Learning to Make an Impact

By Sophie Johnson

Each year, a select group of students from the Zoo Magnet School and the student volunteer program are chosen for the Duttenhaver Animal Conservation Field Study Team. The group assists field researchers engaged in conservation projects around the world that are part of the EarthWatch Institute. These opportunities to experience scientific fieldwork firsthand, made possible thanks to support from Linda Duttenhaver, inspire many of the student participants to pursue future studies and careers in science and conservation.

In recent years, scientists working in Coto Brus have noticed something unique. Local landowners have begun planting fruiting trees on their properties—although the specific reasons for this are not yet clear. Scientists hypothesize that these trees hold the secret to improving the resilience of forest ecosystems and restoring the continuity of Costa Rica’s tropical forests, which benefits both people and wildlife. As part of this study, this year’s Earthwatch team worked directly with researchers to study the ecological benefits of fruiting trees, and the motivations of the tree-planters themselves.

I could not believe that I had been selected by the Duttenhaver foundation to go to Costa Rica and do field research. Even though I was not too sure of what I would be doing, I could not contain my excitement! I was going to go to a country I had never been to before and study plants and animals in the rain forest. Going into the trip, I knew I would have a lot of fun, but I also understood the importance of the valuable experience that I would gain from Costa Rica; I would soon be able to understand what it meant to be a real field researcher.

In the first couple days at Las Cruces Biological Station, it was definitely a difficult and tiring adjustment, as we got up around 5 a.m. every day to spend long hours doing meticulous observations on different farms in the area. But it was all worth it once I spotted my first yellow-throated toucan and Cherrie’s tanager. More and more I looked forward to observation time in the mornings, and even when no birds showed, I began to appreciate the simplicity of being in nature and the peace of mind it gave me. In the other half of the day, we uploaded all our collected data from the morning. Although this task was not the most enjoyable, it was equally important to observation and was a crucial part of our research.

Throughout our week at Las Cruces, I soon became close with all eight students, three mentors, and the researchers on the project. I realized how much I like to meet new people and how I love to work with others. I became more accustomed to the schedule at Las Cruces and could not wait for what the next adventurous day would hold. Whether we were hiking to natural pools in the middle of the rainforest or viewing a large group of white-faced capuchins for the first time, each day was full of surprises.

I did not fully grasp the importance behind our hard work until the last day at the research station. We all face-timed with Dr. Claire Aslan, the creator of the project, so she could explain the results of our research with the help of Robyn [LAST NAME?], one of the lead researchers. I learned that our week of research would be a part of a whole year of research. The project could show what types of fruit seeds are being dispersed the most by certain types of birds. This list would show which species are adding to reforestation the most. One day, the researchers could use this list to help connect all parts of the wild in Costa Rica, through habitat corridors on private land. This would not only benefit the environment but also keep in mind farmers’ economic needs. The results amazed me because I learned that I could make a difference. Our team could play a part protecting the biodiversity of such a beautiful country.

That night turned my dreams into reality. It finally seemed realistic to me that one day I could be one of these researchers; people who help protect the environment. Costa Rica allowed me to realize that studying environmental science would allow me to make a difference in this world. This research trip confirmed my passion for environmental science. It also let me realize how thankful I am to have this opportunity to travel to such an amazing country and become friends with so many new people. This trip helped affirm the fact that I love nature, wildlife, adventure, and protecting the environment.