouraged me to apply.

Inside Grotte de Lembamba cave, in the northwestern corner of Gabon.

My application was to find, explore, map and photograph caves in the west-central

African country of Gabon. I tried to think about what was going to interest National Geographic, so I did my research and learned that the two least explored places on the planet are the “underworld,” or cave systems, and the deep ocean. Now exploring the ocean takes a lot of expensive boats and equipment so I’ll leave that to the team at Discover Titanic, but there are cavers all around the world in practically every country.

I’ve been rock climbing for about 10 years and know my way around the equipment, so I reached out to cavers and got experience caving in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I ended up getting the grant and spent two months in Gabon exploring 14 caves. We ended up finding around 11 new caves and further mapped a cave that had already been explored, finding out that it was much longer than previously thought, and it ended up being the longest cave in the entire country!

What does telling a story mean to you?

I want to tell stories that change the world. Even if they just change the hearts and minds of a few hundred people, then I’ve done something. Your story needs to be guided by how much you think about it, how much it rules your day. If you go to bed dreaming about it and wake up thinking about it then you’re on the right path. That passion will result in stories that are meaningful and will resonate with people around the world, whether you’re a pianist, a sculptor or if you just dream of far-off places.

Some friends of mine recently did an expedition to the Arctic and turned it into a film called “In Between Galaxies.” It had nothing to do with conservation or science; it was just an adventure. One of them broke her back midway through but continued on through this incredibly physically demanding expedition to make it through to the end. When I saw what they went through, and how they triumphed despite it all, it lifted me up. I think that’s what it comes down to. Good stories are born out of people that go after it with everything they can and sacrifice everything they have to make their dreams a reality. It starts, and ends, with relentless obsession.

What do you plan to do next?

Next year I’m going to the western Amazon of Peru to document a team of researchers that are capturing green anacondas, the world’s largest snake, so they can insert radio transmitters that will track them. The team is also taking tissue samples and will test for mercury contamination. There’s a lot of illegal gold mining in the area and mercury levels in the rivers are making people sick, but we have no data about how it is impacting wildlife.

My partner Melissa and I have also just started filming for our next long-term project, a feature length documentary on animal intelligence, which will be a 3-4 year effort. I don’t want to give away too many details but I will be a character driven film, following a few scientists on their journeys to prove animals are more like us than we imagine.

We’ll be spending a lot of time on and in the ocean working with various marine creatures, and if all goes to plan we’ll be working in 10 countries across 3 or 4 continents!

Fulbright scholar Ellen Korcovelos uses computer science and speech analysis to combat dementia

Ellen Korcovelos.

When recent VCU graduate Ellen Korcovelos (B.S.’16/ LS) emailed her idol, a researcher who is one of the best and brightest in his field, she didn’t imagine he would fulfill her request to meet him, let alone invite her to travel to Toronto to conduct research in his lab.

Korcovelos, who earned an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics from the School of Life Sciences’ Center for Biological Complexity, couldn’t believe she had the opportunity to learn from Graeme Hirst, Ph.D., a leading researcher in the field of computational linguistics in the University of Toronto’s computer science department. Computational linguistics involves the use of computer algorithms to analyze aspects of speech such as sentence structure, parsing and word frequency, with the knowledge that speech is an indicator of cognitive health.

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Natural Wonders

The James River’s humble rock pools take center stage for a new project that blends research, coursework and community outreach

Open High School students fanned across the undulating rocks on the James River near the south end of Belle Isle, peering into a series of small circular pools that had formed over thousands of years and now pockmarked the exposed granite bedrock surface. On first glance, the pools looked no different from one another. However, as the students rotated from pool to pool, they learned from the day’s instructors, a collection of senior biology students from Virginia Commonwealth University, about the subtle but significant distinctions between the tiny ecosystems and the conditions that had created them.

One group of students marveled at the trails that snails had etched across the muddy bottom of a pool. Then they moved to an adjacent pool to study hydrilla, the invasive plant species that had flourished there. Nearby, VCU student-instructors explained the insect life that had taken hold in two small pools, including one where mosquitoes thrived precisely because the setting was so inhospitable for any other form of life — including predators. Students near shore received a close-up examination of the leaves and branches of multiple species of trees, learning the nuances that separated one piece of plant life from another and how leaf litter falling into pools near the forest edge could form the base of the food web.

The overall effect on the teenagers was one of a gentle nudging awake. Here, these simple rock pools were serving as a real-life lab where many of the scientific principles they studied in class were playing out in compelling fashion. For most of the students, the small pools and their inhabitants would never have attracted more than a casual glance. Now, as their instructors brought each insect or plant into sharp relief, the lifeless came alive. The pools transformed into portals to unique worlds inhabited by remarkable creatures, all in an urban setting within a short walk of their school and in sight of the whining weekday traffic above them on the Lee Bridge.

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Rice Rivers researchers locate two juvenile Atlantic sturgeon

Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., holds a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.  Photos by Ron Lopez.

Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., holds a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.
Photos by Ron Lopez.

When Matthew Balazik (B.S.’05/H&S; M.S.’08/H&S; Ph.D.’12/LS), Ph.D., told colleagues he planned to sample fish from the James River right before an important presentation at the Rice Rivers Center, they pressed him to be back on time.

Cutting his trip short, he set his nets to find fish closer to the center. There, Balazik found something he has spent the last decade searching for: a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.

“I was pulling the net over the side of the boat. I went down to grab it, thinking it was a blue catfish,” he said.  “Once I saw what it was I just stood there and stared at it for probably 10 seconds.”

In a case of lightning striking twice, the next day Balazik found a second juvenile Atlantic sturgeon. These are the first juvenile of that species found in the James in more than a decade. The discovery lends hope to Rice Rivers researchers studying this endangered species with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

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Researcher investigates environmentally friendly mosquito management

Katie Bellile, VCU alumna, published the results of her undergraduate research on environmentally friendly mosquito management.

Katie Bellile, VCU alumna, published the results of her undergraduate research on environmentally friendly mosquito management.

Virginia Commonwealth University alumna Katie Bellile (B.S.’14/LS) has always been very clear about what she wants. From a young age she knew she wanted to go to VCU and immerse herself in environmental studies.

Bellile, 28, grew up in Richmond around the university where her mom was working toward a master’s degree in urban planning. She remembers being inspired by the Eugene P. and Lois E. Trani Center for Life Sciences building, which was new at the time.

Last year, Bellile graduated with a master’s degree in environmental studies in Life Sciences after completing her undergraduate degree in the same discipline, and started her career at Stantec as an environmental planner, protecting limited freshwater resources. Now, the research she conducted as an undergraduate student has been published — a unique achievement. And she has done it all as a single mom.

Bellile’s paper is an investigation of environmentally friendly mosquito management. Specifically, she looked at the combination of biological pesticides and leaf litter in controlling the emergence of adult mosquitoes from the egg and larval stages. The paper was published this month in the Journal of Vector Ecology, and is the culmination of research Bellile conducted with her faculty mentor James Vonesh, Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Read more about Bellile’s work and her newly published paper.

Evolving science: VCU Rice Rivers Center hosts seventh annual research symposium

Students present research during the afternoon poster session at VCU Rice Rivers Center

Students present research during the afternoon poster session at VCU Rice Rivers Center

A new frog species, a look at songbird population dynamics in the nonbreeding season, a device to simulate sea-level rise, and how urbanization could be affecting inchworms were among the topics presented at the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium last month.

More than 80 scientists and researchers filled a room overlooking the James River to hear 10 presentations and watch two short films at the symposium. The afternoon included a poster session and a tribute to Leonard Smock, Ph.D., director of VCU Rice Rivers Center and interim vice provost of VCU Life Sciences, who is retiring this year.

Smock noted the evolution of life sciences research over the years. “When we started the wetland restoration, the only research going on out there was plant ecology,” Smock said. “Now, it has matured considerably to take in global climate change and rising sea level impacts on the wetlands.”

He credits an investment in environmental technologies for expanding the scope of what researchers can do.

Dong Lee, Ph.D.(B.S.’05/B), postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has been building electronic devices to assist biologists in their work. In his presentation he emphasized that commercial devices often do not answer the needs for a researcher’s specific work, may be cost prohibitive or could be both. Lee’s solution is to make your own. He demonstrated his DIY approach with a project to build a water pump that simulates sea-level rise in tidal freshwater wetlands.

“I’m thinking a lot of these students and faculty are saying, ‘Hey wait a minute. I can use a sensor to do XYZ. I’m going down to the lab and see if he can’t build that for me,’” Smock said.

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Behind the music

Monty (left) and Andrew Kier

Professor and son pen VCU’s first alma mater

By Anthony Langley

A year and a half ago, Lemont “Monty” B. Kier, Ph.D., began reflecting on his time and experiences at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I’ve been here since 1977,” says Kier, who has taught and held various roles in VCU Life Sciences’ Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, the School of Allied Health Professions Department of Nurse Anesthesia, and the School of Pharmacy departments of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science and Medicinal Chemistry, the latter of which he served as chair for 10 years. “I’m so fond of the diversity and the opportunities that I’ve had here I began to write a little poem about it.”

As he started writing, Kier learned that VCU did not have an alma mater, which prompted him to take his poem and transform it into “We Gather Here,” the university’s new, official anthem. The song celebrates the values and memories Kier believes that each and every student makes while at VCU.

“When you walk around the campus, there are people from all around the world,” he says. “The opening verse tells you what our colors mean: diversity and value.”

Upon completing the lyrics, he brought them to his son, Andrew Kier (B.M.’90/A), who took his father’s words and sketched out a rough melody on paper, adding in chords to fill in spaces where needed. About a week later, he loaded the finished music into a software program that helped him finalize the musical arrangement.

“I think it will draw people together,” says Andrew Kier. “It’s a great honor to have it chosen as the alma mater, and I’m proud to be connected to VCU in this additional way.”

While the father-and-son duo were working on the song, Monty Kier shared a draft with Gordon McDougall, associate vice president for university alumni relations, who in turn shared it with VCU’s leaders.

“The university asked the VCU Alumni board of governors to adopt ‘We Gather Here,’” McDougall says. “I’m proud of what Monty and his son accomplished. It’s a great moment for the university.”

In March, the board approved “We Gather Here” as VCU’s official alma mater. Kier is excited to see what comes next for the song and its impact on the university.

“It tells a story about how good it is here. There’s a wonderful spirit that surrounds everyone at VCU,” he says. “Making this contribution is one of the highlights of my career.”

– Anthony Langley is a VCU senior majoring in mass communications.


 “We Gather Here”

Lyrics: Monty Kier
Music: Andrew Kier

We gather here, our voices raise, of VCU we sing our praise, the Black and Gold our colors show, diversity and value grow. We’ve learned so much beyond each class, the joy of friendship will not pass.

So much in life is mem’ry borne, of VCU they’ll not be shorn.

The mem’ries of a campus walk, so many friends, we stop to talk, the friendships here were made to last, they’re in our minds though years have passed. The seasons pass, the years roll by, from VCU the reason’s why we are enriched from values learned, they bring us joy that we have earned.

Next year again we will be here to see our school and give a cheer. So VCU keep all that is great, you’ve brought us joy that is our fate. So come let us sing of VCU, with ev’ry verse we will renew the mem’ries from our campus time, each one embedded in a rhyme.

Listen to the alma mater.

VCU receives grant to look for indicators of preterm birth

Gregory Buck, Ph.D. and Jennifer Fettweis, Ph.D.

Gregory Buck, Ph.D. and Jennifer Fettweis, Ph.D.

Virginia Commonwealth University has received a $378,026 grant from the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth to look for predictors of preterm birth and other adverse pregnancy outcomes in pregnant women.

The two-year Human-Microbiome Alterations Predictive of Prematurity (HAPP) study will expand on two earlier studies under the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project that looked at microbial communities in pregnant women and how changes in communities of bacteria, viruses and human cells affect women’s health.

“We’re looking at the microbiome as women go through pregnancy to try to determine what the roles of the microbiome are and its impact on the reproductive tract,” said Gregory Buck, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at the VCU School of Medicine and director of the VCU Center for the Study of Biological Complexity.

Buck is leading the study with Jennifer Fettweis, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’09/M), assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the VCU School of Medicine and the VCU Center for the Study of Biological Complexity. The team has been applying omics technologies to investigate both the human host cells and the microbiome.

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Young eagles flock to the landfill drive-thru

A second-year eagle is fitted with a transmitter that uses a GPS to track flight patterns.

A second-year eagle is fitted with a transmitter that uses a GPS to track flight patterns.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a young bald eagle soaring through the sky, scouring for a nice meal down below. You could hold out for fresh prey to skitter by. But your hunting skills aren’t quite up to snuff, and hey, look! All your eagle friends are hanging out around a massive overflowing bowl of potential food in the middle of the landscape not too far off. So, of course, you’re going to fly over for a quick bite.

And so it is that landfills — those large sources of easy food for wildlife — are supplementing the diets of our national symbol of freedom in the Chesapeake Bay region, according to a study by the Center for Conservation Biology, a research unit shared by Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary. The results of the study that tracked the patterns of 64 eagles at 72 regional landfills were recently published in the Journal of Raptor Research.

Some of the data surprised researchers. “We thought eagles would use landfills more during the winter when there is less food available, but that didn’t turn out to be the case,” said Bryan Watts, Ph.D., director at the center and Mitchell A. Byrd Professor of Conservation Biology. What was not surprising, though: Young eagles really like going to the landfill drive-thru — a lot.

“We’ve done a lot of observations along the James River and what you’ll see is that the young eagles are trying to steal prey from older eagles,” Watts said. Basically, they are looking for a quick, easy meal while honing their hunting skills. Instead of swooping down on prey, they pirate, beg and scavenge. The landfills are a gold mine.

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Class to crunch social media data during UCI Road World Cycling Championships

Jennifer Ciminelli

Students in a class organized by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Office of Sustainability will log, map and analyze tweets sent by the 450,000 spectators anticipated at the upcoming UCI Road World Cycling Championships to learn how geographic information systems can impact green event planning.

“This assignment is really happening in front of them, so they can think on their feet,” said Wyatt Carpenter, VCU’s sustainability projects and program coordinator. The world’s elite cyclists will crisscross VCU’s Monroe Park Campus and MCV Campus during races and practices being held Sept. 19–27, with the finish line situated roughly halfway between the campuses in Richmond.

Carpenter will join Jennifer Ciminelli (M.S.’06/LS), research and data coordinator for the VCU Rice Rivers Center, to teach the special topics course, “Adaptive Response Modeling Using GIS” around the race. As the highlight, students will take part in a race-day exercise pulling social media feeds into GIS modeling to figure out how to best meet recycling demand from crowds of race fans.

“The race provides a really unique opportunity for us to have this type of situational awareness,” Ciminelli said. “When’s the next time we’re going to get a situation like this?”

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