Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change and Human Health
Semester Program in Costa Rica
This program will explore the effects of environmental change including climate change, habitat fragmentation, and disruption of ecosystem services on the spread and severity of tropical diseases, and also focuses on research with local communities surrounding the three OTS field stations in Costa Rica. We will work in both intact and altered ecosystems to assess disease transmission dynamics including insect and water vectors. The Ethnobiology course explores the tradition use of plants by indigenous communities. The program will visit Nicaragua to provide insights into health issues in another Central American country. This course emphasizes both the biological nature of tropical diseases and the ecological and human health outcomes resulting from changes to ecosystem structure and functions. Instruction is based on the strengths and experience of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and our staff, and focuses on the highly respected OTS method of field-based, experiential learning.
This program is comprised of four core courses:
Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change and Human Health
Duke University - BIO 283A
This course emphasizes both the biological nature of tropical diseases and the ecological and human health outcomes resulting from changes to ecosystem structure and functions. Instruction is based on the strengths and experience of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and our staff, and focuses on the highly respected OTS method of field-based, experiential learning.
Field Research Methods in Tropical Biology
Duke University - BIO 281L
During the semester, you will conduct 2-3 field research projects called FLP’s (“Faculty Led Projects”) in various topics under the guidance of experienced researchers. Through these short projects and also some lectures and workshops, you will develop skills in survey research methods, statistics, etc. Then, once you have a handle on how a short term research project works, you will move on to a more extensive independent research project in collaboration with other students by developing the methods to test a research hypothesis on health topics. This can be a memorable experience that could change the way you see health, nature, and society, particularly in the context of the tropics.
Introduction to Field Ethnobiology
Duke University - BIO 282LA
Ethnobiology is an interdisciplinary course that will explore the ways that humans and local biota interact. You will study how humans use plants and animals as medicine, as well as their symbolic and spiritual role in different cultures. You will explore themes in bioprospecting and the role of the environment on human health and wellbeing. Indigenous healers will teach us about their traditional medicine practices. The course includes visits to a range of interesting places, such as local markets, sugar cane, rice, banana, and pineapple plantations, integral little farms owned by small manufacturers, cultural presentations in indigenous territories, plant walks guided by botanists and/or indigenous people. These are wonderful introductions both to the country and to ethnobiology.
Culture and Language in Costa Rica
Duke University - SPANISH 92A
This course, taught entirely in Spanish, is intended for students with intermediate Spanish language skills. Its goals are to expand your conversational skills and vocabulary—especially your command of technical and colloquial medical terms. Instruction takes place within the context of specific themes chosen to enhance your familiarity with customs or cultural institutions that shape daily life or affect human health. The course includes a homestay with a Costa Rican family, which will give you ample opportunity to improve your Spanish language skills.
Our program is an intense immersive experience. Though we do give campus-like instruction (assigned readings, lectures, discussion groups, etc.), we also take orientation walks to learn important plants, animals, disease, local customs; perform field projects with long hours; and take field trips to health facilities, towns, indigenous reservations, research facilities, banana plantations, logging sites, etc. There is one rest day per week, usually Sundays. In the field, your typical daily schedule may look like this:
6:30 am Breakfast.
8:00 am Field activities, lectures, day visits. Sometimes these activities will take us to Primary care facilities, hospitals, indigenous territories, forests or remote towns in the countryside. These activities will invariably require closed shoes or rubber boots, water, and your field notebook. These visits are often the best part of the day!
12:00 pm Lunch back at the station or on the sites you’re visiting.
1:00 pm Afternoon activities, lectures, and day visits.
6:00 pm Dinner.
7:00 pm Occasionally, an evening journal club or other academic activity, but also free time or study time.
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.
La Selva Biological Station - Located in the Atlantic lowlands, La Selva showcases tropical biodiversity at its best. You will engage in field and laboratory activities while living in the diversity and climate of the tropical rain forest. You will visit pineapple and banana plantations and learn about the health and social issues related to pineapple farming from a local non-governmental organization (NGO). You will also help local health authorities on a preventative medicine campaign in the local community.
Kekoldi Indigenous reserve. The Keköldi Wak Ka Koneke (Kekoldi´s keepers) indigenous association was established in 1994, to protect the forest, promote improvements in the quality of life of the reserve’s inhabitants, defend the land and promote sustainable development. Currently the association has 25 affiliates of the Bribri and Cabécar ethnic groups. Our groupd visits this area to understand their various initiatives to maintain forests and indigenous culture.
Las Cruces Biological Station - Las Cruces is a comfortable site in the south Pacific region of Costa Rica and is home to the beautiful Wilson Botanical Garden. You will spend nearly half of the semester at this station. Here, you will develop your final research project utilizing the relationships that OTS has built with the local health authorities, nearby communities, and the Ngöbe indigenous peoples.
Las Alturas Biological Reserve. Las Alturas is a satellite biological field station that is administered by the OTS Las Cruces Biological Field Station. The field station is part of a privately owned and administrated reserve and organic farm incorporating some 10,000 ha of primary forest with little disturbance that ranges in elevation from 1100 to 2200 m. This area is surrounded by an indigenous Gnöbe community that our course will support through an outreach activity.
Palo Verde Biological Station - Home to countless water birds and other wildlife, this station of dry tropical forest and wetland marsh is situated within a national park. Students will conduct research and engage in activities to explore the role of water in human health. They will touch on water quality as it relates to agriculture, watersheds and irrigation systems, contamination of water by pesticides and arsenic, and the perspective of the local community on issues related to water and health. As an area with a high incidence of renal failure and other kidney health concerns, it is an ideal place to study the important role of water in human health.
San Pedro, San José - Here, you will live with a Costa Rican family while you take the “Culture and Language in Costa Rica” course. Several field trips in the area will bring to life the cultural, scientific, and health-related topics covered in your lectures.
Nicaragua - During your visit, you will participate in a community outreach project. And, your experience will be enriched with cultural activities in beautiful Masaya.
The resident faculty for this program are experienced professionals in environment and human health related fields. As a student in this program you will learn, eat, work, laugh, and travel together with the professors and get to know each other very well.
Luis Fernando Chaves, Ph.D.
Ph.D. Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan
Dr. Chaves is broadly interested in the ecology of vector borne diseases. His research has been focused on Cutaneous Leishmaniasis (in the Neotropics), Mosquito Ecology (USA, East Asia, Latin America & East Africa), Malaria (Latin America, East Africa and Vanuatu) and Chagas disease. He is mainly a modeler, but he also designs/organizes/implements field work, and has authored/co-authored over 75 articles. Prior to coming to OTS, he was an Assistant Professor at Nagasaki University (2013-2016), a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow at Hokkaido University (2010-2012) and at the Department of Environmental Studies in Emory University, Atlanta USA (2008-2010), and since 2010 he has been an associate member in the tropical disease research program (PIET) at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. He did his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA (2008), a M.Sc. in Ecology at Universidad Central de Venezuela (2003) and got a licentiate degree in Biology (minor in Parasitology and Medical Entomology) at Universidad de Los Andes, Venezuela (2001).
Tuition and Financial Aid
Tuition, room and board
The course costs are detailed below:
- Tuition for OTS semester program: $24,787.5
- Program fee: $1,850
- Duke lifetime transcript fee: $40 (does not apply to Duke Students)
Tuition and fees cover:
- Room and board at hotels, homestays, and research stations
- Local travel to program sites
- Participation of many local and international healthcare officials, public health researchers, doctors, and other experts
- Laundry costs
Tuition and fees do not cover:
- International travel
- Independent travel
- Personal spending
OTS is committed to providing opportunities to all eligible students interested in participating in our programs. We make scholarship applications available to students upon acceptance into an OTS program and offer limited funding on a rolling basis. Applicants attending institutions that are members of the OTS consortium colleges and universities have priority, but all qualified applications will be considered. We have dedicated a substantial amount of funding to provide partial scholarships to students who need financial support. APPLY EARLY!!!
Note: Costs for the school year will be announced in late May of each year.
We make the application available two semesters prior to the semester in which you wish to participate.Apply Now
“Like” our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/OTSAbroad) to be notified when the application becomes available.
We have a rolling admissions policy, so we will review your application as soon as you complete it. This means that the program may fill BEFORE the application deadline. APPLY EARLY!
To participate in the Spring Semester program, you must apply no later than November 1. To participate in the Fall Semester program, you must apply no later than April 1.
If you are interested in a semester for which the deadline has passed, please contact us for availability at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Accommodations & Meals
The OTS program differs socially and culturally from your typical on-campus life in several interesting and important ways. First and foremost, of course, you will be living in a small Latin American country. In general, Costa Ricans ("Ticos" and "Ticas") are warm, friendly, and welcoming. You can expect to develop good friendships and not only learn about Costa Ricans but also reflect more on your own culture by comparison. Since you are a guest in Costa Rica, you need to be sensitive to and respectful of Costa Rican customs, but learning how those customs differ from your own is an exciting part of the study abroad experience.
In addition, while you may have one or two roommates on campus, in Costa Rica you will be living closely with 15-25 other students and 2 to 5 professors and course assistants. Again, you can expect to form strong and life-long friendships. The combination of experiences that are uncomfortable (wet, muddy, tired), wacky (a bunch of Gringos on the dance floor), challenging (yes, you can make it through the mangrove forest!), wonderful (watching monkeys while eating lunch), and truly amazing (interacting with people from all sorts of social backgrounds in very different settings) creates great memories that you will share with your fellow participants well beyond the end of the semester. To make this possible communication and respect will be crucial. All of us need to be as open, honest and cooperative as possible. This includes respect for privacy, for rules and regulations, for different opinions and lifestyles, and even respect for the fact that unpredictability is an inherent feature of field-based programs. Indeed, next to communication and cooperation, flexibility and good humor are the most important characteristics of a successful student in our program. Schedule changes can lead to wonderful - or hilarious – experiences in the field!
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 Nicaragua, 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
OTS Tropical Disease, Environmental Change, and Human Health semester program is open to all undergraduate students in good standing with their home institution who have at a least a 2.7 GPA. Students applying to the program must have completed the equivalent of one semester of college-level biology and one semester of college-level Spanish. Applicants attending institutions that are members of the OTS consortium have priority, but all qualified applications will be considered.
Health and Safety
OTS is deeply committed to student safety and well-being and does not expose students to unnecessary danger or risk. In cooperation with the Duke University Global Education Office for Undergraduates (GEO), 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 or South Africa. For our most current safety information, please visit the Duke GEO website at www.global.duke.edu/geo or contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at email@example.com.