Student-professor research in Costa Rica

Last Updated 25 July, 2017

by Carly Gilmore, Class of 2017

Twenty students and three professors traveled to Costa Rica this May for field study in ecology and English. Led by NNU professors Dr. John Cossel and Dr. Darrin Grinder, this trip was the climax of semester-long courses Tropical Ecology and Writing and the Environment.

“The entire trip was just rich with informal learning opportunities—not just from an academic perspective but also at social, cultural, spiritual, etc. levels,” remarked Noah Hill, an English major and 2017 graduate.

For 16 days, this interdisciplinary group observed and utilized the information from their classes while translating their knowledge into action. As English students honed their naturalist writing skills to bring attention to environmental issues, the tropical ecology students completed their own individual research projects and documented various plant and animal species.

When asked about the value of the course, junior biology major Larell Brown explained, “The tropical ecology class really enhanced the experience. Instead of seeing something and going "wow, cool," you were able to identify with it, know the background information on it, and see something that seemed somewhat abstract in the classroom be alive and real in nature.”

Larell’s individual project was to look for potentially fluorescing frogs—an ability only recently described for a single species of treefrog from South America. Scientists were encouraged to survey other species of frogs to see if this phenomenon occurred in other species, and that is exactly what Larell did; she found and photographed more than 25 different species with the help of her team.

Now at NNU’s lab, Larell is inputting data for the fluorescence research as well as assisting Cossel with nucleotide sequencing on a potential new species of frog. “I developed a relationship with my classmates and professor that is going to be valuable throughout the rest of my NNU experience,” Larell commented. “We called it the ‘research family’ for a reason!”

Besides field lectures, field research, reading works by Costa Rican authors, and writing pieces based on their own experiences, students were able to explore Costa Rica’s environment, kayak a mangrove, hike to an organic coffee farm, visit Costa Rica’s capital, night hike, and hear presentations from Costa Rican scientists, eco-tourism industry leaders, and sustainable farmers.

Also included in this interdisciplinary team was graphic design major Ian Rohnert, who documented their trip via video and photo. During field research, he captured a photo of a snake eating a frog, which will appear on the cover of the Journal of Mesoamerican Herpetology.

After the 16-day trip, 5 students and Cossel remained in Costa Rica for two more weeks to continue research Cossel has been conducting since 2007 on frog bioacoustics: studying frog calls that haven’t been described in science or whose meaning is unknown.

“My favorite part about doing research is discovering what nobody has discovered before,” said junior biology major Austin Reich. “I remember specifically one time where I was getting video of a frog calling, and Doc afterwards told me that we were possibly the first people to have seen this frog call and I was the only person in the world at the moment to have video of this frog calling. I am always incredibly grateful for such an experience that is unknown to many students my age.”

Upon returning, this small team has continued their research at NNU and will present their findings at science conferences and submit their work to be published.

Photos courtesy of Ian Rohnert.