Dr. Edie Banner

USFSM students prepare for research trips to Costa Rica, Hawaii

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: June 27, 2016

SARASOTA, Fla. (June 27, 2016) USFSM instructor of chemistry and biology Dr. Edie Banner has visited the Costa Rican rainforest a dozen times, but her next research trip promises to be different from any previous one. It will mark the first time she’s traveling with students from USF Sarasota-Manatee.

Dr. Banner has been finalizing plans the last several weeks to escort five undergraduate students to the rainforest as part of a 15-day exercise to explore Costa Rica’s diverse plant and animal life.

After an overnight stay in capital city San Jose, the group will board an SUV for the two-hour drive north to the La Selva Biological Station in the heart of Costa Rica where they’ll examine exotic plants, insects and other creatures.

“This will be first time these students have had a field research experience abroad,” said Dr. Banner, who will conduct her own studies as well. “This isn’t like anything they’ve ever done in the classroom. The textbook will come alive for them.”

An authority on poison dart frogs, Dr. Banner said she hopes to observe the inch-long creatures in their “micro-habitats” as they tend to their young within tiny water basins of bromeliads. The frogs deposit nutrient-rich eggs to supplement the tadpoles’ diets.

Observing and recording the creatures’ habits is an exacting and disciplined process but also rewarding, said Dr. Banner, who hopes to ignite a similar appreciation for field research among her students.

The five will begin their foray exploring the dense forest interior to identify suitable subjects to study. Along the way, they may encounter sloths, macaws and a variety of monkeys including howlers that are known to frequent the tropical lowlands. Dr. Banner wants the students to spend several hours in quiet examination to sharpen their observational skills and inspire such questions as how and why the creatures behave as they do.

Working in the tropical environment can be challenging and living conditions at the biological station are rustic. The accommodations include shared dorm-style cabins that lack air conditioning and meals are family style in an open-air dining hall. After working at La Selva, the group will head to the Las Cruces Biological Station to explore a premontane, or middle elevation habitat.

The students have been rigorously prepped about the dangers of Zika and other maladies present in the rainforest and told to bring insect repellent, plenty of bottled water, long-sleeved shirts and long pants and to avoid certain plants and animals, including “bullet ants,” notorious for their painful bite.

“You just don’t sit down on a log somewhere,” Dr. Banner said. “You have to be keenly aware of where you are and what’s around you at all times.”

Despite the challenges, fourth-year biology student Eddie Bischoff III said he’s anxious to get started. For weeks he’s been acclimatizing himself for the arduous conditions, spending more time than usual in the yard in the sun and less time in air conditioned spaces.

“This is an excellent opportunity to explore the habitats of a different country and to see the rainforest up close,” the Bradenton resident said. “The biodiversity there is just incredible.”

Bischoff, who has an eye on graduate school, said he views the experience as a resume builder and an opportunity.

“I view the whole trip as an education and a learning experience,” he said. “It’s going to be basically nonstop learning. Some of it will be very intuitive, the observational studies, but there’s also the cultural aspect to learn about.”

Like the other students, he is benefitting from scholarships from the Longboat Key Garden Club and an anonymous benefactor who are paying the entire $6,000 per-student cost. Without their support, he and some of the others would not have been able to afford the trip. “This is an amazing opportunity and one I’m very grateful for,” he said.

Likewise, student Victoria Ramirez is eager to get started. The North Port senior said she’s looking forward to experiencing a habitat and culture vastly different from that of Southwest Florida.

“I’m most excited about broadening my horizons, being able to look at things from a different perspective and to move out of my comfort zone,” she said, adding she hopes someday to launch a science-themed outreach program to inspire youngsters to pursue science careers.

The trip won’t be all research, though. Dr. Banner said she wants the students to learn about the indigenous people and culture of Costa Rica as well. One side trip will have the students traveling to a village to meet members of the Boruca tribe; another will take them to coffee and cacao plantations.

“I love going there,” Dr. Banner said of her excursions to Costa Rica. “I want my students to feel the same way I felt when I first went into the rainforest.”

Her expedition won’t be the only one this summer. USFSM biologist and instructor Dr. Carlos Santamaria will lead three biology students to various coastal and interior areas of Hawaii.

Dr. Carlos Santamaria

Dr. Carlos Santamaria

He plans to take the students to the Big Island of Hawaii, Maui, Oahu and Kawaii, where they’ll seek out and study isopods, an order of small crustaceans that thrive in the sea, fresh water and on land.

“It’s mostly about biodiversity and hopefully a little bit about evolution,” Dr. Santamaria said of the 16-day trip, adding the students will camp out a couple of nights and share hotel rooms and dorms the rest of the time.

“We’ll be doing a little of everything,” he said. “We’ll be catching the isopods and looking for signs of them, turning over rocks in coastal areas and streams to see where they’ve been reported.”

He also plans to escort the group to historical sites, including Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island where British explorer Capt. James Cook was killed and Nuʻuanu Pali, the site of a battle in which Kamehameha I conquered the island of Oahu. Dr. Santamaria has conducted seven previous research trips to Hawaii, one of the world’s oldest archipelagos.

“I hope they enjoy not just the research but also the culture and environment of Hawaii,” he said.

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