Ozarks student investigates Costa Rican ecology

Release Date: 12/3/2011

When Lauren Ray, a junior environmental studies major from Siloam Springs, heard last spring through Dr. Doug Jeffries that the University of Georgia offered a semester-long study abroad program in tropical ecology through its campus in Costa Rica, she was determined to go.

"It was the perfect location for what we did," she says. "Our campus was in the cloud forest, which is the equivalent of a rain forest, just at a higher elevation. So it was a really cool setting and perfect for learning about tropical ecology. I saw a lot of strange-looking animals I didn't know existed. For example they have a kind of forest rodent called an agouti, and the coati, a long-nosed member of the raccoon family. The first time I saw those things I freaked out! We learned so much in such a short time about things like how all parts of an ecosystem are related and how one species' downfall can lead to the downfall of multiple things."

Since the program was offered through the University of Georgia, Lauren signed up for a semester of independent study in global studies at Ozarks and went through the University of Georgia for a semester as a "transient student."

The Costa Rican campus is in Monteverde, a major ecotourism destination voted #14 in Newsweek's "100 Places to Remember Before They Disappear."

Lauren Ray in Costa Rica.

Junior environmental studies major Lauren Ray spent a semester in Costa Rica studying tropical ecology.

"I was the only student there not from Georgia," Lauren said. "I couldn't attend any of their orientations or anything beforehand, so I just showed up and jumped in with both feet."

She describes Costa Rica's climate as wildly diverse. "There are so many different types of ecosystems there," she said. "You have the cloud forest, you have the lower-down rain forest, and you have the coastal dry forest that looks like Africa more than anything - dry, bare trees, basically desert. I had studied up on the cloud forest, but the rest of Costa Rica was a lot different than I expected it to be."

The students' time was divided half-and-half between staying on campus and traveling around the country, staying in hotels or research station dorms when they were studying in the national parks.

"We did have a little time for recreation, four days in the middle of the term," Lauren said. "We got along together so well as a group that we all spent a few days at the beach on the Pacific coast during our time off."

She said the professor in charge of the group often incorporated fun activities into the courses which related to the subject matter they were studying at the time. "We were all taking 18 hours crammed into two-and-a-half months, so that helped keep us from getting too burned out," she said. "For example, one week we were at Playa Grande on the Pacific coast, and they scheduled a morning activity each day and tied it into our studies; one day it was canoeing along a river that had lots of mangrove trees, and that's what we were studying at the time, so we actually did lectures in the canoes. We'd pull off to the side and the professor would do a talk on what we were seeing. The next morning we had surf lessons, and one morning we went horseback riding on the beach. It was all pretty amazing."

The students studied five areas during the term: tropical ecology, conservation biology, general ecology, Spanish, and independent research. "For Spanish we actually got local teachers," she said. "My teacher knew no English. I learned a lot of Spanish down there really quickly!"

Lauren also gathered data for her senior thesis while there. "We did two big research projects as teams and had to present them," she said. "That was scary. I do not like public speaking at all! But my team and I were voted ‘most interesting' for one presentation and ‘best overall presentation' for the other one, so that was great. My project for senior thesis will be associating the correlations between different human land uses in Costa Rica and the diversity of butterfly populations resulting. The butterfly is a good biological indicator of change in the environment, depending on the level of land use by humans. We had four different sites. The site most impacted by humans was an agricultural site, and we found positive correlations with butterfly diversity in that area."

Her impression of Costa Rica after a semester there is overwhelmingly positive. "It's really beautiful and the people there are so genuine," she said. I made lots of friends. We were able to do a couple of home stays with local families, and I'd love to go back and visit them."