Study Abroad Trips to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica Bring Valuable Field Research Experience to Students

Students in the Trinidad and Tobago program. Photo by Adrienne Brundage.

Students in the Trinidad and Tobago program. Photo by Adrienne Brundage.

Several students from the Department of Entomology and other departments around the university spent the summer researching in a different location as they ventured to Trinidad and Tobago and at the Soltis Research Center in Costa Rica this summer for research during two study abroad programs.

The two groups developed and carried out research projects in the field and learned about the local cultures in both Trinidad and Tobago, and in Costa Rica. At the end of the program, the students turn their research into a paper that is ready for publication.

Trinidad and Tobago program coordinator Dr. Adrienne Brundage said the trip to the two islands temporarily took place of the Dominica Study Abroad after the research center they were using was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

With the help of co-instructor and Wildlife and Fisheries professor Dr. Kevin Conway, Brundage decided on using a similar center that was located in Trinidad and Tobago. She said the environment at the research center in Trinidad and Tobago was similar to what they have done for the previous trips to Dominica.

“Because of the hurricane damage, we made the decision with the Archbold Tropical Research Center in Dominica that it wouldn’t be prudent to have students on the grounds quite yet,” she said “That left us to find something that was close to the amenities we are used to in Dominica on some other island.”

The students’ research projects ranged from studying and creating medicinal plant identification guides with newer photos and researching mosquito habitats and species to surveying geckos and other lizards and other related organisms.

“The students worked to reach out of their comfort zones with their research and it showed,” Brundage said.

Group photo of students in Costa Rica near the Solis Center

Students in the Costa Rica program. Photo by Dr. Hojun Song

During the Costa Rica trip led by Drs. Hojun Song and Spence Behmer in August, some of the projects the 19 students worked on included collecting and preparing insects and studying the behavior and ecology of such insects as ants, termites and grasshoppers.

Students doing field work in Costa Rica

Students in the Costa Rica program doing field research. Photo by Dr. Hojun Song.

Song said that a total of 2,000 insects were collected and prepared to help create a more long-term insect collection at the Soltis Center for researchers to use in their research. The students also gained valuable field research techniques that can be used for other courses and during their future careers.

Junior Jose Torres collected more than 100 species of nocturnal insects that were native to Costa Rica and a group project dealing with the feeding preferences of termites. Torres said the trip was a good learning experience and learned more about what it takes to set up and conduct a research project.

“Aside from the few lectures we had abroad and the learning experiences of running an experiment in limited time, I learned a lot from watching and observing the nature around me during my hiking trips,” Torres said. “I learned that there is so much biodiversity that remains hidden from so many people simply because they do not have the opportunity to go on such expeditions.

He also added that studying abroad improved his skills in insect behaviors and biodiversity.

Student Gabrielle Manno identifying mosquitoes for her project looking at a microscope.

Gabrielle Manno identifying mosquitoes for her project. Photo by Dr. Adrienne Brundage

The observations I made during the study abroad trip helped me become a better entomologist because the insects I observe where I normally do, which is insects in either Dallas or in College Station TX, have their own uniqueness. Observations like this will help me learn about the world around me for the rest of my life.”

Aaron said that she had a great experience and would love to return if she had the chance again.

“I learned to be much better at identifying all types of insects, not only beetles and I had the opportunity to learn about Trinidad’s culture including food, people, economy, and so many more things that I never would have had the opportunity to see in person otherwise,” she said. “I would absolutely go back in a heartbeat.”

Students Stephanie Rodriguez, left, and Jennifer Iglesias (right) with Dr. Spence Behmer (foreground) checking data collected from the field. Photo by Dr. Hojun Song

Students Stephanie Rodriguez, left, and Jennifer Iglesias (right) with Dr. Spence Behmer (foreground) checking data collected from the field. Photo by Dr. Hojun Song

Senior Patryk Tomaszkiewicz’s research project was collecting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Trinidad and Tobago and tracking which were the most active and which females were able to produce more offspring.

He said the project was a great learning experience and taught him valuable personal skills. “I learned to adapt and change my project so that I could complete it, given the environment I was given,” he said. “I also learned valuable personal skills and I found that some people aren’t the way you thought they’d be. However, I also learned how to better work in a group and how to make group research successful.”

Aaron’s individual project was conducting a survey of forensically important beetles in Trinidad and Tobago and was involved in a group project where she compared a survey of pollinators of Cordia curassavica and Stachytapheta jamaicensis plants.

“The trip was amazing!” senior Kayleigh Aaron said. “I had such a great time learning about the country and meeting new people, all while making some really great friends along the way.”

Tomaszkiewicz also enjoyed the trip and would go again if he had the chance.

“The trip was great. I got to experience a new climate, a new culture, and a new part of the world that I’ve never been to,” he said.  “I got to meet great people and I had the chance to do a research project about something that I was really passionate about.”

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