Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change and Human Health Overview
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.
The Health in the Tropics program is comprised of four core courses. Each course is worth 4 credit hours, accredited by Duke University.
Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change and Human Health (Duke – BIO283A)
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 - 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 of interest to the director of the Health Area of Coto Brus, in conjunction with the “Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social” (or “la Caja” or “CCSS”). This can be a memorable experience that could change the way you see health, nature, and society, particularly in the context of the tropics.
Field Ethnobiology (Duke -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 the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio), local markets, and National Parks. These are wonderful introductions both to the country and to ethnobiology.
Culture and Language in Costa Rica Duke University—Spanish (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:
8:00am 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. Sometimes we will visit health facilities in cities and towns, and you will need to wear either casual or more formal attires. These visits are often the best part of the day!
12:00pm Lunch back at the station or on the sites you’re visiting.
1:00 pm Afternoon activities, lectures, and day visits.
7:00pm 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.
Schedule of Site Visits*
|Day 1||San José (Central Valley)||Arrival date; overnight at Hotel Cacts|
|Day 2||Visit to OTS offices at the University of Costa Rica, San Pedro||Orientation|
|January 21 – February 13||La Selva Biological Station||Tropical Rainforest;
Introductory lectures, indigenous visit, stats, first FLP (“Faculty Led Project”)
|February 14 - 28||Homestays in San Jose
Costa Rica Language Academy
|Intensive Spanish, home stays with Costa Rican families|
|March 1 - 12||Las Cruces Biological Station||Visit to Health centers and indigenous territories; lectures on global health, second FLP, prepare research proposals|
|March 13 - 21||Midterm Break|
|March 22 - 28||Palo Verde Biological Station||Visit to health care, agricultural facilities, community research, third FLP|
|March 29 – April 2||Nicaragua||Tropical medicine activity|
|April 3 - 11||Homestays in San Jose||Medical Spanish and visits to hospitals, bioprospection lab, and food sites|
|April 12 – May 2||Las Cruces Biological Station/Las Alturas||Las Alturas rural clinic and final independent research projects|
|May 3 – May 4||Mirador de los Quetzales/San José||Closing activities|
|May 5||Students return to the U.S.|
Important Information for Spring Schedule
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 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. Time at this site includes health research with the Ngöbe indigenous community and running a three-day health clinic at the nearby Las Alturas Biological Station.
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 a community service health care component.
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 global 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 six-day visit to Masaya, Nicaragua (Costa Rica’s northern neighbor), you will visit primary care facilities and compare its health care system with that of Costa Rica. In Nicaragua you will have a service learning component, taking patient information for a traveling rural clinic as a partnership with Fundación VIDA. Doctors, nurses, and cultural interpreters join our group to provide primary care to a low-income population. You will also visit several local markets. Your stay in Nicaragua will provide an additional opportunity for you to practice your Spanish skills.
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.
Sustainable Development, Universidad de Costa Rica
Ms. Arias is doing her thesis for a Master Degree in Sustainable Development with Emphasis on Natural Resources Conservation. Her future projects are all related with the conservation, study and learning from nature and the environment.
M.D. Universidad Hispanoamericana
Dr. Lopez has worked on medical attention through the health promotion, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of sicknesses, as part of the health team at different levels, with the purpose of solving the main health problems that affect individuals or groups, and referring on a timely manner the cases that require urgent attention, applying the medicine based on updated scientific evidence.
Ph.D., University of Florida
During undergraduate thesis research, Dr. Castaneda became interested in non-timber forest products and ethnobiology through a study of traditional production systems of the tree Myroxylon balsamum. After graduating, he worked at the Scientific Section of La Laguna Botanical Gardens in El Salvador. Later, Dr. Castaneda went on as a Fulbright Scholar to study for his master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Ecology with emphasis in Tropical Conservation and Development at the University of Florida. After completing this degree, he continued on to his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, specializing on geographic information systems and remote sensing applications for natural resource management.
Tuition and Financial Aid
Tuition, room and board
The course costs are detailed below:
- Tuition for OTS semester program: $23,825
- 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
- Note: Costs for the school year will be announced in late May of each year.
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!!!
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/OTSatDuke) 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.
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 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
OTS semester and summer programs are 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 Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet (Costa Rica and Panamá), African Ecology and Conservation (South Africa), and Tropical Biology-Summer (Costa Rica) programs must have completed the equivalent of one year of college-level biology. Students applying to the Global Health Issues in South Africa program must have completed the equivalent of one semester of college-level biology. Students applying to the Tropical Diseases (Costa Rica and Nicaragua) 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