Coming Around Again

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