Eastern’s Tropical Biology Field Course Reaches Milestone

50 Years of Students becoming Scientists

A group of Eastern students crosses a suspension bridge into the Costa Rican jungle at dusk.

The sun was setting on Costa Rica. The air was thick with humidity and adrenaline. The rain was coming down, and Nicholas Kukla, a biology student at Eastern Connecticut State University, was about to step foot on a narrow suspension bridge.

Roughly 30 meters off the ground and 100 meters away from their destination, this was the moment that Kukla and his group had been waiting for. They were venturing from the comfort of their lodge into the deepness of the rainforest for the first and only night-hike of their field trip in the Central American country.

“Once we got into the rainforest, the first thing I noticed were the sounds,” recalled Kukla. “A rush of sounds from different directions had my head swiveling. I wanted to know what each twig snap and leaf rustle could be.”

Using artificial light to see in the pitch-black forest, the researchers spent hours investigating tropical organisms. Among their finds, they discovered the bullet ant, named for a debilitating sting that some say is the most painful in existence. The creature rested comfortably on the handrail of the guided trail, unbothered by its visitors.

“It was the process of turning over every log and exploring every dark hole we encountered that made the night-hike so special,” Kukla said. “This trip really shows you how science works at the smallest levels.”

Since 1968, Eastern’s biology department has taken students on a tropical biology field experience—known as a “global field course” (GFC)—in international locales. This May, a riveting trip to Costa Rica marked the department’s 50th annual trip. The country is a frequent destination due to its tropical rainforests and rich biodiversity.

 

The biology GFC is the longest running program of its kind at Eastern. Destinations have changed over time, initially taking students to Bermuda. In 1984, the department introduced Jamaica as a second location, though Belize took its place by 1986. Bermuda and Belize alternated each year until 2001, when San Salvador Island in the Bahamas replaced Bermuda. Costa Rica replaced the Belize course as a destination in 2008.

Biology Professor Charles Booth has seen much of this evolution, teaching more than 20 global field courses throughout his Eastern tenure.

“My first trip was in May of 1985 to Bermuda with former professors Barry Wulff and Michael Gable,” he said. “I have many great memories — nighttime walks through the Belize rainforest, using a headlamp to spot animals; scuba diving with hammerhead sharks off San Salvador; visiting spectacular Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala. My best memories are sharing the experiences with students.”

“Every time I teach the course, I have unique experiences,” said Biology Professor Patricia Szczys. “What I love most about the tropical biology course is to witness the first-time rainforest experiences of my students. Plants, animals and cultural differences that have become familiar to me over 20 years feel new and exciting when I travel with them. Each student brings me a new perspective.”

 

Szczys, alongside Biology Professor Matthew Graham, accompanied 14 students on the trip this May. During the school year preceding the trip, students worked in groups to read the literature and design an experiment later to be executed in Costa Rica. This coming fall 2018 semester, they will analyze the data and create posters that convey their research. Several students are planning to submit their work for publication.

Biology student Jessica Purick and her group studied the effects of visual and olfactory cues on behavioral responses of the strawberry poison dart frog. “It was a very hands-on adventure with lots of hiking and sightseeing. It definitely made me want to do another research trip in the future and travel more in general.”

“The knowledge and experiences that I gained during my days in Costa Rica were invaluable,” added student Nathan Murphy. “Not only did the trip allow me to explore places I’d never imagined seeing before, it also allowed our class to perform scientific research projects involving real-world data collection and experimentation that would not be possible in the United States.”

Eastern students scuba dive in the Bahamas.

“For students in our tropical biology courses,” said Booth, “the biological concepts they read about in textbooks and hear about in lectures come alive when they visit an oceanic island, snorkel on a coral reef or walk through a tropical rainforest. They see exotic plants and animals up close and gain a sense of how tropical organisms interact. They learn how plant and animal communities are structured and how they differ from the communities that we have in New England.”

Booth continued: “The students also learn about new cultures. They see how the local people interact with their environment, how they use native plants and animals for food and medicine. Bermuda, Belize and the Bahamas are English-speaking countries, former British colonies, but they have distinct histories, cultures and customs. The Costa Rica course exposes students to a very different, predominantly Spanish-speaking culture. Among the students who go on these trips, some have never been out of New England, some have never flown on a plane before and some have never been out of the United States. The trips become a transforming experience for many, exposing them to a world they may have only read about or perhaps never knew existed.”

Speaking to the transformation, Kukla added, “These trips really make you feel like you’re transitioning from a student to a scientist.”

In San Salvador, students study the biology of tropical terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Marine studies focus on coral reef, sea grass bed, mangrove, beach and rocky shore communities. Terrestrial studies examine cave, mud flat, sand dune and upland shrub communities. San Salvador’s flora and fauna include both native and introduced species, making the island a natural laboratory for studying island biogeography.

Studying in Costa Rica increases student understanding of tropical ecosystems by reviewing fundamental concepts of tropical ecology, as well as various topics currently attracting research attention. Considerable effort is devoted to assignments and activities designed to enhance educational value. In addition to factual and conceptual content, the course centers on the design and execution of field studies in tropical biology.

 

“All students return changed in some way,” said Szczys. “Some students realize that they love and have a talent for field work, others realize that they are much more interested in laboratory-based biology. All return with an appreciation of tropical biodiversity and the complexity of tropical field studies, along with an understanding of a new culture. Our students return having overcome environmental, cultural and intellectual challenges.”

These challenges, according to Szczys, include handling wildlife, lack of air conditioning amid intense humidity, and troubleshooting experimental designs with limited Internet service.

“For most, perhaps all students, the trips offer a chance to reflect on their personal lives and goals,” added Booth. “Some students decide they want to travel more, and they have newfound confidence in their ability to travel internationally, while some want to go to graduate school to study tropical environments. Others simply have a new perspective on their lives in the United States after having experienced life in another country.”

He also noted that global field courses are as much a learning experience for faculty as they are for students. “I learn something new on every trip — not just biology, but I have gained a better understanding of countries we have visited, and have gotten to know the students better. These experiences helped, I think, to make me a better teacher and mentor back on campus, and to make me a more informed citizen.”

Szczys concurred, “It is a privilege to share my interests as a biologist and experience as a global citizen with my students.”

“The Costa Rica trip was absolutely unforgettable,” concluded Kukla. “I am so thankful to Eastern for providing me with this opportunity that has sparked a permanent interest in rainforest biology.”

Written by Jordan Corey