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Auburn University offers students intensive study-abroad and research opportunities in Costa Rica

Published: 02/14/2014

Video by: Phillip Coxwell

Auburn students interested in an intensive study-abroad program in one of the world’s most lush and adventure-filled locations can take advantage of the Organization for Tropical Studies, which owns and operates three biological field stations in Costa Rica: La Selva, Las Cruces and Palo Verde. OTS is a non-profit consortium that includes 63 universities and research institutions from the U.S., Latin America and Australia. Auburn University is the only school in the state that is a member of OTS, and since joining the consortium in 1987, Auburn students have had access to educational, research and funding opportunities in Costa Rica that are not available to non-member institutions.

Nicole Garrison, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences, spent time in January at the OTS field station La Selva, participating in the two-week “Ecology and Evolution of Arachnids” course taught by her major professor, Jason Bond, Auburn University OTS delegate.

“It’s a really unique experience, and if you have any interest in field ecology and biology, it’s perfect,” said Garrison. “If you are unsure, you will know by the end of it if whether or not you are interested in a career that involves a lot of field work, because it is very intense. And you are out there in the thick of it with the ants, and the wasps, and the jaguars, and everything, so it’s a very enlightening experience.”

Undergraduates can spend a semester abroad at any of the three stations studying topics such as: “Global Health: Tropical Medicine and Public Health;” “Tropical Biology;” or “Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet.” Graduate students have even more options, with anywhere from 12 to 15 courses being offered on a regular basis. Topics include: “An Introduction to Tropical Ecology;” “Conservation Genetics;” “Tropical Biology;” and the “Ecology and Evolution of Arachnids” course taught by Bond.

“The biggest advantage to an Auburn student is participation in the OTS Tropical Biology and Tropical Ecology Courses. I think any student that you talk to will tell you it was a life-transforming experience,” said Bond. “In fact, when I think back, I did one of the faculty-led courses as an undergraduate, many years ago, and it was transformational for me. I wouldn’t consider myself a tropical biologist in the strictest sense, but it’s just an amazing experience to work in the tropics and to be in one of the most diverse habitats on the planet, and OTS is an amazing setting for that.”

The three OTS-run field stations in Costa Rica offer logistics, lodging, meals and necessary resources, such as classroom and research facilities, to students and faculty participating in courses or research. For example, while Bond was at La Selva teaching the two-week course on arachnids, the station provided him with the means to also conduct National Science Foundation funded research and collect specimens to deposit in the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.

Additionally, because Auburn University is a member institution, students receive a discount to participate in OTS programs, and graduate students who participate in OTS programs become eligible to apply for OTS fellowships and grant funding. Over the last decade, more than $30,000 has been awarded to Auburn students by OTS.

“I received an $800 credit because Auburn University is a member institution,” said Garrison.

Garrison said a typical day began shortly after sunrise as participants gathered for breakfast. Following breakfast, they attended a morning lecture until lunch, and the afternoons were filled with field research. At 4 p.m., the group would gather again for a lecture, eat dinner, and then conduct more field research until late in the evening.

“Typically, we wouldn’t roll into the river station until midnight, which was a pretty common time for people to get back in, and then we would go to bed and start the whole thing over again. So it was a very intense experience,” said Garrison. “Everywhere you turned there was something new and interesting to look at and see, something that you have never seen before and possibly no one has ever seen before. So it was a really cool and novel experience.”

Garrison said she also enjoyed meeting fellow scientists from all over the world who, like her, are interested in studying arachnids. Students in her class were from the U.S., Central America, South America and Europe.

“I think the class definitely opened up a lot more opportunities. Meeting the people in the class was a big step, because I feel like I really grew really close to them in two weeks because of the intensity of the experience and the one-on-one contact that I had with faculty members,” said Garrison. “So I feel like the communication with other people in the field, particularly with the ones from South America that I probably never would have encountered anywhere at a meeting up here, in Alabama, was really good, and it’s really interesting to get more of a perspective on the field from them.”

In addition to Costa Rica, OTS recently initiated programs in South Africa where students have a choice to study either “African Ecology and Conservation” or “Global Health Issues in South Africa.” Research experiences are also available.

“A lot of the students who have been involved in OTS have been through the Department of Biological Sciences and specifically the College of Sciences and Mathematics, but it’s important to note that Auburn University is a member institution of OTS, and as such, any student from Auburn can take courses, and any faculty member from Auburn University interested in conducting research in the Tropics can take advantage of OTS,” said Bond.

Since becoming a member institution, more than 23 students and faculty from both the College of Sciences and Mathematics and the College of Agriculture have participated.

“For our students it’s a safe experience – OTS really takes care of the students when they are involved in the courses. The field stations are what you might consider to be somewhat rustic, but they are a good place to live and work. The food is usually really good. And then the educational aspect of it – it’s an opportunity to learn in one of the most beautiful, diverse settings on earth,” said Bond. “And they are incredibly intense learning experiences...It’s probably one of the most intense learning experiences any of our students will have. Most students come away from an OTS course changed: changed in the way they think about biology and ecology; and changed as scientists and how they think about formulating questions and testing hypotheses; and changed in terms of their exposure to other students from all over the country and all over the world. I have to reiterate, it’s a transformational experience.”

For more information on OTS, contact Bond at or visit the OTS website at

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