End of summer…

Carissa Ganong, University of Georgia
REU coordinator

What an amazing, wet, muddy, unforgettable summer it’s been.  Eight students gained scientific knowledge and personal confidence and carried out superb projects.  Four mentors patiently guided them through the world of hands-on field ecology and scientific thinking (how do we overcome this problem?  How should we analyze these data?  How do these results relate to broader scientific concepts?  What the heck can we do when ALL THE FIELD DAYS GET RAINED OUT?).

A more typical tropical summer: deploying leafpacks in the Quebrada Sura

And one coordinator had a totally different summer than any I’ve spent at La Selva before.  As a Ph.D. candidate working on La Selva’s STREAMS project, I’ve pulled long field seasons (sometimes alone, sometimes with assistants), and I’ve mentored REUs and felt the joy and pride of seeing students develop, conduct, and present their own research.  But none of that really prepares you for suddenly having eight (or twelve) people relying on you for planning, teaching, organization, support, and crisis-resolving for an entire summer.  It’s a big responsibility – and, when all is said and done, it’s been the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.  It’s pretty amazing to work with a group of great students (who also happen to be fantastic people) as they develop their research skills and fall in love with the jungle that’s one of my favorite places on earth (terciopelos, bullet ants, botflies, spiny palms, and all).  This summer has strengthened my enthusiasm for teaching and working with students in the tropics and has also confirmed my desire to pursue a career involving courses like this one.

REUs, me, and two mentors (Susan present via webcam) after the students’ final presentations

And then, suddenly, the REU program ended: there was a final week of caffeine-driven, semi-sleepless data analysis and report-writing, eight incredibly good final presentations given to an audience of proud mentors and interested researchers, and a last happy night together in San José, and then last Friday the close-knit REU cohort disbanded.

And now I’m back at La Selva, listening to rain drumming on the roof and thinking that the hardest part of working in a place like this is saying goodbye.  Most long-term researchers here would agree with me: when you’ve become close friends with other researchers – working, eating, goofing off, sharing office space, and sometimes rooming with them – whether they’re undergrads, grad students, or senior researchers, it’s incredibly difficult to suddenly watch them leave for another country (and often another continent) with no idea of if, or when, you’ll see them again.  And each new goodbye yanks at your heart a little harder.

Mentors and coordinator

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from nine years of La Selva friendships, it’s that the world of tropical ecology truly is small.  And for every lurch of depression that comes from watching a Sarapiquí taxi carry a friend off to the airport, there’s also the sudden joy of unexpectedly running into old friends – during the following year’s jungle field season, at a conference, in a different tropical site, even (a few times) on the campus of my own university.

So when I say goodbye to friends who are leaving – or, later this week, to friends who are staying behind – I try to remember that it really isn’t “goodbye” as much as, quite literally, “Hasta luego.”  La Selvans have a way of seeing each other again, and I’m confident that the good times, great science, and close friendships of the past summer are more than just memories and will continue to flourish somehow, somewhere, in the future.  Thanks to all the REU folks for an incredible summer, and hasta luego!


Welcome to the jungle…

Near the end of a long hike
Near the end of a long hike

Carissa Ganong, REU coordinator

Bushwhacking through tropical undergrowth to measure trees, testing how far ants will go to defend their host trees, recording bat vocalizations, and studying orb-weaver spider behavior aren’t exactly typical summer jobs, but that’s what eight NSF REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) students from across the US are doing this summer in Costa Rica’s lowland rainforest.

Our group is spending ten weeks at La Selva Biological Station, a world-famous research station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies, where the REUs are developing and conducting their own field-ecology research projects.  It’s a very new and sometimes intense experience: most REUs are working in a rainforest for the first time, and some haven’t traveled outside of the US before.  The REUs are working closely with mentors – faculty, postdocs, and Ph.D. candidates – who are experienced La Selva researchers and experts in their fields.

The entire REU group
The entire REU group

We arrived at La Selva two weeks ago, and the first week was a “crash course” of knowledge and skills needed for tropical field ecology: orienteering, forest safety, plant and animal natural history, experimental design, scientific writing and oral presentation skills, and tico (Costa Rican) culture and idioms.

It was a fairly intense week, but students (and mentors!) remained enthusiastic in spite of the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and adjustments to a culture and daily life very different from that of the US.  At the end of the week, the REUs gave formal oral presentations (all of them amazingly well done!) of their project proposals.

Now fieldwork is in full swing, and we’ve decided to start this blog to share the experiences of everyday life at a rainforest field station – from the astonishment of encountering tropical wildlife, to the bone-weary exhaustion of long muddy field days, to the simple pleasure of an ice-cream break with good friends from four continents.  Stay tuned for entries from the rest of the group!