Students Inspired by Ecological Research

Program encourages students to pursue careers in science.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Laura Johnson spent last summer in Costa Rica studying the effects of tropical pesticides on tadpoles. Since amphibian species are declining at an alarming rate worldwide, with about one-third of them considered threatened, the results of her work could have a big impact on agriculture policies, the pesticide industry, and, ultimately, to local residents who are exposed to these chemicals in their daily lives.

Johnson, a senior at North Carolina State University, conducted her experiments at La Selva Biological Station as part of a special training program in ecological research run by the Organization for Tropical Studies, a consortium of about 60 universities and research institutions from the United States, Latin American and Australia, housed at Duke University.

For the past nine summers, the program, which seeks to strengthen tropical biology research and education, has sent ten American undergraduates to this tropical field station for eight-to-ten weeks to engage in research under the mentorship of experienced biological researchers.

The program places a heavy emphasis on including minorities, who typically are under-represented in biology. Minorities make up between 30 percent and 50 percent of the group each summer, and about half of them come from non-research oriented colleges, where research opportunities are otherwise limited. 

The overall goal is to provide a meaningful experience for young researchers at a formative time in their professional training, with the hope that they will choose careers in science.

“These students are the best and the brightest, and we need more of them to go into the sciences,” said Elizabeth Losos, president and chief executive officer of the Organization for Tropical Studies. “For the last 50 years the United States has been the world leader in science and engineering. We are at a crossroads now as to whether we can maintain this position, or be overtaken by competing nations. I don’t think anybody wants us to tumble down that list. So, the idea is to motivate these students to learn more--and continue on.”

The program is funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The $564,635 award covers a total of five summers.

“Some of these students will end up in careers in tropical ecology, while others will go into microbiology, chemical biology, even engineering, all critical for the direction of our economy, especially if we are to remain leaders in the world for science and technology,” Losos said.

For Johnson, who is of Native American descent, the opportunity solidified her existing love for science, while opening up a new scientific direction, that of environmental toxicology, which she plans to study when she begins her doctoral work next fall.

“The program provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in the field on a completely new project,” she said. “The experience introduced me to the amphibian and reptile decline, which I knew little about.  I was unaware, even after biology and ecology classes, how drastic these declines were occurring. This program had a huge influence on my future career aspirations.”

In addition to their research projects, the students also take courses in statistics, scientific ethics and research design. Furthermore, they receive a weekly stipend of about $450, plus room and board, which programs officials consider a critical component of the experience.  

“We want to attract students who have to make money during the summer, and who will see this as an economically competitive career,” Losos said. “They need to see this as an economically viable alternative to staying home for the summer and flipping burgers.”

The La Selva Biological Station provides students and researchers access to one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. “These ecosystems are among the least understood in the world, and they are critical for understanding climate change,” Losos said.