Eighteen talented undergraduates travel to Costa Rica with anthropology class

Students slogged through humid rainforests during a recent four-week trip to Costa Rica. Photo by Brooke Crowley.

Imagine slogging through humid rainforests so dense your pace slows to a crawl, encountering spiders as big as your hand, plants that burn your skin, and mud so deep you sink up to your knees. And loving it.

For 18 undergraduates who just completed a new anthropology class that included four weeks of sweaty, gritty field research in Costa Rica, the discomforts of the jungle were a small price to pay for the opportunity to wake to the sounds of howler monkeys, work side-by-side with leading primatologists, and put years of classroom learning to the test.

"It seems like a cliché, but it was definitely a life-changing experience," said anthropology major Sarah Dyer. "College has made me a thinker, and this class taught me how to apply my thinking. That's priceless."

Dyer and 17 others enrolled in Field Methods in Primatology, a 15-unit "super course" with assistant professor Nathaniel J. Dominy. The first four weeks featured intensive study of UCSC's forest ecology as a warm-up for the immersion experience in Costa Rica, where each student undertook an original research project that culminated in a 35- to 50-page paper and an oral presentation during a symposium modeled after a professional academic conference.

Students undertook research projects that included exploring the links between locomotion and joint stress, facial gestures and communication, and social hierarchy and levels of stress hormones.

Andrew Cunningham, a senior majoring in anthropology, delayed graduation to take the course and said the experience shifted his post-college plans.

"It really inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. It's amazing to collect data that's yours and yours alone," said Cunningham, who analyzed the saliva of howler monkeys for the presence of a digestive enzyme that promises to shed light on the relationship among different primates. "It's hard but also awesome to have this class be the end of my undergraduate experience. I think something like this should be required."

Cunningham had assisted in the labs of several anthropology professors before taking this class. "As undergraduates, you interact with grad students and professors to some extent, but working on your own research and helping them do theirs--it wasn't just us being students. It was us feeling like researchers," he said. "I just want to be able to do the research, to study primates and answer some of these questions about humans and our relatives."

For his part, Dominy is committed to giving undergraduates access to extraordinary research opportunities, even in this era of dwindling resources and liability concerns. He and anthropology graduate students Brooke Crowley and Marissa Ramsier accompanied the undergraduates.

"You've just had a minicourse in how to be a researcher," Dominy told his students during a debriefing two days after they returned from Costa Rica. "Everything you've done is exactly what researchers do. Those data are hard-fought, hard-won data. No one else got it. That's an achievement. That's part of the hook, part of why researchers do it."

Students felt tested by the academic rigor of the class and challenged on a personal level by the hardships and discomforts of international travel, ranging from rustic accommodations and voracious mosquitoes to Internet withdrawal. Despite the challenges, including the $1,500 cost of the trip, all said they would do it again--in a heartbeat.

Jacob Hall, a senior majoring in neuroscience and behavior, called the class "the capstone" of his college years. "It's the best thing I've done as an undergraduate, by far," said Hall.

Inspired by the work of renowned biologist Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in baboons, Hall measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the feces of howler monkeys. Fascinated by monkeys since he was a child, Hall said he is now rethinking his plans for medical school. "Primate behavior has opened up a whole new field. I have a lot to think about."

Like his classmates, he spoke highly of his professor.

"Coming into this, I didn't know quite how big Nate was, but as the trip went on, we'd hear about him being interviewed by NPR and ABC News. For a 22-year-old, that's huge," said Hall. "But he comes off as one of us. He got hurt like us, he got sick like us. He'd joke around with us. And then, when you needed him to be the genius he is, he could answer all your questions. He bridges the gap between the professor's world and undergraduates."

Reflecting on the entire experience, Hall said he felt enriched by more than the research opportunity. "You can take pictures but people don't understand the humidity, the smells, the sounds," said Hall, who recalled waking up at 5 a.m. to the sounds of howler monkeys surrounding his cabin "all howling at same time." Another time, he was certain he heard the growl of a jaguar.

"People talk about coming home and experiencing sensory overload, but for me, it's the opposite," said Hall. "In Costa Rica, I had so many new experiences every day, and coming back here, it feels slow. It's all so familiar. It's the same thing every day. I feel such a drive to go back now. I look around and wonder, where are the jungle animals?"

Anthropology major Dyer said she wanted to take the class so badly that she tried hard to stand out in Dominy's fall-quarter Primate Behavior class. "I have always wanted to do field work," said Dyer, who observed the locomotion of spider monkeys and howler monkeys to study the relationship of their prehensile tails to the shoulder joint. Hypothesizing that the tail relieves some of the stress placed on the joint as animals swing from tree to tree, Dyer hopes her investigation will add to the understanding of muscle function that could one day aid in the prevention of osteoarthritis. "It's about building on what other people have started," she said.

In a theme echoed by others, Dyer expressed deep gratitude for the class and for her classmates. "We all helped each other when we got stuck or frustrated," she recalled. "We got to know each other on a personal level. We were so lucky."

Reflecting on the class, Dominy reiterated his assertion that even a few days in the field are more valuable than many weeks in the classroom, and he expressed satisfaction with the impact the trip had had on his students.

"We want to provide an education that's memorable and fulfilling," he said. "Part of our responsibility as an undergraduate institution is to help launch students on the next phase of their lives."

Contact the author at jmcnulty@ucsc.edu.