Students receive grants to continue research of caves


Maya Robles

Kaylie Wheeless, Lauren Camp, Aspen Huseman, Maya Robles, Rocio Alferez and Mitti Fairchild in the Tennessee Cave.

Mike Taylor, chair of Henderson’s department of Communications and Theater Arts, has explored caves in the southern United States for around 35 years. After hearing about an interesting pond in an underground cave in Tennessee, he brought nine samples back to Henderson for examination.

In 2017, Dr. James Engman, a biology professor who had previously done a cave study in Blanchard Springs Caverns, was excited to hear about a “petroleum pond” and the features it had to offer. The two teamed up with six students to dive deep into the unknown. While two of the original members have graduated, Kaylie Wheeless, Lauren Camp, Aspen Huseman, and Maya Robles as well as Rocio Alferez and Mitti Fairchild are still digging in the dirt for more.

The mining and discovery does not come easy or cheap. Each year Dr. Engman selects students to apply for grants in hopes of covering some of the costs. “That’s the only thing that keeps this project going,” Engman said. The students have to travel to the cave and not all the samples can be processed on campus, so the grants help cover those costs.

Over the past year, Kaylie Wheekess received a grant from the Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) for $4,000. Aspen Huseman received $2,500 from The National Cave Karst Research Institute Scholar Fellowship Program. A $10,000 grant from NASA/Arkansas Space Grant Consortium Student Intensive Training (SIT) was given to Lauren Camp. Both Maya and Kaylie will be receiving research funding from the McNair Scholars Program.

The team has no idea how long this study will take and have no intention of stopping anytime soon. Each year as students graduate, Dr. Engman offers a spot to new students in hopes of continuing the research. The grants are annual, meaning students will apply for them again next year and hope they receive the funds to continue discovering the unusual.