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From Classroom Dreams to Tropical Reality

This past winter, biology professor Colin Orians and 16 students ventured through the Costa Rican jungle. Drenched in sweat, they had the time of their lives testing hypotheses and getting their hands dirty in the field.

Orians teaches Tropical Ecology and Conservation, a course focused on the unique biology of tropical plants and animals and how human actions affect them. Students spend the semester thinking deeply about unanswered questions: What are the feeding patterns of butterflies? Which plants attract male orchid bees? They then develop a hypothesis and design an experiment to test it. The semester ends with a 16-day research trip to Costa Rica during which they complete their projects.

Student photos from the Costa Rican research trip

Perspiration Preparation

After five days of research at the La Selva Biological Station, a premiere tropical research station, the trip quickly leaves the comforts of civilization behind when the group heads to the Sirena Biological Station within Corcovado National Park, a location so remote it’s accessible only by motorboat.

“The wildness, the smells, the intensity, the heat and humidity, it just takes the experience to another level,” reflects Orians. Here, students are true scientists in the field. “For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching this course is watching the students mature as scientists. As they struggle to find a research topic, design an experiment, and face unforeseen challenges inherent in field research, they’re often pushed beyond their comfort zone—in a good way.”

Quick Thinking

Biology and environmental studies major Rebecca Czaja, A15, and her research partner, biology Ph.D. student Kelsey Graham, AG15, intended to study the feeding habits of hummingbirds. The pair thought they had cleared the biggest hurdle when all of their fragile glass feeders arrived unharmed from Medford. But after failing to attract a single bird, the pair learned from a local hummingbird expert that at that time of year food is so plentiful that hummingbirds rarely visit feeders. Some quick thinking, flexibility, and willingness to ford a river twice a day allowed the pair instead to study the effect of temperature on hummingbird activity rates. (They crossed the river to reach their prime research spot, where flowering plants grew.)

Valerie Cleland, A15, an environmental science and international relations major, was captivated by the biodiversity of Costa Rica and inspired by the local leaders at the forefront of conservation efforts.

“We went on night walks, woke up at 4 a.m. to see bull sharks and crocodiles swimming up the Sirena River, and followed puma tracks through the forest,” she says. “The project I was working on involved interviewing local Costa Ricans who live among and care for the country’s natural resources. I feel incredibly lucky to have had that opportunity of a lifetime to study conservation right there where it’s happening.”

All-Access Pass

While the hands-on experience is invaluable, it does have a price. Orians and his students are grateful to the anonymous donor whose International Research Fund covered almost all of this past trip’s expenses. For each of his previous trips, Orians had to cobble together funding and students were responsible for covering airfare and some portion of in-country costs out-of-pocket.

“I tried to make it accessible to everyone, but I’m sure there have been students who didn’t even bother to apply for the class due to the cost,” says Orians. Being able to rely on the International Research Fund allowed Orians to focus fully on curriculum instead of on financing. “Students learn so much from on-the-ground, hands-on training in any field. Allowing them to engage with faculty on site creates a learning opportunity that’s uncommon and really precious.”