Integration of Biomedicine and Traditional Medicine


By Destiny Ho, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill ’18

Destiny is currently in Costa Rica with our Spring 2017 Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change, and Human Health program.

In our recent lectures we have been learning about the intercultural health care system, which is interactions between both biomedicine and traditional medicine, and discussing the importance of collaboration and eventually integration of the two forms of medicine. Today, we visited the La Cosana indigenous community, about twenty minutes away from Las Cruces Biological Station, where we had the opportunity to learn about their EBIAS (Los Equipos Básicos de Atención Integral en Salud), as well as talk to one of the Primary Healthcare Technicians and some of the indigenous healers. The EBAIS of the La Cosana community is a success story of the integration of biomedical practices with traditional medicine, mostly due to the respect and communication between the biomedical physician and traditional healers.

The traditional healers we spoke to told us the community is greatly affected by diabetes, anemia, and prostate problems, among other diseases. We also learned the community is affected by chronic diseases, as well as dental issues. These diseases could be coming from the imposition of the Westernized lifestyle and diet upon the indigenous community, especially with the increased access to high-sugar foods and chips. The healers also talked about how the “imposition of civilization” has led to a loss of tradition within the community, especially around eating habits. When asked about the EBAIS, the traditional healers enforced that there is a better relationship nowadays due to the respect that the healers and physicians have for one another and the collaboration of both parties. When a patient comes in and the traditional healers cannot aid the patient, they will refer them to the biomedical physician and vice versa.

One of the Primary Healthcare Technicians spoke of her role within the community, as well as a few of the problems with the EBAIS currently. One of the key roles of the Primary Healthcare Technician is prevention, through going house to house and recommending a trip to the EBAIS when necessary. Some of the problems that the community is facing are barriers to having a skilled birth attendant present during birth, as well as the computerization of the EBAIS system. Since the system has become computerized, it is harder for community members to access the healthcare since not every member has access to the internet and a computer. The Primary Healthcare Technician stated the importance of policy makers to look into the effects and ask communities before administering new systems.

Visiting the EBAIS was a wonderful experience, especially in seeing how traditional medicine and biomedicine can actually work together if there is effective communication and respect for one another.


In the Mangrove Forest


By Andres Ripley, Wheaton College, MA ’18

Andres is currently in Costa Rica with our Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet semester program.

On the way to the mangrove forest, I was excited because I had seen mangroves before, but never a forest full of them. When we got to the forest, our professors explained how the zonation of a mangrove ecosystem works due to different plants being able to tolerate different salinity levels in the soil.

We walked farther in, and all of a sudden the smaller shrubs turned into massive, eighty-foot-tall trees. The roots of the trees could be seen almost twenty feet off the ground in some cases. Some mangrove plants have pores in the leaves that secrete the salt the roots are taking in, and others send all of the salt to the older leaves because they will be falling off the branch soon. In addition, since the clay is very good at holding water for long periods of time, and the presence of water makes it is hard for gas exchange to occur underground, mangroves have lenticels on the roots above ground that are used for gas exchange, which is one of the reasons why the roots come so high above ground.

After discussing more about different adaptations plants and animals have in a mangrove ecosystem, we talked about the importance of mangroves, like how they are very good storm barriers that help protect the mainland, they help reduce erosion that can occur along bodies of water, and they help filter pollution that is heading from rivers out into the ocean. It was very interesting to learn about mangroves, because there are less and less mangrove ecosystems due to the rising of sea levels and humans destroying them, so it is important that more people educate more people on the importance of mangroves.

Sweet, Sustainable Pineapples: An Afternoon at Finca Sura


By Kelsey Porter, Macalester College ’18

Kelsey is currently in Costa Rica with the Spring 2017 Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change, and Human Health program.

During the time that we studied at La Selva earlier in the semester, we had the chance to visit Finca Sura, a natural pineapple farm nearby. Finca Sura is considered “natural” because its caretakers use sustainable methods to grow pineapples, unlike most large-scale plantations. As we approached the farm, I admired the crimson decorative palms that line many of the roads and pathways.

When we arrived, we were greeted by one of the farmers, who led us to the open-air dining room and offered us some initial refreshments: fresh, cool pineapple juice. The sweet taste was quite welcome on such a warm, sticky day. Next, we went on a guided tour of the farm to learn about the plants of Finca Sura and the methods by which they are grown. Before reaching the pineapple field, we were surprised and delighted to become acquainted with Matilda, the family pig:

Throughout our visit, we learned about the factors that differentiate Finca Sura from its “organic” and “conventional” pineapple farm counterparts. Organic pineapple farms avoid using chemicals, but they place black plastic across the ground to keep out pests. Unfortunately, the plastic is not always effective, and it also contributes to waste production since it can only be reused two or three times. Conventional (large-scale) farms use a mixture of pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides to kill off potential threats. They also allow pineapples to grow quite close to each other, and as a result, each individual does not receive adequate nutrients from the soil. Furthermore, conventional farms often lack effective crop rotation methods. They plant the same crop in the same place for many years and only let the land rest for one month between growing seasons, leaving the soil in a state of perpetual depletion.

Finca Sura, in contrast, has developed sustainable (and fairly simple) ways to keep their pineapples healthy. For starters, they are completely chemical-free. This may seem impossible in the Age of Pesticides, but the farmers at Finca Sura use creative strategies to keep the critters away. They plant a variety of tasty supplementary plants, such as bananas and papayas, in various sections of their farm. As a result, many of the birds and insects that would normally devour the pineapples instead choose to munch on the delectable diversity of other fresh fruits. Additionally, the farmers make sure that individual pineapples have enough room to grow by separating and re-planting young plants as they sprout. To maintain a balance of pineapples at different stages of development, the farmers also sometimes cut the green leaves at the top (the crown) to delay maturation of the fruit. Lastly, Finca Sura uses a crop rotation cycle—3 years on, 1 year off—to allow the soil to fully recover between growing seasons.

After learning all about the pineapples, we had the chance to taste them. Our guide picked a couple mature ones from a nearby field and skillfully diced them into bite-sized pieces. I usually don’t like pineapple in large proportions, but these were so sweet and fresh that I could have kept eating them for awhile!

When we returned from our tour, we were treated to a second, even more decadent round of refreshments: guanábana juice, sugarcane juice with ginger, fresh coffee, and pineapple bread. Since it was close to dinnertime, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the hearty snacks.

Overall, I really enjoyed learning about the techniques used by Finca Sura. I wondered why other farms don’t adopt similar methods to make their practices more sustainable. Are these methods considered too labor-intensive? Too costly? Too slow? Whatever the reasoning, I think that the long-term effects of heavy chemical use have already started to reveal themselves in daunting and widespread ways. I hope that farms like Finca Sura are able to teach others, so that sustainable farming practices can expand beyond the scope of small family farms.

Above the Canopy: Summer in Costa Rica


By Roslyn Rivas, Yale University ’17

Roslyn was a student on our Tropical Biology summer program in 2016 and currently serves as an Alumni Ambassador for OTS.

On our last day at La Selva, one of the biological station guides took a handful of us to visit one of the many research towers spread across the forested area. With our climbing harnesses and helmets in our hands, we set out to walk through the rainforest until we came across a metal frame tower that extended at least 50 meters high. Attaching our belts to the main rope, we climbed up flight after flight of stairs. Suddenly, about halfway up, we were met with a family of howler monkeys, calling out and inching closer, definitely curious about us. They weaved in and out of branches to the wires supporting the tower to get a closer look at the humans who were as high up in the trees as they were.

Soon we were above the canopy, able to see the tops of trees miles around us. It was such a surreal experience being up there, seeing the land and animals this organization is trying to protect. It reminded me of what I loved most about this trip: the sheer amount of wildlife I was able to come across. Throughout the month, I had the chance to study monkeys, birds, coatis, lizards, crocodiles, frogs, and so much more.

This trip was a dream come true not only because I got to travel and see so much wildlife, but also because it gave me a sense of what being a biologist would be like. I want to work in wildlife conservation, out on the field, and the summer OTS Costa Rica program gave me a glimpse of just that. I am so grateful to have been a part of this experience.


First Month in South Africa


By Kirstie McTear, Tuskegee University ’17

Kirstie is currently in South Africa for the Spring 2017 African Ecology and Conservation semester program.

The first few weeks as an OTS student were incredible! The day after we all arrived in Johannesburg we drove out to Nylsvley Nature Reserve where we spent the first 11 days of the program.

A typical day as an OTS student involves many components. Our day usually begins at about 7 am with a lovely breakfast prepared by talented OTS caterers. Students are welcomed to wake up earlier though, to go for a run or on a game drive/bird walk. Some students, including myself, take advantage of this opportunity and while on a run or game drive it is common to see wildlife such as giraffes and wildebeest.

gdvgame drive

After breakfast, we as students listen to lectures prepared by an amazing team of OTS staff and professors about conservation and ecology and the science behind these topics.


Around noon we all take a break for lunch and eat together. Following lunch, we may have a few more lectures or free time in the afternoon to do more nature walks or game drives.

We will then end the day with a delicious dinner around 6 pm. Many students will choose to go on an evening walk around the reserve equipped with headlamps and cameras to capture any nocturnal wildlife before going to bed. The next morning, we wake up and do it all again; excited to see what new adventure the day may bring!


Summer in South Africa: A Day in the Life


By Sydney Harris, Howard University ’17

Sydney was a student in our Summer 2016 Global Health Issues in South Africa program. She describes a day in the life during the homestay portion of the program below.

Today I woke up to the sounds of roosters crowing, the smell of a fire being burned for boiling water, and the sunrise peaking out, indicating that the day was to begin. The pace of life slowed drastically as we observed the daily habits of our host mom and neighboring homes.

These included her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, as well as many children playing while on holiday. We were the centers of attention, the awkward visitors; “makua” and were constantly reminded of it. I was never the girl to camp, or to spend the majority of her days outside, or to sit idle for periods of time, so the entire day worked to test my boundaries and what was comfortable to me. But I loved

I loved being invited into our homestay and being trusted to watch over and play with the children in the area. I loved learning about how similar things back home were done in completely different ways here.

The past days at this homestay have paralleled what the trip so far has done for me; it has given me a perspective that I lacked in my education thus far. It gave me a way to look at health and life from the lens of the children who have to walk 2 miles to get bread and the mom who must grow many of the things she eats. Truly it has humbled me and taught me to respect others for the way they live and the way that they make do with what they have, no matter where in the world.

Fiery-Throated Hummingbird in Costa Rica


By Philip Vanbergen, University of Louisiana, Lafayette ’18

Philip was a student on our Summer 2016 Tropical Biology program in Costa Rica.

Before my first trip to Costa Rica, the tropical rainforest was a foreign and faraway place that I only knew through nature documentaries and science classes. It wasn’t until I was able to experience the tropics myself that it became real for me. I had never seen such a rich variety of flora and fauna, and as soon as I got back to the states, I immediately started researching and learning more about this strange and beautiful part of the world. It was during this period of research that I learned about the OTS Tropical Biology Course, and as I learned more about the program, I wanted more and more to experience it as part of my college career.

I applied for the Tropical Biology course for the summer of 2016, and thankfully was accepted. I spent the next several months learning as much as I could about Costa Rica and the tropics in general as I prepared for the course. I would read and re-read field guides of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and plants to become acquainted with the natural history of the area. I was awe-struck by the beautiful and bizarre nature of the tropical plants and animals, and couldn’t wait to experience them myself.

One such animal I learned about was the fiery-throated hummingbird, a gorgeous hummingbird of the high, montane wet forests of Costa Rica and Panama. I had hopes of seeing one during the course, but I had no idea that I would have such an intimate encounter with the species. During our stay in the Costa Rican highlands, I found myself within arm’s length of dozens of fiery-throated hummingbirds, which allowed me to take this photo with my i-phone. This is just one example of the many amazing animals I was fortunate enough to encounter, and I learned more during the course than I could have ever expected. All in all, this course will be one of the great highlights of my college career.

Collecting Water in Sanari Village


By Oscar Miao, Yale University ’17

Oscar was a student on our Summer 2016 Global Health Issues in South Africa  program. This program includes a homestay in a Venda community in HaMakuya. Oscar describes a day in the life during this part of the program below.

We wake up to the sounds of chatter and laughter outside our rondavel, a traditional African-style hut. I slowly get out of my sleeping bag, releasing a low moan of pain from sleeping on impenetrable cement. I fill up my bottle from a tank, and head outside of our rondavel to brush my teeth with the prepared water. Brush, gulp, and spit – a routine for brushing without a tap. Our homestay mother recognizes that we are up, and serves a straw basket full of fruit, bread, and tea.

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Costa Rican Wildlife


By Jocelyn Zorn, Sarah Lawrence College ’17

COSTA RICA: Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet, Fall 2016

iguana-2Costa Rica is home to the most fascinating and charismatic wildlife I’ve ever had the privilege to encounter. One of the most memorable wildlife sightings of my life happened in La Selva, where I got about two feet away from a three toed sloth and her baby. I walked by her completely by chance, and got to watch up close as she slowly (although not quite as slow as I expected!) climbed by me, calmly looking at me while I got closer to examine her. Iguanas also have a surprising amount of charisma.

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Life in the Jungle


By Natalie Myers, Occidental College ’18

COSTA RICA: Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet, Fall 2016

The Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet semester with OTS really appealed to me because of all the amazing places and field sites that the program visits- Las Cruces, La Selva, Cuerici, Monteverde, Bocas del Toro, and others. I was most excited about visiting La Selva, because that was where I knew that I would see the most animals.

On our first day at La Selva, we went on a walk with a nature guide. We saw a mother and baby two toed sloth from the bridge, the famous white cotton ball bats, howler monkeys and various other amazing creatures. These animals were all of the big, charismatic animals that everyone wants and hopes to see in the jungle, and I was excited to see them but not really that surprised.


I was more surprised by and interested in all of the small creatures and things that you don’t notice at first. Throughout my time at La Selva, I saw dink frogs the size of my thumbnail, tiny multicolored weevils, and tiny bromeliads. It was harder to find these, but I enjoyed seeing them a lot more. And these were only some of the things that I noticed more once I began to look past the large mammals and organisms.

All in all, this experience has taught me that its important to recognize the significance and role of these smaller, but equally if not more important, creatures around us. By doing so, we can learn more about the ecosystems around us and how to better protect them.