It’s Not Where You’re From, It’s Where You’re At.

Kyle Reid

Junior, Illinois Institute of Technology, Department of Biology.

(Playing back calls to a Rhynchonycteris colony. Working with some valuable equipment and a lot of duct tape!)
Playing back calls to a Rhynchonycteris colony. Working with some valuable equipment and a lot of duct tape!

The goal of a student is not to just finish a project, not to just get an A, not to punch in and punch out 8 hours later. What separates lifelong learners from the rest is our mission to continue to learn and improve beyond our comfort level. I grew up in a steel jungle, Chicago, Illinois. Busy crowds, loud noises, the CTA at midnight, these things don’t scare me. I’ve worked in the Field Museum handling bat specimens from all over Africa. I’ve studied statistics and programming and lab work is my work; these things don’t scare me and I needed to be scared.

I applied to around a dozen REU opportunities this summer and was accepted for three interesting projects on topics like urban agriculture at UW-Madison, and distribution of grey squirrels and chipmunks along Lake Mendota. My goal however was to break out of my comfort zone. I could not count beyond 10 in Spanish. I never watched a soccer game in my life. Beyond a few mammal trapping experiences in Chicago I have never performed a behavior experiment. I had never lived away from home or left the Midwest for more than a weekend.

I am far beyond my comfort zone

Everything from living with a roommate to being greeted in Spanish at breakfast to walking over a waterfall every morning on my way to work is a new experience. Being surrounded by people passionate about their research and goals rather than undergrads taking their forced gen-ed classes keeps me on my toes and creates an environment of encouragement rather than competition.

The jungle is its own experience altogether. City life encourages a very me-focused style of thinking: What do I eat? Where will I go? What will I do? Field life encourages a level of outward thinking I have not had since my childhood. Where are those ants going? Why is that toucan dancing? Why do the bats roost differently at night than during the day? Most importantly, what is that smell?

Untangling a Carollia bat from a mist net before a storm
Untangling a Carollia bat from a mist net before a storm

My research in La Selva has been a lesson in the unpredictability of field work. Field work is a lot like soccer, something I never appreciated until my first World Cup viewing here in Costa Rica.  You have plans, methods, and fundamentals that you practice until you are blue in the face. But even when you do everything right you are going to need to wait for your lucky break to finally celebrate success.  From standing out in the rain for an hour under a Rhynchonycteris colony  just to get one good signature to untying an angry Carollia from a mist net, field work is a test of patience ,  fundamentals, and luck that provide for a payoff so refreshing you want to scream GOOOOOOOOOAL!

The best thing about La Selva is being surrounded by experienced people who want to see you grow. My mentor Martina Nagy and peers have always been willing and able to teach a city kid what it means to get into nature. I knew almost nothing about the tropics before I arrived in Costa Rica and now I want nothing more than to bring my family and classmates here and show them the wonderful things I have seen. More importantly I have allowed myself to be uncomfortable, to do something new, and I hope I never stop!

Also, I get called Batman, that’s pretty cool
Also, I get called Batman. That’s pretty neat

 

Coming Around Again

REU2009
OTS REU at La Selva 2009 (I’m in the front & center)

Meghan Fitzgerald

PhD candidate, University of Wisconsin-Madison

OTS REU Mentor

For me, this summer feels like I have come full circle back to my first day working in the tropics, so I’ll share a little bit of that experience here. I was chosen as an OTS-REU in my last year of undergrad and worked for the summer on a habitat selection project with birds. Both the project and the mentor I worked with presented some challenges, but overall the experience was positive and life changing.

As an REU I spent my mornings listening to and counting birds, my days wandering the back of the property, and my nights talking to and learning from some of the best tropical researchers in the world. I saw my first non-zoo monkeys, watched a river otter kill and eat a caiman, climbed up/slid down numerous hills, and spent an entire evening having the spines of a walking palm removed from my hands. It was amazing!

I started a PhD at UW Madison a year after my REU experience, and found myself in need of a location with plenty of spiders and enough infrastructure that I felt comfortable working on my own (no one else in my lab works on arachnids). I told my advisor that if my planned project didn’t work out, I knew I could find something else that interested me in this diverse and dynamic forest, and for some reason he trusted me, so off I went.

I have been at La Selva on and off for about 18 months out of the last two years. In that time I learned almost everything I know about spiders and developed a thesis project that is almost entirely different from my original plan, but is far more interesting. Life as a researcher than was a little different from life as an REU student, primarily in the volume of work that I felt the need to accomplish on a daily basis, but my daily schedule was similar. I spent my mornings wandering the forest looking for the beautiful golden orbs of Nephila clavipes spiders, afternoons collecting data in the Casa de Arañas, and nights playing ukulele on the porch.

2009, covered in bug bites, nettle stings, bruises and bumps, and just about the happiest any person could be
2014 with a beautiful Nephila clavipes spider (the dots on her back are markings that my REU, Connor uses to keep track of the spiders in his experiment)

Despite how much I enjoyed those earlier months of pure research, I am certain that this summer as a REU mentor have been the most fun and rewarding time I’ve spent at La Selva yet. We’ve even managed to get some work done despite the ridiculous amounts of rain we’ve had these last few weeks. In fact, we beat the record rainfall for July as of yesterday morning! 1,124mm since July 1st, woot!

Sharing the experience of tropical research and getting to know a group of intelligent and interesting young scientists is, to me, just about the best thing La Selva has to offer. So, I’ve come around again, student to mentor, though in my particular web, the threads of science, companionship, and natural beauty are the same no matter what role I happen to be playing.

 

*This is one of the cheesiest, most eighties-style songs to ever exist (I LOOOOOVED it when I was 7 or so), but: coming around again AND spiders? It seems necessary

The Rainbow after the Storm

Marlena Lopez

Senior, California State University, Pomona, Department of Biology

Ethno-Botany Tour: fresh coconut water and temporarily tattooing ourselves using plants
Ethno-Botany Tour: fresh coconut water and temporarily tattooing ourselves using plants

No wonder it’s called a rainforest: it can begin pouring on you in an instant when you least expect it. The howler monkeys, however, are courteous enough to shout out a warning and let you know to pull out your umbrella seconds before the rain starts falling.

The rain has been a challenge for completing my project; I am working with Dr. Martina Nagy and fellow REU Kyle Reid on the social organization and vocalizations of the proboscis bat (Rhynchonycteris naso) and we cannot work on the project while it is raining because the valuable recording equipment we use cannot get wet. However, that’s how science works; you devise a wonderful plan and Mother Nature or some other force will disrupt it.

I am grateful to have a mentor that always has a plan B ready to go; Martina, through all of her years of experience, has learned how to expect the unexpected and she always has an idea about what to do next. It has been a valuable learning experience to work beside and learn from her. This internship has taught me so much about how to be a successful researcher and carry out a scientific experiment.

Cheering on Costa Rica in the World Cup
Cheering on Costa Rica in the World Cup

The highlight of the past 4 weeks has been living in a country that made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. The Costa Ricans (ticos) have so much passion and love for their country, and it was great to share the experience of watching their team succeed game after game. You know that you have an awesome job when your mentor tells you that work is postponed until after the futbol game, so that you can join the ticos in cheering on their team and yelling at the referee on the television in Spanish.

Baby and Mama sloth spotted at the station
Baby and Mama sloth spotted at the station

As soon as I received the email stating that I had been accepted to this program, I immediately told all of my family, friends, professors, and any random person I saw because I was that happy and excited about it. The next thing I did was research the animals of Costa Rica. So far I’ve seen howler monkeys, basilisk lizards, green tree anoles, spectacled caimans, sloths, cat-eyed snakes, and green and black dart frogs just to name a few. Coming from the city of Los Angeles where buildings and cement surround you, to a tropical forest where you can see beautiful and exotic animals everywhere you look has made this a dream internship for a beginning zoologist like myself, and I look forward to the rest of what Costa Rica has to offer.

An unpredictable world

Connor Jacobson

Senior, Texas A&M University, Department of Biology

After spending the past five months studying abroad and traveling across Panama, I thought I was ready for anything that the jungle of Costa Rica could throw at me. I was prepared for long days of fieldwork, I was excited for the opportunity to work in such an amazing place, and I was ecstatic to unravel the secrets of spider communication with my mentor Meghan Fitzgerald. With everything in line and worked out to a T, expecting nothing less than the perfect project, I arrived in La Selva only to realize that I forgot to send Mother Nature a memo with my methods and time line.

Golden Eyelash Viper that was found while searching for spiders.

It is now three weeks later and my study organism, the Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila clavipes), is just finally starting to make an appearance. The harsher than normal dry season seems to have set their biological clock back by about a month, leaving me to scour the rainforest to find the few punctual spiders out there. What started out as stressful searches in the blazing and moist jungle, trying to find a few spiders to get the project going, turned into amazing nature walks across one of the most beautiful and biodiverse landscapes on the planet. While looking for the elusive Golden Orb Weaver, I encountered everything from tayras to a strange fern that caused me to break out in a rash.

Learning Armenian dance.

For me to speak only of the picturesque outdoors and intensity of the research would not fully describe life at La Selva. One of the greatest aspects of living here is the people that we are surrounded by. Every day new people from all over the globe arrive, bringing their own regional culture and knowledge here to La Selva and making this not only a world-class research station but also a hotspot of cultural learning. I mean, I’ve only been here three weeks and I have already learned dances from 6 different countries, not to mention the culture and heritage that comes with them! How neat is that?

Needless to say I’m excited for the next seven weeks. They are sure to be filled with learning, laughter, wild animals, rashes, dancing, stress, long hikes, plenty of rain and splendid people. Hopefully if I’m lucky there will be some Golden Orb Weavers in there as well.

Filming behavior in the spider house.
Filming behavior in the spider house.