Junior, Illinois Institute of Technology, Department of Biology.
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?
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!