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Welcome to the jungle

Undergrads gain valuable experience in Costa Rica

Published: Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 19:07



A&M students spent six weeks in the jungles of Costa Rica gathering weather data, collecting fog data and studying sap flow in trees.

Many students spend their summers working to save for school or relaxing poolside after months of hitting the books. However, 11 undergraduate students from across the country spent six weeks researching forestry at the Soltis Center for Research and Education in the rainforests of Costa Rica.

Under the direction of Chris Houser, an associate professor of geography, and several other A&M faculty members, the students gathered weather data, collected fog samples, and studied sap flow in trees. By studying hydrology, the group sought to determine whether the forest is true cloud forest, which is characterized by high elevation and constant cloud coverage.

"They got an understanding of what research is and that it's a lot of fun and a career path," Houser said.

The National Science Foundation funded the trip with a $557,000 Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grant.

During the six-week stay, students constructed and installed their own research equipment in the forest, often rising early to work 12-hour days to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and the dangerous, nocturnal inhabitants of the forest.  

That's not to say the experience was all work and no play. The students zip-lined, bungee jumped, white water rafted and saw macaws, howler monkeys and other native wildlife.

"We could have studied the exact same processes in College Station, but these students got to go to a jungle, they got to get muddy, they had to deal with a lot of snakes and spiders, very difficult terrain and weather that just wouldn't cooperate," Houser said.

Of the 148 applicants from around the country, only 11 were selected. Two of these students came from A&M, acting as "Aggie ambassadors" to the other students.

Samantha Wills, senior meteorology major, was one of the Aggie undergrads in the group.

"I enjoyed learning how to perform field work, especially in a foreign country," Wills said. "This was my first time to travel outside of the United States. Not only did I gain research experience, but I also had the privilege of experiencing a foreign culture in my daily life."

According to the Office of Honors and Undergraduate Research, approximately 30 percent of graduating seniors report some form of research during their undergraduate years.

"Undergraduate researchers gain a deeper understanding of their chosen field, not only by actively participating in it, but through mentoring relationships with faculty and graduate students," said Duncan Mackenzie, associate director for honors and undergraduate research. "This can help them clarify career goals by identifying what they enjoy doing and gaining a better perspective on what it means to be a professional in their field."

Houser said undergraduates can use this research experience — whether in Costa Rica or College Station — to their advantage after graduation.

 "If you can show that you've been part of an REU, your chances of getting into a strong graduate program in your field are substantially higher," Houser said. "These students are now very attractive to the elite schools of the country and they've got their pick of these schools to look at for

graduate programs."


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