Professor sweats hippo research

MERCED -- Wading in African river water, Christopher Viney wanted just one thing from the hordes of hippos -- their sweat.

The University of California at Merced professor got up close and personal with several of the exotic animals this summer by participating in the filming of a National Geographic television show.

Viney, 48, traveled with "Dangerous Encounters" host Brady Barry in Zambia. Barry's known for getting very close to deadly animals.

The crew spent two weeks following hippopotamuses in South Luangwa National Park, considered one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world because of its high concentration of animals. There are about 30 hippos per mile in the Luangwa River, according to the park's Web site.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Viney's research concentrates on the biological properties of hippo secretion. He's studying the organization of molecules in their sweat to see how it can be applied to products that protect skin. Viney is chasing insight that could be used to develop better sunscreens, antibiotics and insect repellents.

Hippos not plentiful in valley

Because the National Geographic Channel show hasn't aired, Viney can't go into details about his excursion or field research. While there's no air date for the episode, Viney said he believes he has a "strong supporting role."

"(The trip) exceeded my expectations in so many ways," he said.

National Geographic contacted Viney after hearing about his interest in hippos. Since hippos are not plentiful in the Central Valley, Viney jumped at the chance.

"When else will I ever get the opportunity in my life to get this access? This is my first serious bit of field work," he said.

Because sweat doesn't travel well, Viney brought a microscope to conduct tests while in Africa.

Hippos are considered Zambia's most dangerous animal -- because of the four-foot span of their open mouths and their ability to run up to 30 miles an hour, Viney said. In addition to keeping their eyes on the hippos, the Zambia crew made sure to avoid crocodiles and elephants, he said.

The cost of Viney's trip -- travel, insurance and a visa as well as medical shots and tests -- were covered by National Geographic. The cross-continent journey also allowed Viney to stop by his hometown in South Africa to visit childhood friends and speak with high school students.

One of UC Merced's first faculty members, Viney plans to give a campus presentation on his adventure and research in the next few weeks. He'll publish his findings this year or early next year.

The safari not only offered an opportunity for research, it allowed Viney to interact with people of another culture.

"The natives are superbly unspoiled, deeply honest people," Viney said. "The country has a superb future because of the people they have."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.