Immersed in learning

Intense field work in Panama transforms student researchers

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Senior Jon Benner is graduating in June, but his transition to life after Princeton really started more than a year ago in the jungles of Panama.

It began on days like the one when he drove a pickup truck around a mountain rain forest and discovered, all on his own, an inexplicable pattern in the distribution of certain male and female trees. Or the couple of days he struggled in vain to figure out whether lichen was more likely to grow on one kind of tree bark or another.


A course on the biology of tropical coral reefs concludes the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology's annual "Semester in the Field." The program allows a group of Princeton undergraduates, as well as two Panamanian students, to spend three months studying various ecosystems in Panama. Here, Panamanian student Rafael Mares (second from right) snorkels with Princeton seniors (from left) Julia Svoboda, Mindy Rostal and Jon Benner during their junior year in 2002.

Benner is one of a small number of students whose Princeton education has taken a sharp turn 2,000 miles south of campus. Each spring, seven to 15 juniors majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology participate in that department's "Semester in the Field" in Panama, a program that immerses students in biological field research. For three months, the students work side-by-side with some of the top field biologists in the world, becoming partners in high-level research and generating their own projects.

"I definitely view Princeton in three phases: before Panama, during Panama and after Panama," said Benner, whose experience in 2002 convinced him to apply to graduate school at Stanford University, where he will attend in the fall. Stripped of the inevitable distractions of competing courses and extracurricular activities, students in Panama enter a "crucible of learning" unlike anything else he has known, Benner said.

On May 2, a new group of juniors returned with fresh stories of wildcats, monkeys, giant bats and leatherback turtles. And those who had once wavered about whether they could bear to leave campus for a semester were preparing to proselytize about the trip to sophomores. "It was just the best decision," said Rebecca Barak. "I am sure if we hadn't gone, and then heard people talking about the trip, all of us would have been kicking ourselves."

For the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the trip has become a powerful tool for plugging students directly into the excitement of discovery that scientists often strain toward conveying in the world of textbooks and blackboards. "These kids come back transformed," said Daniel Rubenstein, chair of ecology and evolutionary biology. "It truly is a different learning experience than students will ever get on campus."


Panamanian college students Marta Vargas-Timchenko (second from left) and Roberto Lombardo (third from left) participated in the "Semester in the Field" program this spring with Princeton students (from left) Aaron Proujansky, Jennifer Brudno, Anniece Gerrard, Becky Barak, John Kim, Valerie Ethier and Annie Rein-Weston. In the background are mountain forests of La Fortuna, Chiriqui Province, Panama.

A sustaining gift

The semester in Panama program began about seven years ago when Rubenstein and former department member Stephen Hubbell wanted to emulate the success of a core graduate course that the department has taught for decades. In that course, graduate students work in a tropical ecosystem for just a week or two, but the experience is profound for both the students and teachers. "When we got back we said, 'You know, we are much better teachers when we are teaching in the field,'" said Ruben-stein. "We can reach out and literally touch nature and demonstrate the dynamics underlying the patterns that we often talk about in the classroom."

Hubbell first took undergraduates to Panama during spring break in 1996 as part of a freshman seminar. The trip was a success, but the professors wanted more. They decided to make it a full semester and set about moving a mountain of obstacles to make it happen.

The first problem was that students could not devote an entire semester to one course; they needed at least four. At most, two Princeton faculty members could teach in Panama. For the other two teachers, the department built on its longstanding relationship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which runs the major research facilities in Panama and employs some of the leading tropical ecologists. The University, through its standard appointment process, now regularly names two Smithsonian scientists as visiting lecturers. The courses led by those scientists become a regular part of the students' Princeton transcripts.

Rubenstein also worked with Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and Associate Dean Nancy Kanach to arrange many other details, from giving students extensions on their spring junior papers, which they write when they return at the start of May, to arranging three weeks of housing when they return. He built relationships with eating clubs to put part of students' dues toward the trip, and arranged for housing, food, guides and other logistics during the trip.

A key step came in arranging funding. In its first two years, 1998 and 1999, the trip was supported by a curriculum development grant from the University's 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education. It did not become sustainable, however, until a gift from 1951 alumnus David Jenner, an Arizona rancher, created an endowment that now covers the majority of the program's expenses. The money also allows two Panamanian students to join the Princeton students for the semester.


Clare Gould, now a senior, checks the pulse of an anesthetized young male ocelot in Panama in 2002. She and two other students evaluated trapping methods as part of a larger study on the physiology and life histories of these wild cats.

The art of science

With the pieces in place, the opportunities for teaching began to unfold. Instead of offering four classes simultaneously, the faculty members decided to teach their courses consecutively in intensive three-week sessions. "So there is total immersion and no distractions," said Rubenstein. "The students wake up in the morning and they go out in the field."

The first two courses, taught by Smithsonian faculty, are an introduction to tropical ecology and an anthropology course on pre-Columbian people, which fulfills a social science distribution requirement. In the third session, assistant professor Martin Wikelski takes students into the jungle to track wildcats, birds, frogs and other animals as part of a course on the physiology of tropical vertebrates. Lastly, Rubenstein and Professor Stephen Pacala trade alternating years taking the students on snorkeling expeditions to study the ecosystems of barrier reefs.

In all the courses, the emphasis is on asking and investigating questions rather than imparting particular facts. Working alone and in groups, the students formulate questions, conduct studies, analyze the data, write up the results and present them to each other in mini-symposia. "So they are continually becoming skilled in the art of doing science," said Rubenstein.

"The immersion is critical because it leads to a capacity for much deeper thought and deduction," said Pacala. "We see them make the transition from an undergraduate who is [often] handed things to someone thinking like a graduate student who is skeptical of everything and is capable of planning a campaign to add knowledge."

The work in the courses often sparks ideas that others develop into substantial scientific projects and discoveries, said Wikelski, who recently received a private grant as well as a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant based in part on undergraduate research. "At least for me that is the excitement of the course," Wikelski said, "that we can try out new things and the students get really excited and then we can use that work for real research."


Princeton junior Jennifer Brudno holds a frog on Barro Colorado Island in Panama.

Breakfasts and breakthroughs

For students, the transition to real research can be abrupt. As soon as they arrive, Smithsonian scientist Don Windsor takes them around the country to see different ecosystems and assigns a series of projects in which they have three days to formulate a research question, gather data and write it up. The tropics are so rich and unexplored that interesting questions exist at every turn, said Wikelski, but students do not immediately see the opportunities.

"It was really, really hard, because we had never done anything like that before," said Mindy Rostal, now a senior.

Benner recalled feeling very unsure as he cast around for a question to investigate. His first project, looking for patterns in lichen growth, yielded nothing conclusive. By the second project, however, his confidence had grown as he decided to look at whether there were any patterns in distribution of male and female cecropias, a common tropical tree. To his complete surprise, he found that almost all the males grew on one side of Panama's continental divide and the females on the other -- a phenomena that is not mentioned, much less explained, in any of the scientific literature. "Nobody knew about it," said Benner. "But I noticed it."

"I think we all agreed at the end of the course that the flailing around we did in trying to come up with a question was probably the most valuable thing that happened," said Benner.

Beyond the sense of discovery, students said much of the excitement of the trip comes from constantly being in the presence of working scientists, not only those who are officially part of the semester but the many others who are working at the same research sites and drop in to discuss their work.


Monica Pless displays a starfish she found during a coral reef ecology course with Daniel Rubenstein, chair of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"The relationships you have with your teachers and TAs are completely different," said Barak. "You call everybody by their first name and you eat your meals with them. It's really different having your professor lecture you over breakfast and having a discussion about what you are going to do for the day than sitting in a lecture and seeing your teacher from 30 feet away."

"We were working all the time, but it didn't even feel like we were working. It was great," said Aniece Gerrard, one of the juniors who just returned.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive feedback from students, the Princeton faculty members involved in the program regularly face a challenge in recruiting students to go. Each year, Rubenstein said, returning students work hard to recruit the next year's juniors, but many find it hard to leave the campus, their friends and sports teams. This year only seven students went, although 15 slots are available each year.

With two varsity rowers and a top squash player returning to their teams, this year's students plan to redouble their recruiting efforts. "It was a really big deal to leave our team," said Gerrard, one of the crew team members. "But schooling and a love of biology won out -- fortunately -- because it was an amazing experience."

Rostal, who now is a senior, left the fencing team during its prime season last year, but still was elected captain when she returned. Her decision to go to Panama also was difficult, but clear cut in the end.

"It was my favorite semester at Princeton, and it wasn't even at Princeton," she said.


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