George in the Jungle


Eleven students and two professors recently traveled to Nicaragua for a 15-day tropical ecology course offering one-of-a-kind, hands-on learning experiences not soon to be forgotten.

After five hours on a crowded bus, and two more hours on a boat, no one could doubt the dedication of the 11 students and two professors who traveled to the Makengue Reserve in the Rio San Juan region for a course called “Tropical Ecology of Nicaragua,” a brand new, short-term study abroad course offered by the Department of Biology. Participating students shared an interest in ecology research, experiencing new cultural perspectives, and a love of nature.

For Courtney Schock ’16, a pre-med student, the trip fulfilled her dream of study abroad. “As a biology major with a Spanish minor, I can’t logistically spend an entire semester abroad, so this was my best alternative! But I also really liked the professors leading the trip and I thought it would be a great opportunity to conduct my own research abroad,” she said. As an ecology course, the main focus was to study the interactions between plants, animals, and the living and non-living components of the environment.  

Located deep in the jungle, the accommodations on the Makengue Reserve were rustic, but offered plenty of contact with locals and spectacular views of the night sky. Of the austere conditions and interesting fieldwork, Schock stated, “I never thought I would end up in the middle of the rainforest, with no hot water and no Wi-Fi, searching for snakes in the middle of the night. But I did, and I had fun!”

Days were spent focusing on independent research projects spanning a variety of organisms, including caiman, bats, lichen, bromeliads, birds, and spiders, or conducting special projects involving turtle trapping, constructing a field guide, and trapping fish. Some students had to conduct their field research for their projects at night when their chosen species was most active.

Biology major Madeline Poethke ’17 studied caiman behavior and distribution during her time in Nicaragua. Much of her data collection occurred after dark as she scoured the shoreline and the river shallows for the reptiles’ movement. “The hardest part was staying up late every night to collect the data,” Poethke stated. “We started our work at 11:00 pm and did not get to sleep until 1:00 am or later.”

For Jennie Carr, assistant professor of biology, and Robin Van Meter, assistant professor of environmental science/studies and biology, watching the students’ commitment to learning as they were immersed in a new environment was exciting. “One of the big successes, I think, was that we really didn’t have to push the students to get the work done. They were very self-motivated, and excited to be there and learn,” Dr. Carr said.

As students collected data for their projects, a bigger point about scientific research became clear. “The scientific process has to be modified, depending on your surroundings,” Van Meter stated. “Now the students have a much better understanding of how science works and the unpredictable nature of doing research in ecology, because you’re not in a lab. They gained a huge appreciation of the realistic—often frustrating but truly rewarding—aspects of science.”

The unpredictable nature of their research was invigorating for many students. For Mike Hudson ’17, a biology major who studied the way birds of prey mob predators as a defense mechanism, learning on the fly was incredibly important for his project. “We could guess at a lot of the birds’ behaviors, based on what we know about mobbing in our part of the world, but we had no way of knowing whether we’d be right or not, until we got there.”

In their down time, the students and professors were soaking in the local culture and taking in the sights. From exploring volcanic mountain ranges and hiking through a bat cave, to taking day trips to the towns of El Castillo and Sabalos, the students got to experience Nicaragua and its people in authentic fashion.

“My biggest takeaway would be how differently Nicaraguans live but how similar we all are,” Poetkhe noted. “Where we stayed there were no cars. Everyone had to travel by boat. We saw some very poor areas and learned how to wash our clothes by hand. But the kids are still kids, jokes are still jokes, and the people are just like us.”