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Ph.D. candidate studies rare frogs

Associate Sports Editor

Published: Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08


Kristiina Hurme's comfort zone isn't always in the classroom. The mild-mannered Texan, who shows no signs of an accent, has preferred to be surrounded by animals, either in the zoo or jungle, since childhood.

"My mom took me to the zoo every day when I was little," Hurme said. She lived just a mile away from the San Antonio Zoo. "We'd get a year membership and walk around every day. I started going there so young that I can't remember life without a zoo."

The species that most interested Hurme was frogs. She would catch them as a child and even used "tadpole" as a domain on her first e-mail address.

Today, the 32-year-old is finishing her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She studies animal behavior, most notably parental care in frogs. The specific species she studies is called Leptodactylus insularum, found only in Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. The frogs are unique in many ways. Mostly brown and black, about the size of a bullfrog, the species will eat anything that will fit in its mouth. It bites humans, and like mammals, guards its young.

Her research has taken her through three rainy seasons in Panama, working from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. from June through December. After graduating with a bachelor's degree from Princeton in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in 2001, she went to Central America to study frogs. Hurme studied in the jungle off and on between 2002-2008 and became acclimated to the tropics. She also grew accustomed to fighting off mosquitoes and caiman during long nights of research in the dark.

"I was in two different swamps," Hurme said. "In one, a caiman was eight feet long. She and I would try to find the same calling frog. I'd be on one side of the bush and she'd be on the other side. I'd try to scare her away."

At first, Hurme's older brother accompanied her into the jungle as an assistant because she did not want to be alone. Later, volunteer undergraduate students from across America, as well as the United Kingdom and Italy, came to help her. Hurme was a volunteer assistant after her undergraduate studies and lived for two years in Costa Rica and Belize. Her family has made a trip to every place Hurme has lived.

"I gave them the travel bug and they haven't gotten rid of it," Hurme said. "It was part of why I came to UConn, because they had a strong tropic biology program."

She said it takes multiple years to complete her analysis and because the frogs are not well-studied. She is breaking new ground. Hurme has given eight oral presentations, in locations ranging from St. Louis to Storrs to San Antonio. She also has been a teaching assistant at UConn the last five years, and is optimistic her final research will produce exciting results.

"If I can find one cool behavior that will get people excited enough, it may preserve the rain forest if they know the frogs are out there," Hurme said.

Hurme said her advisor, Kentwood Wells, suggested the idea of studying a rare behavior in a species.

"I think it's just that we need to make sure people have a love and interest in biology," Hurme said. "If I show the frogs are really cool and put more pressure on people it will make a difference. It will work best on little kids. We can give them something to remember."

Hurme comes from a family of athletes. She competed in the modern pentathlon, an event that includes epee fencing, pistol shooting, running, swimming and show jumping. Kristiina's father Risto Hurme, 60, competed in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics and captured a team bronze medal for Finland in Modern Pentathlon in 1972. Risto, a dentist, won three straight individual NCAA fencing championships from 1973-75 at New York University.

Her mother June, 57, made the Veteran's World Team in fencing for the United States in 2007. Kristiina traveled to Sydney for the World Championships to coach her mom. June is also an artist. She created Scooby Doo cartoons for Hanna Barbera in the 1970s.

Kristiina's brothers also followed in the family's footsteps. Tommi, 25, captained the Princeton fencing team and is living and training for the Olympics in Budapest, Hungary. He works for the UN. Edward, 22, also fenced on the Princeton varsity team, but is now following Kristiina's path into the field of biology. He is a field station manager in Peru.

"My sister did get me interested in science," Edward said. "It started when she built a pond in our back yard over 15 years ago. It suddenly exposed us to the life that was hidden, waiting for water. Immediately toads appeared from no where and filled the pond with eggs. But my interest was solidified when I went with Kristiina to Costa Rica and Panama the summer before college, to help her begin her Ph.D. research. After experiencing the jungle first hand and the thrill of finding animals in the wild I was hooked."

Edward is more grateful for Kristiina's contributions to science than fencing, adding a humorous aspect to the two now working in the same field.

"I am very fortunate to have Kristiina leading the way, because I can take insight on what grad school is like, what is the best head lamp to buy and she always gives me help on science writing," Edward said. "Right now we are actually collaborating [with UConn EEB grad student Alejandro Rico-Guevara] on a project I'm starting here [in Peru] looking at hummingbird bill morphology. We will see how that goes and if we don't kill each other by the end."

As for when the children were growing up, Kristiina said her parents had an impact on what sports the children played.

"We didn't really try other sports besides pentathlon," Hurme said of her father.

"My parents were thrilled to have everyone fencing," Edward said. "It was a great activity for the whole family to enjoy, but since we were all taking it seriously, it wasn't always the most enjoyable. We had to learn how to take criticism. But it was a great way for me and my brother to take out aggression on each other and spending a year in Peru with no fencing is definitely tough. I have found myself poking people."

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