Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
The Travel Enrichment Grant I received allowed me to visit the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. I received this grant in order to explore the world of field research, to find out what types of projects were being conducted in tropical ecosystems and to network with biologists in the hopes of securing future opportunities. I visited La Selva during the end of November and was able to stay at the station for a total of three nights and four days. During my stay, I interviewed twenty biologists, PhD students and field technicians, participated in a National Geographic photo session and had the opportunity to volunteer in the data collection in one of the field projects.
At the station, I lived alongside the researchers, shared in their daily meals and learned about the trials, tribulations and successes they were experiencing with their projects. The study areas at the station were extremely varied. For example, two German PhD students were studying the effects of light pollution on bats while local Costa Ricans were carrying out the long-term CARBONO project monitoring tree growth, climate change and succession patterns and an American botanist was exploring the effects of secondary compounds in fruit on seed dispersion. There was even a photographer from National Geographic who was taking photos of bats as they foraged for nectar.
The researchers elaborated upon their projects and study areas during the interviews, but the main thing I drew from my conversations with them were several pieces of invaluable advice:
1. Be sure you know what you want to study before going for your Master's or PhD. If need be, take a year off after undergrad to work, take internships and generally immerse yourself in various projects until a question, system or cause strikes you.
2. Be sure that research is what you want to do before applying to graduate school.
3. Field work is rewarding and fun, but many times unforeseen problems arise. At this time, collaboration with other scientists and consultation of long-term data projects is extremely useful.
4. PhD students and field technicians aren't looking to hire assistants, but can definitely point you in the right direction to get your career started and keep your name in mind for future projects. Therefore, they are great networking sources for endeavors in the far, rather than the near, future.
This advice and experience was extremely helpful as it prompted me to think critically about my future career in conservation biology. I love research and field work. That was made clear to me when I assisted Mr. Tuthill, the National Geographic photographer, frame his shots and when I assisted Ms. Karin Scheeberger, a bat immunologist, capture wild bats with mist nets and take blood samples for her study. However, I realized that I do not want to devote my life solely to research. I'd like to participate in it, but I'd also like work more closely with conservation strategies and public education than would be possible in a purely research orientated career. With these things in mind, I am now planning to pursue a career in wildlife management. Without this travel grant experience, I would have never come to this realization and am therefore incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity.