Undergraduate Opportunities - Global Health

Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change and Human Health
Semester Program in Costa Rica

Program Details

When: Fall 2017:Aug 21-Dec 5

Spring 2018: Jan 15-May 1

Duration: 15 weeks

Credits:4 courses

Language: English

Deadline: Spring 2018: November 1

Fall 2018: April 1

Field Notes: Undergraduate Blog

Trop Talks: Webinar Series

Apply Now


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.

Research Methods in Tropical Biology
Duke University - BIO 281LA

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.

Sites Visited:

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 - We will take a trip to Nicaragua where we will have the opportunity to witness the rich culture of this neighboring Central American country.  During our visit, we will learn about the health concerns and particularities of the local population.

*Sites are subject to change


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. 


Mauricio Lascano, Ph.D.

Ph.D. Microbiology, Parasitology, and Tropical Diseases, Ohio University

Mauricio Lascano PicDr. Lascano's research interests are focused on various aspects of the biology and epidemiology of tropical infectious diseases, in particular Chagas disease, an infection that affects millions of people in Latin America.  He is interested in the genetic variability of the populations of parasites and vectors and how it influences the role they play in the transmission dynamics of the infection.  In exploring these research topics, he works to generate relevant scientific data that can be used by health authorities to design and implement adequate and effective control and prevention programs to deal with this disease.  As an educator, Dr. Lascano has experience teaching a variety of courses, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and leading educational trips abroad for students interested in learning about tropical diseases.


Jessica Arias, M.Sc.

M.Sc. Sustainable Development, Universidad de Costa Rica

Jessica AriasMs. Arias is pursuing her Ph.D. degree on agricultural sciences where she focuses her research on Family Farming and Food Security.  She has a Master Degree in Sustainable Development with emphasis on Biological Resources Conservation, with a base training on ecotourism.  Her main research interest and projects are related to agriculture, sustainable agricultural production and agrobiodiversity as a way of local economies and cultures to adapt against environmental and climate change.  She has also been involved in environmental education and conservation projects in biological corridors, working also in indigenous communities in Costa Rica.

Tuition and Financial Aid

Tuition, room and board

The course costs are detailed below:

  • Tuition for 2017-18 Academic Year: $25,860
  • 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
  • Incidentals
  • 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.

Application Process

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 .

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 Tropical Diseases, 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 be at least 18 years of age, no less than a sophomore in academic standing, and 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. Five 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, contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at .