Undergraduate Opportunities - Organization for Tropical Studies

NAPIRE (Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience) in Costa Rica

  • NAPIRE (Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience) in Costa Rica
  • NAPIRE (Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience) in Costa Rica
  • NAPIRE (Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience) in Costa Rica
  • NAPIRE (Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience) in Costa Rica
  • NAPIRE (Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience) in Costa Rica
  • NAPIRE (Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience) in Costa Rica

Program Details

Where: Costa Rica

When: June 7- August 3, 2016

Duration: 8 weeks

Language: English

Deadline:February 15


NAPIRE (Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience) in Costa Rica Overview

The NAPIRE program introduces undergraduate students to scientific research by making them responsible for completing a research project. Students are supported to this end by giving them their basic living needs (travel, room and board), guidance by a Research Mentor, Home Mentor and OTS staff, a small budget for supplies, and a venue for presenting the Research results, the NAPIRE Symposium. All this takes place in Costa Rica, in the beautifully conserved biological stations of OTS.


As part of the program, students will complete a field project, including experimental design, data gathering, and analysis and presentation of results, in collaboration with fellow students and a research mentor. Students will experience the process of applying the scientific method to ecological inquiry and discovery in a collaborative and team-oriented environment. In addition to completing a research project, students will participate in lectures, seminars and field activities that focus on tropical ecology and conservation. Participants will also have the opportunity to interact with indigenous groups of Central America, allowing a first-hand look at the role of Native People in tropical forest conservation. Each student will be assigned a Research Mentor who will assist them with their independent project as well as provide support throughout the research experience. Two faculty coordinators and a teaching assistant will lead the program, which will be primarily based at Las Cruces Biological Station, with visits to other sites in Costa Rica.


June 7 Arrival of NAPIRE participants to Costa Rica
June 8 San Jose-Orientation
June 9-12 La Selva: Introduction to the Tropics
June 13-14 Talamanca: BriBri Indigenous community
June 15-19 La Selva
June 20 Mentor Organizational Meeting
June 21-August 1 Travel SJO to Las Cruces – Orientation LC
August 2 Travel to San Jose, night in San Jose
August 3 Depart San Jose to Home


Barbara Dugelby, Ph.D.,

NAPIRE 2015 Coordinator

Cell: 830-965-6869

Skype: 830-392-0958

Juan Moreira, M.Sc.

NAPIRE 2015 Co-Coordinator


NAPIRE 2015 Research Mentors

Rachel V. Blakey
PhD candidate
Centre for Ecosystem Science
University of NSW, Australia

Research Interests: Interrelationships between bat communities and riverine landscapes, often at large spatial scales

I am an early career researcher with a broad interest in interrelationships between bat communities and riverine landscapes, often at large spatial scales. I’m particularly interested in the role bats play in food webs, where they affect terrestrial and aquatic energy exchanges, and how flooding dynamics within rivers and wetlands alters these exchanges. I also examine how bat morphological and call structure traits constrain their access to foraging habitat and prey, especially in human-altered landscapes. I use a combination of field surveys, stable isotopes analysis and LiDAR processing to help answer my research questions. For my PhD I have used the Murray-Darling Basin, the largest river basin in Australia, as the test bed for my research. Now resident in the US, I’m keen to extend my research to other systems worldwide.

Potential Student Research Projects:

  1. Trait-based filtering of bat communities across elevational and structural gradients in a tropical forest: do some habitats favor different species traits over others? We would measure forest structure at a range of sites, stratified by elevation. We would capture bats, recording their abundance and measure morphological traits, using a fourth-corner analysis to relate bat traits to habitat structure and elevation.
  2. Aquatic-terrestrial subsidies in a forest stream, how far can mobile predators take aquatic-derived energy? We would estimate the proportion of aquatic emergent prey in bat and bird diets at sites over streams and at increasing distances from each stream, comparing this with the percentage of prey of aquatic emergent origin available at each site.
  3. Comparing waterways and forests as edge habitats, is edge structure or presence of water more important for bats? We would compare bat abundance and community composition within spatially paired streams and roads of similar width.
  4. Forest streams as a heterogeneous prey resource: do predators aggregate around still ponds and avoid riffles? We would compare bird and bat foraging activity over still and turbulent sections of forest streams.
  5. Do bats use auditory cues to avoid predators? We would compare effects of playback of a known bat predator and a non-predator on bat activity.

Frank A. Camacho, PhD
Associate Professor
Biology Program
University of Guam

Research Interests: Structure of aquatic food webs and the interaction between terrestrial and instream sources of carbon on aquatic biodiversity.

Much of my work has been in streams and rivers in Micronesian high islands, including Guam, Palau, and islands in the Federated States of Micronesia. My research is focused on the structure of aquatic food webs and the interaction between terrestrial and instream sources of carbon on aquatic biodiversity. In addition, I have also examined how these food webs change in response to changes in upland terrestrial communities. The Las Cruces Biological Station is an ideal area to investigate these relationships because the Station’s streams flow through a complex landscape of different successional forests. I also continue to investigate the role of chemical and mechanical defenses of aquatic primary producers, such as algae and cyanobacteria, in deterring herbivory.

Potential Student Research Projects:

  1. Examine whether a functional relationship exists between leaf litter input rate and aquatic invertebrate biodiversity. How do litter input and breakdown rates vary among streams in forests of different successional ages?
  2. How does colonization rate and functional composition of aquatic invertebrates change over time in leaf packs of different plant species?
  3. What is the role of leaf chemistry and structural traits, such as leaf toughness, on palatability and decomposition by fungal and insect assemblages? Is leaf litter from exotic, non-native plants more likely to be colonized in comparison to litter from native plant species?
  4. What is the contribution of periphyton to LCBS stream food webs? How does canopy cover and nutrient concentration influence the organization of those food webs?

Adrea Gonzalez-Karlsson
PhD Candidate
University of California Los Angeles

Research Interests: Entomology; communication space and modality integration

My research focuses on communication space and modality integration. Communication is a crucial process to living organisms and occurs within different sensory modalities. I am interested in the mechanisms by which organisms prioritize stimuli and the evolutionary consequences to the sensory system and behavior. My current study system is a group of Neotropical mimetic butterflies, Ithomiini, that are semi-social because they form multispecies aggregations in which they spend a large percentage of their lives.

My research looks at how ithomiine butterflies perceive conspecifics and heterospecifics. I studied the use of exogenously derived plant compounds in mating success, interspecific chemical communication and the integration of visual and chemical stimuli within multispecies aggregations.

Potential Student Research Projects:

  1. Ithomiine preference for nectar with and without alkaloids?  Ithomiine butterflies, glasswings, gather pyrrolizidine alkaloids to make them unpalatable to predators and to make pheromones to communicate with other glasswings. Males who consume nectar with alkaloids have a higher mortality rate in captivity than males consuming nectar without alkaloids. Only males gather these alkaloids in nature and the species and sex specific preferences for nectar with and without alkaloids is interesting.
  2. Is there connectivity of butterflies between the reforestation islands? Butterflies are known to be important long distance pollinators. The abundance and diversity movement between islands and its relationship to floral diversity of the flora is interesting.  

More broadly, I am interested in helping students with projects related to communication and ecology. I am happy to work with students who would prefer to work with other systems and other types of questions.

Justin Montemarano, PhD
Department of Biology
Armstrong State University

Research Interests: Community-level effects on decomposition dynamics in aquatic systems.

My current research aims investigate community-level effects on decomposition dynamics in aquatic systems. Such an approach allows me to integrate community and ecosystem ecology, and explore direct and indirect consequences of biotic interactions and anthropogenic stressors on a critically important ecosystem process: decomposition. I choose to study aquatic systems, including streams and wetlands, in part because biological diversity in such systems is comparatively greater than many terrestrial systems, particularly in temperate systems, and also because I personally find them intriguing. Further, decomposition pathways account for the majority of carbon and nutrients driving animal communities in many aquatic systems (e.g., leaves entering forested, temperate streams come to mind); thus, examining biotic interactions and patterns of decomposition is crucial in the understanding of community and ecosystem function, particularly in managed and changing environments.

Potential Student Research Projects:

  1. What are the distributions and comparative roles of invertebrate and vertebrate detritivores in Las Cruces stream systems?
  2. What role do amphibians play in decomposition of coarse particulate organic matter in stream systems?
  3. How does stream invertebrate diversity respond to variation in litter species richness?
  4. What are the stocks, transportation rates, and retention rates of coarse particulate organic matter in Las Cruces streams?
  5. How do riparian tree species contribute to organic matter dynamics of streams?

José-Cristian Martínez
PhD Candidate
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Illinois at Chicago

Research Interests: Insect biodiversity; Insect ecology; Woodland restoration; Leaf litter decomposition

As an entomologist, I'm primarily interested in how habitat restoration and invasive species influences the arthropod community. In particular I look at how woodland restoration can alter the forest floor leaf litter as both food and habitat for spiders, beetles, ants, and isopods. I also use insect community surveys to assess the abundance and diversity of several arthropod groups and how they respond to different habitat characteristics. The leaf litter acts as a key transitional point between above and below ground food webs and can help alter plant and fauna communities, drive nutrient turnover and soil formation.

My research focuses on forestland management history, leaf litter qualities, and what affect both have on the arthropod community. Although my current work is on arthropod community ecology, I'm also interested in invasive species, systematics, and varying taxonomic resolution in ecology projects.

Potential Student Research Projects:

  1. How does forest restoration change the leaf-litter arthropod communities between transitional grasslands, secondary forest and primary forest?
  2. How does forest restoration change the leaf-litter habitat, and what members of the detrital community are most affected?
  3. Does selective logging change the leaf-litter habitat compared to uncut primary forest?
  4. How does decomposition rate of leaf litter influence the arthropod community?
  5. Community structure of leaf-litter arthropods in different woodland microhabitats.

David Matlaga, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Biology
Susquehanna University

Research Interests: Influence of environmental conditions on the demography (reproduction & survival) of forest understory plants

Forest understories are inherently variable environments. Within these environments conditions are predominantly shady and high-light gaps created by falling trees are rare over space and time. I am interested in how variability in light influences plants living on the forest floor. Plants inhabiting these environments are often clonal, meaning they propagate their genes through space and time by producing both sexual and clonal offspring.

Of particular interest to me are invasive clonal plants that typically spread through the forest understory relatively quickly. Las Cruces is a wonderful location to study tropical invasive plants. Several broad-leafed understory plants from Asia in the Ginger order (e.g. Zingiber spectabile and Musa velutina) were cultivated in the Wilson Botanical garden and have since invaded the surrounding forest.

Potential Student Research Projects:
  1. Comparison of herbivory rates between invasive and congeneric native species
  2. Research on the correlation between understory light levels and occurrence of invaders.
  3. Investigation of pollinator and frugivore overlap between invasive and congeneric native species
  4. Experiments to address the role of clonal reproduction in the spread of Zingiber spectabile

Tanya Hawley Matlaga, PhD
Research Scientist
Department of Biology
Susquehanna University

Research Interests: Understanding factors that maintain biodiversity, especially within human-modified landscapes

My research interests are focused on understanding the factors that maintain biodiversity, especially within human-modified landscapes. Identifying the factors and mechanisms that determine where species live within a landscape is my goal. Inevitably, these interests lead my work to span the disciplines of ecology, animal behavior, and conservation biology. In particular I am interested in 1) how adults select habitat and how this decision influences their offspring, 2) variation in species’ distributions across abiotic gradients, and 3) how life history traits influence vulnerability to environmental change. My previous work in Costa Rica has ranged from large-scale studies quantifying amphibian diversity in different habitat types to small-scale experiments examining the factors that influence frog egg and tadpole behavior, development and survival. I envision several possibilities for students doing short-term projects.

Potential Student Research Projects:

Glass frogs (Family Centrolenidae) reproduce by laying egg clutches on leaves overhanging streams. These clutches are easy to identify and mark and can be observed over time.
Possible projects:

  1. How do abiotic factors, such as temperature, humidity and rainfall, influence egg development and survival to hatching?
  2. How do biotic factors, such as predation and parental care, affect development and survival to hatching?

Organisms that undergo a metamorphosis present opportunity to study factors that influence distinct life stages. Each life stage typically occupies a unique habitat and interacts with different predators, prey, and competitors.
Possible projects:

  1. How do tadpole density and pond quality influence adult selection of breeding habitat and what are the consequences for offspring?
  2. How do tadpoles respond behaviorally and morphologically to different stressors in their environment?

Ross Miller, Ph.D.
Professor of Entomology
University of Guam

Insect biodiversity; Invasive species; Plant-insect interactions


As an entomologist, I am primarily interested in the tropical forest ecology of insects and invertebrates of Costa Rica. I am particularly interested in differences in the ant fauna of primary, secondary, and recently restored forests, and in the local biology of species such as the little fire ant, Wasmannia auropunctata, that have become serious invasive pests once introduced to tropical insular ecosystems of Micronesia and Polynesia. More recently my interests have focused on the dynamics of species recolonization in forests gaps, in terms of changes in diversity and density of invertebrates in various habitat types. In past years I began a collection insects found within the Las Cruces field station, and would like to continue expand it and to maintain that which has already been collected.


Potential Student Research Projects:

  1. What are the dynamics of recolonization of forest gaps in primary and secondary forest in terms of invertebrate species diversity and restoration of ecological functional groups? How are these variables affected by the size and topography of the gap in different landscapes?
  2. How pronounced are edge effects between the primary and secondary forests of the Las Cruces Biological Station, and between the station’s forests and newly cleared residential areas, and along roadsides?
  3. What is the inventory of insect species that are associated with primary, secondary and newly reclaimed forests at Las Cruces? Similarly, what invertebrates, primarily insects, are associated with areas under different restoration regimes in some of the ongoing long-term forest restoration studies at Las Cruces and in neighboring landscapes?

Andrea Romero, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Wisconsin–Whitewater

Research Interests: Understanding the habitat utilization, behavior, and biology of Neotropical mammals, particularly non-bat species.

My research focuses on understanding habitat utilization, behavior, and biology of mammals in the Neotropics, with a particular interest on how anthropogenic disturbances have affected these communities historically, and continue to affect them today. I conducted the majority of my fieldwork at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica, surveying the mammal communities via transect walks and live-trapping for small mammals. In the laboratory, I prepare specimens, study the reproduction of some species, and also look at the population genetics of rodents in the fragmented landscape. Through my research I have found that the mammal communities in these forests are quite complex, have interesting species dynamics, and have a complicated history resulting in changes in the composition and abundance of species.

Potential Student Research Projects:
  1. Determining how predation rates of rodents differ across habitats or from forest interior versus edge. Mammalian predators are notoriously hard to sample, see, and study. This project could be accomplished through the use of realistic rodent models with the conjunction of camera traps. Data collected could be predator identity, prevalence of attack, and diversity of predators.
  2. Other potential projects could focus on the abundant agouti and squirrel populations to study questions of behavior and habitat choice.

I am happy to work with the students to develop a project that they find interesting.

Lindsey Swierk, PhD
Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow
Intercollege Ecology Program
Penn State University

Research Interests: Behavioral ecology: mate choice, mating competition, and social influences on reproductive strategies

To gain a fundamental understanding of why animals look and act they way they do, I examine one of the evolutionary forces that shapes them: sexual selection. In my research, I examine how and why animals choose mates, how they compete for mates, and what consequences their strategies and preferences have on their offspring. I find this topic fascinating because not only does it shed light on the evolutionary origin of sexual traits, but also because it can aid breeding conservation efforts for small or fragmented populations. I currently focus my efforts on studying the mating behaviors of taxa that are globally imperiled— reptiles and amphibians.

I am eager to mentor students that have interests in animal behavior and/or animal reproductive strategies. These are diverse and exciting topics, and there are many opportunities at Las Cruces for students to develop unique projects from the ground-up.

Potential Student Research Projects:

  1. Identifying how the presence of competitors and mates influences the amounts of time individuals devote to social signaling (e.g., in anoles).
  2. Using mock predator cues to explore why individuals vary in risky behavior during the breeding season— why will some individuals flee while others continue to defend their mates?
  3. Examining how elaborate sexual traits affect predation risk (may include using clay/painted animal models)
  4. Rates of parental provisioning in nesting birds—does the quality of an individual’s mate influence his/her parental effort?

Financial Aid

Tuition, room and Board

The NAPIRE award covers the cost of room, board and travel to and from Costa Rica. Students also receive funds to help cover costs of field equipment and a $4000 stipend.

Application Process

The NAPIRE application deadline is: February 15, 2016.

There are four items required to complete a NAPIRE application:

  1. NAPIRE Student Application Form
  2. A Letter of Recommendation from an On-Campus Mentor
  3. A Letter of Recommendation from a Faculty Member
  4. Official Transcript(s)

NAPIRE Student Application Form (Word document 160 kb)

Click on the application link above and open the MS Word application file. Upon opening the document, please click in the blank areas of each field and insert the appropriate application information. After you complete the first two pages of the general application, you will need to write the ‘Statement of Purpose’, which is on the third page.

Please save your application using the following format:


For example, if your name is Jane Elizabeth Smith, you should label your application:


After the application has been completed and saved, please send it as an attachment to:

If you do not receive a return email about the reception of the document, please let us know as soon as possible

Recommendation Letter from a Designated On-Campus Mentor (Word document 100 kb) – One letter of recommendation will come from your designated on-campus mentor. This person will serve as the primary institutional contact for the student and is expected to provide administrative, emotional and academic support for the student throughout the program, including application and selection, preparation for study abroad, and processing of the experience upon return home. You must download this form and send it to your on-campus mentor who is providing your recommendation. Instructions of how he/she is to submit the form are included within the document.

Recommendation Letter from a Faculty Member (Word document 95.5 kb) – One letter of recommendation is required from a science faculty member who knows you well, is from your major department, and/or with whom you have taken at least one class within the past two years. You must download this form and send it to the professor who is writing your recommendation. Instructions of how he/she is to submit the form are included within the document.

Official Transcript(s)

Official transcripts from all universities attended must be sent to OTS for review. Please send them via US Regular Postal Mail to:

OTS NAPIRE – Undergraduate Program

Organization for Tropical Studies


7801 NW 37th Street

Doral, FL 33195-6503

These forms will be automatically forwarded to the OTS Costa Rican Office (CRO) in San Jose, Costa Rica and should arrive within 5-7 days.

*** Should you have any questions about the program, or how to apply, please contact Kattia Mendez, Undergraduate Program Assistant at the OTS Costa Rican Office, at:

Accommodations & Meals

Our program is labor intensive. In addition to completing a full independent research project, you will be attending lectures, participating in occasional field trips, and 12 participating in discussions about tropical research. In the field, your typical daily schedule might look like this:

6:30am –     Breakfast.

7:30am –     Field work for your independent project. Most field activities take all morning, and in many cases will continue late into the afternoon. If you plan to be out in the field past lunch time, you should request a bag lunch from the cafeteria. This can be the best part of the day; be prepared to get wet and muddy!!

3:00pm –     Return to the station. Shower

3:30 pm-     Afternoon workshop/training opportunities.

5:00pm –     Work on data, literature search, individual research projects

6:00pm –     Dinner.

7:00pm –     Scientific Seminars, and group discussion sessions.

8:00pm –     Continue individual research projects

As you can see, most days are pretty well packed with course-related work. The good news is that we are aware of the need for down time and arrange the program to include one free day per week while we are in the field.

Though you may have one or two roommates on your home campus, in Costa Rica you will live with other students, the program Coordinators, and many graduate students and researchers. This means communication and respect will be crucial. All of us need to be as open, honest, and cooperative as possible. We also need to have sincere respect for one another, regardless of different opinions and lifestyles. This includes respect for privacy, respect for rules and regulations, and even respect for the fact that unpredictability is an inherent feature of being in the field. Indeed, next to communication and cooperation, flexibility and a good sense of humor are the most important characteristics of a successful student in our program. By living and working with the same people for 8 weeks, you will undoubtedly develop a number of very close friendships. The combination of uncomfortable (fighting off the mosquitoes), wacky (a soccer game in the mud), and wonderful (listening to tropical birds at sunrise) situations creates great images and memories. You will, for sure, share these with your fellow participants well beyond the end of the summer.

Passport & Visa Information

You must have a valid Passport to travel to Costa Rica. It is important that the passport does not expire within 6 months of entering Costa Rica. If you are NOT a citizen of a North American or European country, you will probably need a special visa to get into Costa Rica. We recommend that you contact your respective consulate or embassy services to determine if you need a visa to travel to Costa Rica. It is important to take into account the requirements to get a visa approved before you apply for one of our courses. If you are accepted into one of our courses we will provide any information necessary (within reason) to help with the visa application. Please keep in mind that visa application processes can take several months depending on the country of issue. For more information on this topic please visit


U.S. citizens entering Costa Rica are automatically granted a 90-day tourist Visa. Students will receive a second 90-day tourist visa when the course enters Costa Rica again following a visit to Panama, and that second visa will last until the end of the program. Remember that according to current immigration laws in Costa Rica, you MUST leave the country for at least 72 hours when your visa expires. Students planning to stay in Costa Rica after the program end date need to take this into account.

Please consult OTS if you have any questions about this


Native Americans and Pacific Islanders who are undergraduate students enrolled in accredited institutions in the United States (and Pacific Island Territories) are encouraged to apply to the program. Incoming freshmen and graduating seniors are not eligible. Students must be AMP students at LSAMP institutions. LSAMP is the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that was designed to foster achievement by minority students seeking careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Health and Safety

OTS is deeply committed to student safety and well-being and does not expose students to unnecessary danger or risk. OTS monitors national and international events that might affect our students. Nearly 5 decades of risk assessment, emergency response, and crisis resolution have enabled OTS to maximize student safety and security. All students participate in an on-site orientation program upon arrival in Costa Rica.