West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Your tax dollars at work

Every summer, the National Science Foundation of the USA funds the Research Experience for Undergraduates program (REU), in which undergraduate students work with established scientists to learn about research and how it operates. I was an REU fellow myself, quite a few years back, working on kidney physiology in estuarine fishes in a lab on the coast of Maine. Now I find myself involved in the program again, in a very different capacity and a very different setting: I’m the REU Coordinator at La Selva Biological Station. Most REU programs take place at labs in the US, but this one is in a Costa Rican field station.

Given the workplace, my job description is a little more varied than one might expect for a typical REU coordinator. I’ve done a lot of routine office work, coordinating purchase orders and doing inventories of lab supplies. I’ve also given lectures on avoiding snakebites, parasites, and skin fungus. Last week I spent the better part of an evening pulling spines from a Cryosophila palm out of an unfortunate student’s hand with a pair of forceps sterilized with lab-grade ethanol.

There are twelve students, each paired with a different mentor who’s doing research at the station. They’ll be here until mid-August, studying a huge range of topics: the effect of phosphorus on stream invertebrates’ growth rates; fruit dispersal by birds in old growth and young forests; the ecology of an invasive frog species; how to distinguish the land use history of a forest from satellite imagery; etc. This year’s students are an amazing bunch: adaptable, fun, dedicated, and bright. They come from all over the US and Puerto Rico, from schools ranging from Ivies to city universities. Some of them have traveled all over the tropics; many have never left the US before.

Last night we had our first ethics discussion. The ethics series is a part of every REU, but there’s considerable leeway in the topics discussed. When I was an REU, working at a lab that focused on toxicology and physiology, we spent a lot of time talking about the ethics of animal care and use. Here, I decided it would be a good idea to focus on issues related to tropical biology. We talked about conservation in the tropics: what is the appropriate balance of land use in the tropics? who makes the decisions about tropical conservation, and who enforces them? what role do scientists play in tropical conservation? It was a lively and illuminating discussion. People shared their expertise on everything from conservation biology and watershed management to colonialism and Native American fishing rights. We went from CITES to buffalo burgers. (I’m still not sure how we got to buffalo burgers, actually.) On the whole, I was amazed at the level of maturity and thoughtfulness. This is going to be a great summer.

For years, I’ve subscribed to Joseph Campbell’s philosophy: follow your bliss. I try to do what I love and love what I do, and hope that somehow this will lead me on a path to useful, sustainable work that will leave the planet a little better off. The job I’m doing right now feels like a step in the right direction. Thanks to all the US taxpayers for making this possible!


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