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Student Life at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica

Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in the Middle of a Rainforest

As dawn’s first rays of light slice through the lush foliage outside her window, Tracy Monique Botero rouses from her dorm bed. She needs a flashlight to find her bicycle in the semi darkness and on the way surprises a giant anteater and a family of peccaries that makes its home not far from her cabin. She is one of the thousands of students pursuing graduate and undergraduate studies in the middle of a rainforest. Their campus is the La Selva Biological Station situated in an old-growth forest in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica.

If you are a graduate or undergraduate student, you can spend a summer abroad, take an 8-week credit class, or pursue graduate research at La Selva. Students majoring in biology or environmental sciences can even do so on competitive grants or fellowships awarded by the Organization for Tropical Studies, which manages the station. OTS provides international travel, lodging, meals, and in some cases a stipend. In addition, possibilities exist for lifelong learners who want to arrange courses lasting a week or a day in such topics as Birdwatching 101 or Rainforest Photography. Whatever level of student you are, however, you must be willing to work and study in an environment where Nature, with a capital N, rules.

What can you expect of this type of study? I followed Tracy through several days of working, relaxing, and playing and discovered life at La Selva to be similar to life on many college campuses with one obvious exception. Although it has its share of air-conditioned analytical laboratories and high speed computers, it is the field work that sets it apart. La Selva, meaning “the forest” is no cool pine wood dotted with flowery meadows. It is instead a steamy tangle of roots, vines, and massive trees resplendent with the diversity and drama only the tropics can deliver. What nature-loving student wouldn’t trade studying in sterile laboratories or uninspiring computer rooms for working among the parrots and toucans in the luxuriant foliage of a rainforest? Especially when the dorm rooms are spacious enough and the showers have plenty of hot water.

Before you pack, you need to know that it is not paradise. This is made painfully clear when Tracy hands me our mosquito net veils and rubber boots to face the onslaught of nature we are about to venture into. She tells us the big black boots are to discourage venomous snakes. Along with water-resistant notebooks, specimen bags, flagging tape, and other equipment, she stuffs a poncho in her backpack. During the rainy season it’s almost the school uniform. Ponchos, rubber boots, mosquito nets and such are readily available and cheap in the town nearby.

That’s the easy part. Tracy’s dorm is still quite a hike from her field of study because La Selva comprises 3,900 acres of mostly primary tropical wet forests. The trails are concrete through the first 3.2 kilometers of her trek. The concrete trails provide support for Tracy and other students as they peddle to collect their data, lugging their equipment. The bicycles have been made available by the station along with the high-speed computers and other sophisticated laboratory equipment.

Tracy’s worksite, however, is across the river. At the section named (obviously by scientists) STR 3200, Tracy straddles a bench attached to a cable, straps herself in with two small chains, and glides across, watching the river 50 meters below for signs of the crocodile. On the other side she walks another two kilometers on muddy trails that lead her to the section of the forest where openings have been cut through the dense vegetation specifically to house the traps she has built herself for gathering data on butterflies for her master’s thesis.

The students who research bats think she’s got it easy. They have to do their field work in the dead of night, meaning that on moonless nights they venture out into sheer blackness, miner’s lights strapped to their heads.

But it’s not all as brutal as it seems. If you aren’t afraid of water or the dark, it’s not really that bad at all. Because she starts so early, Tracy is done with the field work before noon—just in time for lunch. Three meals a day are included during set times at the mess hall where students exchange horror stories of their day’s experiences. On the day I joined them, one of the doctoral students arranged a pick-up soccer game for later in the day, while two fearless undergrads made dates to sun themselves on a beach by the river, crocodile or no crocodile.

A satellite dish keeps CNN and other English-language stations available for students, though not for visitors. This summer, the World Cup had the fans running to the TV room/kitchen on game days for a good spot on the sofa, and the stocked kitchen was used by a group cooking food from the countries that were playing.

I heard nothing about confrontations with large predators, but insects are a constant topic of conversation, especially bullet ants (don’t touch the trees or sit down without looking first) and mosquitoes. Although malaria would be the expected reason to fear mosquitoes, it was actually because they might be carrying botfly eggs.

“Wash your clothes every day,” Tracy warns newcomers. “Just in case a botfly egg is stuck on them.”

A botfly (dermatobia hominis) sticks its egg on a mosquito, which then transfers it to a victim. Body heat triggers the egg to hatch, and it burrows under the skin, securing itself with two anal hooks. The disgusting nature of having a larva in one’s body, growing a lump that untreated can be as a large as an egg, makes the botfly a popular topic at La Selva.

When students have to get away from the station, it’s a $3 taxi ride into Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, a town with ATM machines, small shops, and a few restaurants. I saw several students coming out of Mr. Pizza, a funky little joint on a side alley, and a few boarding the tourist boats on the Sarapiquí River, where guides point out howler monkeys, iguanas, and a lizard the locals call Jesus Christ because it walks on water. After a few days at La Selva none of these animals will seem out of the ordinary.

Outings on the weekend are arranged by the students themselves, so it’s good to bring some extra money for these not-to-be-missed opportunities. While I was there, the undergraduates collected $80 from each student to rent a bus and hire a driver for a trip to Waterfall Gardens, a spectacular grouping of five waterfalls connected by bridges and stairways built to capitalize on the growing tourism industry in Costa Rica. Outings such as this are a refreshing change. The group enjoyed flavored cappuccinos at a coffee shop (definitely not available at the station or the town) and a natural hot tub with inexpensive massages on the way back. A good thing to bring to La Selva is an iPod, and most students took theirs on the long bus ride. They shared music and compared the concerts and bands they loved or hated, the jungle world left far behind for a day.

Not every student is cut out for work at La Selva. For many, field experience is a lonely endeavor, although, with so many students, it is not impossible to find a research buddy. Tracy occasionally goes out with an undergraduate studying birds, but when she’s alone and hears the roar of a great curaçao, she worries it’s a puma rather than the turkey-sized bird. She shows me a paw print of a very large cat in case I harbor any doubt of whose territory we are walking through. The mentors tell her no one has ever been attacked by a puma in La Selva. Still, Tracy must wish the bird sounded more like a canary than a jaguar.

So why should you endure those chilling uncertainties and hostile insects of La Selva? For one, it’s secure. A guard had to know who we were before he opened the gate to let our taxi driver through, and another one greeted us inside. It is also a supportive environment under close guidance of professors and a full staff of assistants. All the undergraduates had mentors, and graduate students like Tracy can use their fellowship money to hire assistants experienced with the rainforest. Finally, it is the place to go for an ambitious science major. A total of 240 scientific papers are published yearly from research conducted at the site, as well as thousands of theses and dissertations, making it one of the most important tropical research stations in the world.

If nothing else, it offers moments of breathtaking beauty and perhaps because of the illusive puma, a dose of pure adventure as well.

For More Info

There are many educational programs available through the Organization for Tropical Studies. The credit programs are in partnership with Duke University. The fees are listed on the Organization for Tropical Studies OTS website, as well as the funding available for each credit program. Don’t get discouraged if your application is denied once or twice. One undergraduate told me she didn’t get in until her third try. To research at La Selva graduate students will need a collecting/research permit, which must be approved by the station director.

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