New, but not Completely Unfamiliar


By Niisoja Torto, Duke University ’20

Niisoja recently returned from our Summer 2017 Global Health Issues in South Africa program and is serving as an OTS Alumni Ambassador for the 2017-2018 school year.

In her TEDTalk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to the danger of a single story, asserting, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Reflecting now on my homestay experience in Sanari village, Limpopo province, South Africa, I cannot help but attest to the validitiy of Adichie’s remark. Coming to South Africa and approaching my homestay, I unknowingly believed into a single story—a single story that polarizes my life and the lives of the people with whom I was soon to live. During the three days of my homestay, I expected to live a life completely different from the one I was used to living. After all, I was coming from a different region of the world, speaking a different language, looking at the world through the lens of a perceivably different culture. In reality, however, my expectation of encountering difference could not have been more uncharacteristic of my time with my incredible homestay family in Sanari.

Day two of my homestay experience was particularly striking in this regard. At around 7:30 am, my group, our incredible translator, Glenda, and I awoke from a well-needed 10 hours of sleep after an enjoyable but tiring day of play with children from all over the community the day before. To be honest, ‘tiring’ is an understatement; in fact, I had never felt more justified wielding the phrase, “I wish I had half the energy you have.” Soon after waking up, we devoured my all-time favorite meal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with tea. That afternoon, we did some chores, bonded with our host family, and walked around the community, talking to community members at their homes and at a local market for our research project on rural livelihoods in Sanari. Our relatively slow day was truly refreshing and worthwhile. However, when I heard that a nearby home was having a birthday party that night, I jumped at the opportunity to close the already great day with some dancing. That night, we ate delicious pap (maize meal)—a meal that reminded me of food from my own culture—and danced the night away under a clear night sky. What surprises me most reflecting now on day two is that, in reality, this day’s events were not far-removed from what I would have done (or would have liked to have done) back home.

While many experiences that I had during the homestay were new to me, such as eating from a communal bowl, these experiences were remarkably not completely unfamiliar. It is interesting to note that, despite the language barrier we experienced with many of the residents of Sanari village, it was as if we could still speak some same language—a language characterized by happiness, love, fun, and many smiles. This realization initially surprised me; but why should it have? That is the danger of a single story: a story that often predicates itself on the perceived differences between people rather than on their abundant similarities. While I was challenged both physically and mentally during the homestay, I was more comfortable than I had been in a while. This reality, I think, speaks volumes to an almost inexplicable shared human experience—an experience that transcends language, background, and borders…an experience that made my homestay the great experience it was.



By Barkley Dai, Yale University ’20

If there is one word that I can use to summarize our 2017 Summer Tropical Biology course in Costa Rica, the word is adaptability.

On the first night after we arrived at Las Cruces, our first study site, our professor Scott raised the question: what is the most important thing that you will need in this course? Some of us answered curiosity, others answered analytical skills. Scott smiled and said “nope, it’s adaptability. Because we forgot to bring the mist nets from San Jose office, and we need to adapt to that and change our plan to catch bats on the next day instead.” We all laughed.

But soon we realized that it is not merely a joke. As we are thrown into the wild, our ability to adapt is constantly challenged. On the first day, mosquitoes left at least one kiss on everyone; on the second week, we went off the grid and lived in a wooden cottage in the mountain with no electricity; and at our last site, all of us stepped into the muddy water of the marsh, where there are crocodile dwells. We were constantly stepping out of our comfort zone, and then adapting to the wilderness, expanding our comfort zone.

But what’s more awesome about adaptability is that while we adapt to the nature, nature also reveals all kinds of adaptability to us, and each single one of them is a marvelous story. At the botanical garden of Las Cruces, we learned about how the super long tongue of bats is an adaptation to the structure of the flower, forming a mutually beneficial relationship; at La Selva, we saw the beautiful “strawberry dart frog”, who eats poisonous insects and gather the poison at their back, so they would not be eaten by predators; at Palo Verde, we learned how iguanas change their color between dry season and wet season, so they can better blend into their surroundings to avoid predators. All of these marvelous adaptabilities can rarely be seen outside of Costa Rica, where the diverse habitat and high biodiversity formed a paradise for nature lovers. And even after three weeks in the program, we are still stunned by nature, and its ability to shape all the beautiful creatures, giving them different niche and ability to adapt.

And that leads us to think about the question, how is human adapting to nature? What is the relationship of human to other creatures? Besides seeing all the beauty of nature, we also learnt about various threats like deforestation and habitat lost, that are causing the disappearance of the beauties in nature. While it seems that human is strong enough that all the other creatures need to adapt to us, the result of a worsening global environment is something that we cannot afford. And though conducting our group projects on bird and spider diversity and how human influence these creatures, and then designing our individual projects, we are constantly exploring the question: how shall human as a whole take actions and adapt to a changing environment? While the answer is still far to reach, we are definitely closer to a solution after adapting ourselves to nature and seeing the adaptability of all those marvelous creatures in nature.

Biodiversity Surveys in Punda Maria


By Caroline Schlutius, Yale University ‘18

Caroline is currently in South Africa with our Spring 2017 African Ecology and Conservation program.

While in Punda Maria, a site in the far north of Kruger National Park, we had the chance to conduct biodiversity surveys of several sites throughout the area. At 05:20h sharp, my alarm sounded the start of the day and I jumped up to get ready before meeting the rest of our crew at 05:45h. We drove to our first site in silence, slowly waking up to the sound of the dawn chorus as the sun lit the landscape.

At our first site, we jumped out of the game drive vehicle and marched into the bush, stopping about 100 meters in to do our first bird survey.

Luckily, I had several avid birders in my group this morning, and I stood posed with my pen over paper while they scanned the horizon or listen intently for calls, spouting off names of species almost more quickly than I could write them.

After the allotted time, we made our way to the butterfly trap, which had attracted butterflies and moths with a pungent concoction of beer, bananas, and brown sugar. We put our specimens in envelopes before heading to the next site and repeating the process.

Later in the afternoon, we head out once more to conduct vegetation, reptile, and active butterfly catching surveys. The ensuing hours passed in a haze of tree identification and measurement, running around with butterfly nets, and scanning the ground intently for signs of reptile presence. Finally, exhausted, we hop in the car and head back to the camp, basking in the mopane and baobab dotted landscape and another incredible day in the savanna.

Integration of Biomedicine and Traditional Medicine


By Destiny Ho, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill ’18

Destiny is currently in Costa Rica with our Spring 2017 Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change, and Human Health program.

In our recent lectures we have been learning about the intercultural health care system, which is interactions between both biomedicine and traditional medicine, and discussing the importance of collaboration and eventually integration of the two forms of medicine. Today, we visited the La Cosana indigenous community, about twenty minutes away from Las Cruces Biological Station, where we had the opportunity to learn about their EBIAS (Los Equipos Básicos de Atención Integral en Salud), as well as talk to one of the Primary Healthcare Technicians and some of the indigenous healers. The EBAIS of the La Cosana community is a success story of the integration of biomedical practices with traditional medicine, mostly due to the respect and communication between the biomedical physician and traditional healers.

The traditional healers we spoke to told us the community is greatly affected by diabetes, anemia, and prostate problems, among other diseases. We also learned the community is affected by chronic diseases, as well as dental issues. These diseases could be coming from the imposition of the Westernized lifestyle and diet upon the indigenous community, especially with the increased access to high-sugar foods and chips. The healers also talked about how the “imposition of civilization” has led to a loss of tradition within the community, especially around eating habits. When asked about the EBAIS, the traditional healers enforced that there is a better relationship nowadays due to the respect that the healers and physicians have for one another and the collaboration of both parties. When a patient comes in and the traditional healers cannot aid the patient, they will refer them to the biomedical physician and vice versa.

One of the Primary Healthcare Technicians spoke of her role within the community, as well as a few of the problems with the EBAIS currently. One of the key roles of the Primary Healthcare Technician is prevention, through going house to house and recommending a trip to the EBAIS when necessary. Some of the problems that the community is facing are barriers to having a skilled birth attendant present during birth, as well as the computerization of the EBAIS system. Since the system has become computerized, it is harder for community members to access the healthcare since not every member has access to the internet and a computer. The Primary Healthcare Technician stated the importance of policy makers to look into the effects and ask communities before administering new systems.

Visiting the EBAIS was a wonderful experience, especially in seeing how traditional medicine and biomedicine can actually work together if there is effective communication and respect for one another.


In the Mangrove Forest


By Andres Ripley, Wheaton College, MA ’18

Andres is currently in Costa Rica with our Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet semester program.

On the way to the mangrove forest, I was excited because I had seen mangroves before, but never a forest full of them. When we got to the forest, our professors explained how the zonation of a mangrove ecosystem works due to different plants being able to tolerate different salinity levels in the soil.

We walked farther in, and all of a sudden the smaller shrubs turned into massive, eighty-foot-tall trees. The roots of the trees could be seen almost twenty feet off the ground in some cases. Some mangrove plants have pores in the leaves that secrete the salt the roots are taking in, and others send all of the salt to the older leaves because they will be falling off the branch soon. In addition, since the clay is very good at holding water for long periods of time, and the presence of water makes it is hard for gas exchange to occur underground, mangroves have lenticels on the roots above ground that are used for gas exchange, which is one of the reasons why the roots come so high above ground.

After discussing more about different adaptations plants and animals have in a mangrove ecosystem, we talked about the importance of mangroves, like how they are very good storm barriers that help protect the mainland, they help reduce erosion that can occur along bodies of water, and they help filter pollution that is heading from rivers out into the ocean. It was very interesting to learn about mangroves, because there are less and less mangrove ecosystems due to the rising of sea levels and humans destroying them, so it is important that more people educate more people on the importance of mangroves.

Sweet, Sustainable Pineapples: An Afternoon at Finca Sura


By Kelsey Porter, Macalester College ’18

Kelsey is currently in Costa Rica with the Spring 2017 Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change, and Human Health program.

During the time that we studied at La Selva earlier in the semester, we had the chance to visit Finca Sura, a natural pineapple farm nearby. Finca Sura is considered “natural” because its caretakers use sustainable methods to grow pineapples, unlike most large-scale plantations. As we approached the farm, I admired the crimson decorative palms that line many of the roads and pathways.

When we arrived, we were greeted by one of the farmers, who led us to the open-air dining room and offered us some initial refreshments: fresh, cool pineapple juice. The sweet taste was quite welcome on such a warm, sticky day. Next, we went on a guided tour of the farm to learn about the plants of Finca Sura and the methods by which they are grown. Before reaching the pineapple field, we were surprised and delighted to become acquainted with Matilda, the family pig:

Throughout our visit, we learned about the factors that differentiate Finca Sura from its “organic” and “conventional” pineapple farm counterparts. Organic pineapple farms avoid using chemicals, but they place black plastic across the ground to keep out pests. Unfortunately, the plastic is not always effective, and it also contributes to waste production since it can only be reused two or three times. Conventional (large-scale) farms use a mixture of pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides to kill off potential threats. They also allow pineapples to grow quite close to each other, and as a result, each individual does not receive adequate nutrients from the soil. Furthermore, conventional farms often lack effective crop rotation methods. They plant the same crop in the same place for many years and only let the land rest for one month between growing seasons, leaving the soil in a state of perpetual depletion.

Finca Sura, in contrast, has developed sustainable (and fairly simple) ways to keep their pineapples healthy. For starters, they are completely chemical-free. This may seem impossible in the Age of Pesticides, but the farmers at Finca Sura use creative strategies to keep the critters away. They plant a variety of tasty supplementary plants, such as bananas and papayas, in various sections of their farm. As a result, many of the birds and insects that would normally devour the pineapples instead choose to munch on the delectable diversity of other fresh fruits. Additionally, the farmers make sure that individual pineapples have enough room to grow by separating and re-planting young plants as they sprout. To maintain a balance of pineapples at different stages of development, the farmers also sometimes cut the green leaves at the top (the crown) to delay maturation of the fruit. Lastly, Finca Sura uses a crop rotation cycle—3 years on, 1 year off—to allow the soil to fully recover between growing seasons.

After learning all about the pineapples, we had the chance to taste them. Our guide picked a couple mature ones from a nearby field and skillfully diced them into bite-sized pieces. I usually don’t like pineapple in large proportions, but these were so sweet and fresh that I could have kept eating them for awhile!

When we returned from our tour, we were treated to a second, even more decadent round of refreshments: guanábana juice, sugarcane juice with ginger, fresh coffee, and pineapple bread. Since it was close to dinnertime, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the hearty snacks.

Overall, I really enjoyed learning about the techniques used by Finca Sura. I wondered why other farms don’t adopt similar methods to make their practices more sustainable. Are these methods considered too labor-intensive? Too costly? Too slow? Whatever the reasoning, I think that the long-term effects of heavy chemical use have already started to reveal themselves in daunting and widespread ways. I hope that farms like Finca Sura are able to teach others, so that sustainable farming practices can expand beyond the scope of small family farms.

Above the Canopy: Summer in Costa Rica


By Roslyn Rivas, Yale University ’17

Roslyn was a student on our Tropical Biology summer program in 2016 and currently serves as an Alumni Ambassador for OTS.

On our last day at La Selva, one of the biological station guides took a handful of us to visit one of the many research towers spread across the forested area. With our climbing harnesses and helmets in our hands, we set out to walk through the rainforest until we came across a metal frame tower that extended at least 50 meters high. Attaching our belts to the main rope, we climbed up flight after flight of stairs. Suddenly, about halfway up, we were met with a family of howler monkeys, calling out and inching closer, definitely curious about us. They weaved in and out of branches to the wires supporting the tower to get a closer look at the humans who were as high up in the trees as they were.

Soon we were above the canopy, able to see the tops of trees miles around us. It was such a surreal experience being up there, seeing the land and animals this organization is trying to protect. It reminded me of what I loved most about this trip: the sheer amount of wildlife I was able to come across. Throughout the month, I had the chance to study monkeys, birds, coatis, lizards, crocodiles, frogs, and so much more.

This trip was a dream come true not only because I got to travel and see so much wildlife, but also because it gave me a sense of what being a biologist would be like. I want to work in wildlife conservation, out on the field, and the summer OTS Costa Rica program gave me a glimpse of just that. I am so grateful to have been a part of this experience.


First Month in South Africa


By Kirstie McTear, Tuskegee University ’17

Kirstie is currently in South Africa for the Spring 2017 African Ecology and Conservation semester program.

The first few weeks as an OTS student were incredible! The day after we all arrived in Johannesburg we drove out to Nylsvley Nature Reserve where we spent the first 11 days of the program.

A typical day as an OTS student involves many components. Our day usually begins at about 7 am with a lovely breakfast prepared by talented OTS caterers. Students are welcomed to wake up earlier though, to go for a run or on a game drive/bird walk. Some students, including myself, take advantage of this opportunity and while on a run or game drive it is common to see wildlife such as giraffes and wildebeest.

gdvgame drive

After breakfast, we as students listen to lectures prepared by an amazing team of OTS staff and professors about conservation and ecology and the science behind these topics.


Around noon we all take a break for lunch and eat together. Following lunch, we may have a few more lectures or free time in the afternoon to do more nature walks or game drives.

We will then end the day with a delicious dinner around 6 pm. Many students will choose to go on an evening walk around the reserve equipped with headlamps and cameras to capture any nocturnal wildlife before going to bed. The next morning, we wake up and do it all again; excited to see what new adventure the day may bring!


Summer in South Africa: A Day in the Life


By Sydney Harris, Howard University ’17

Sydney was a student in our Summer 2016 Global Health Issues in South Africa program. She describes a day in the life during the homestay portion of the program below.

Today I woke up to the sounds of roosters crowing, the smell of a fire being burned for boiling water, and the sunrise peaking out, indicating that the day was to begin. The pace of life slowed drastically as we observed the daily habits of our host mom and neighboring homes.

These included her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, as well as many children playing while on holiday. We were the centers of attention, the awkward visitors; “makua” and were constantly reminded of it. I was never the girl to camp, or to spend the majority of her days outside, or to sit idle for periods of time, so the entire day worked to test my boundaries and what was comfortable to me. But I loved

I loved being invited into our homestay and being trusted to watch over and play with the children in the area. I loved learning about how similar things back home were done in completely different ways here.

The past days at this homestay have paralleled what the trip so far has done for me; it has given me a perspective that I lacked in my education thus far. It gave me a way to look at health and life from the lens of the children who have to walk 2 miles to get bread and the mom who must grow many of the things she eats. Truly it has humbled me and taught me to respect others for the way they live and the way that they make do with what they have, no matter where in the world.

Fiery-Throated Hummingbird in Costa Rica


By Philip Vanbergen, University of Louisiana, Lafayette ’18

Philip was a student on our Summer 2016 Tropical Biology program in Costa Rica.

Before my first trip to Costa Rica, the tropical rainforest was a foreign and faraway place that I only knew through nature documentaries and science classes. It wasn’t until I was able to experience the tropics myself that it became real for me. I had never seen such a rich variety of flora and fauna, and as soon as I got back to the states, I immediately started researching and learning more about this strange and beautiful part of the world. It was during this period of research that I learned about the OTS Tropical Biology Course, and as I learned more about the program, I wanted more and more to experience it as part of my college career.

I applied for the Tropical Biology course for the summer of 2016, and thankfully was accepted. I spent the next several months learning as much as I could about Costa Rica and the tropics in general as I prepared for the course. I would read and re-read field guides of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and plants to become acquainted with the natural history of the area. I was awe-struck by the beautiful and bizarre nature of the tropical plants and animals, and couldn’t wait to experience them myself.

One such animal I learned about was the fiery-throated hummingbird, a gorgeous hummingbird of the high, montane wet forests of Costa Rica and Panama. I had hopes of seeing one during the course, but I had no idea that I would have such an intimate encounter with the species. During our stay in the Costa Rican highlands, I found myself within arm’s length of dozens of fiery-throated hummingbirds, which allowed me to take this photo with my i-phone. This is just one example of the many amazing animals I was fortunate enough to encounter, and I learned more during the course than I could have ever expected. All in all, this course will be one of the great highlights of my college career.