Home » From Sea Turtles to Calypso, Students Get Hands-On Research Experience in Costa Rica

From Sea Turtles to Calypso, Students Get Hands-On Research Experience in Costa Rica

From Sea Turtles to Calypso, Students Get Hands-On Research Experience in Costa Rica August 18, 2010

From a remote beach in Costa Rica’s Santa Rosa National Park where he was studying sea turtles, Colorado College student Alex Wong Berman had a two-hour hike through tropical forest and coastline to get to the nearest road.

Alex Wong Berman with suppliesAlex Wong Berman with his supplies.

See more photos at the end of this article.

That’s where he would meet ACM Costa Rica Program Director Chris Vaughan and research supervisor Mike McCoy, to pick up supplies they were bringing with them and to talk with them about the progress of his two-month field research project.

To get to the meeting spot, Vaughan and McCoy had a bone-jarring drive down that one-lane, dirt-and-rock road – passable only during the dry season – stopping from time to time to clear rocks and tree limbs out of the way so their jeep could get through.

“It’s not the usual kind of a research site for an undergraduate,” Vaughan noted. It was a perfect site, though, for Wong Berman’s project on the embryonic development of Olive Ridley turtles, since thousands of the turtles make their nests on this beach.

On the road to deliver suppliesOn the road to deliver supplies.

An environmental science major, Wong Berman was tracking temperatures and humidity in shaded and unshaded sections of the beach, and then relating that data with the percentage of turtle eggs that hatched in each section. As a result of his research, Wong Berman was able to suggest some actions that park managers could take to potentially increase the number of turtle eggs that successfully hatch.

“It’s the type of experience that will most likely be life-changing for a student,” said Vaughan, a biologist and conservationist whose participation in the ACM Costa Rica program as a college student led to his career as a researcher, educator, and activist in this Central American country.

Wong Berman was one of this year’s participants on the Costa Rica: Field Research in the Environment, Social Sciences, and Humanities program. Most of the students in the program spent nearly four months in Costa Rica during the spring semester schedule, while four students participated in the program’s new spring quarter/trimester option, an 11-week alternative for students from colleges that are not on a semester calendar.

Both calendar options offer an in-depth experience, featuring independent field research on topics across the academic spectrum, as well as cultural immersion through language study, field trips, and home stays. Students live with Costa Rican families both in the capital city of San José, where the program is based, and during their time in the field.

Students in CartagoSpring Costa Rica program participants visiting Cartago.

Photo courtesy of Emily Graber

The program has about 20 research advisors who work closely with students on their independent projects. The advisors’ expertise ranges widely across academic fields – ecology, public health, economics, marine biology, psychology, anthropology, theatre, poetry, and many more.

Students spend one to two months in the field at locations throughout Costa Rica. In effect, the program provides a crash course in how to conduct field research – designing a research plan and preparing a proposal, collecting and analyzing data, writing up the results in a paper, and presenting the paper at the program’s end-of-term symposium.

“In many ways, the project has been compared to a mini-master’s thesis,” said Vaughan. “Many students use their research project for their senior thesis, present them at professional meetings, publish them in peer reviewed journals – which is unheard of for an undergraduate – and, of course, use them in their graduate school applications.”

Emily Graber picking cacao on a field trip.

Photo courtesy of Emily Graber

“As a recent example, Raluca Oprinca had her research project on Costa Rican women’s empowerment accepted to present orally later this year at an international meeting in Germany,” Vaughan said, “with a possibility to publish it in their journal.”

Oprinca, a Knox College sophomore majoring in Spanish and French, was a spring 2010 quarter/trimester participant in the program.

“I was supposed to take a class about [conducting a research project] in Chicago this quarter,” said Emily Graber, who is majoring in comparative human development at the University of Chicago. “Being here [on the program] actually let me have a more hands-on experience with doing that, and I think that was really helpful.”

Diana Razo, a Latin American Studies major and music performance minor from Knox College, agreed. “I’ve done research papers, but never a project like this,” she said “I learned a lot about the whole research process and I learned a lot about data analysis.”

Razo conducted interviews and used both qualitative and quantitative data analysis for her project examining how calypso music has helped preserve Afro-Caribbean culture and history in communities along Costa Rica’s eastern coast in Limón province.

Geoffrey PurcellGeoffrey Purcell (center) helps weigh part of the day’s catch.

Since many of the projects include interviews with Costa Ricans, students often become involved in the local communities where they do their field research.

That certainly was the case for Geoffrey Purcell, a biology major from Luther College, whose project focused on the sustainability of small-scale commercial fishing in the Gulf of Nicoya. Purcell spent his days at a fishing cooperative, working shoulder to shoulder with fishermen and staff of the organization, weighing and measuring fish from daily catches.

His survey focused on three species – weak fin whitefish, spotted rose snapper, and white snook – that are an important part of the fishermen’s livelihood. “The question is, has the population [of fish in the gulf] shifted from larger, older fish to smaller, younger fish,” Purcell said. If that’s the case, then fishing in the area might not be sustainable over time.

Fishing boats on the beach along the Gulf of Nicoya.

A lot of Purcell’s research was aimed at statistical analysis, but he also wanted to gain a better understanding of the people involved. “A big part of being in this location is the cultural aspect,” he said. “Part of my data collection [was] connecting with the fishermen” and their families in their day-to-day lives.

Purcell’s host father was a fisherman, and living with the host family during his fieldwork in a rural area provided an interesting contrast to his host family in San José, Purcell said.

Isaac Juarez from Knox College also noted the benefits of the program’s blend of cultural immersion and academic work. An economics major, he examined the costs and benefits to pineapple farmers of becoming certified with the Rainforest Alliance, an organization that promotes sustainable agricultural practices.

Isaac Jaurez with his host mother during his field research.

“You get to see the opportunity cost that farmers have to go through [to receive certification], and you look at things other than price,” Juarez said. One of those extra factors is the time it takes a farmer to apply for certification each year. As the saying goes, time is money, and Juarez gained a greater appreciation for that during his home stay with a family that grows pineapples.

“My host mom was a businesswoman,” he said, pointing out that she was constantly busy managing her business and taking care of her family. “A businessperson’s time is very valuable,” Juarez continued. “That’s a huge value I got from this program.”

“Seeing the difference in cultures was amazing,” he said, summing up his experience in Costa Rica. “You can’t get that anywhere else. You’re living it every single day.”

More Photos from Alex Wong Berman

Right: Alex evaluating the embryonic development of turtle eggs.

Below: A visitor on the beach, one of many types of wildlife in the area.

Below right: Watching turtles nest at night on the beach. With Alex is a student in the master’s program at the International Institute for Wildlife Conservation and Management at Universidad Nacional in Costa Rica, one of a group of students who visited the research site.

Photos courtesy of Alex Wong Berman


Except as noted, photos are courtesy of Chris Vaughan.


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