Friday, June 12, 2015
Kristen Bontrager

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Villa Vanilla is a sustainable tropical spice farm focusing on growing their plants with a biodynamic approach. The farm is located near the beautiful Manuel Antonio national park and is over 150 acres, with 27 of those acres devoted to agriculture production. While at Villa Vanilla our class was given a personal tour by the owner himself, Henry. 

During our tour Henry gave us a glimpse of what it means to be a sustainable farm including the history of Villa Vanilla. Sustainability begins with the soil. All waste is composted and monitored to ensure that the compost stays at the optimal temperature. Having a healthy   compost eliminates the need for fertilizers. A brief history of the farm was given. During which we learned that this thriving spice farm once used to be a pasture! The owners had to turn the soil from a fungus dominated soil to a bacteria dominated soil, to encourage growth of trees. This process took years to accomplish.

The tour then led us to the vanilla beans! Vanilla is an orchid which has to be hand pollinated in order for the bean to be produced. This process of hand pollination is what makes vanilla expensive. 
     
Next on the tour were cocoa and the process of turning raw cocoa into the sweet decadent chocolate which we know and love. The cocoa beans must be dried and fermented before they are processed and combined with vanilla and true Ceylon cinnamon (which is bark of a tree!) to make fine chocolate.  
         
Before we left Villa Vanilla we were given teas and desserts prepared by the pastry chef. The desserts began with gourmet chocolates made entirely from the spices grown on Villa Vanilla, next was iced cinnamon tea made with true Ceylon cinnamon. As were finishing the tea we’re given an incredible light, creamy vanilla cheesecake. If it couldn’t get better, we are served vanilla ice cream made in house with a cookie. Those of us that were brave enough were offered hot chocolate with cayenne pepper.                                                             

After the desserts and tea we walked to the on-site spice shop where we were able to purchase these sustainable crops. As the class is prepared to get onto the bus and contemplate what we wanted for lunch, we had yet another surprise, a traditional Costa Rica meal prepared and waiting for us.  The meal consisted of rice and beans, marinated veggies, a fresh salad with carne, a slow cooked marinated beef. 
     
Being at Villa Vanilla taught me a lot, from the process of hand pollinated vanilla to the difference of cocoa and chocolate. Most importantly I got to experience first-hand the quality of food that can be grown and processed on a sustainable farm.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Kristen Bontrager

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Many years ago I spent one summer learning the flora of Kansas prairies during a systematic botany course. I learned hundreds of plant families, their ecological importance to Kansas, and which species were native and which were introduced. Currently I study prairie composition. I thought this Kansas-focused knowledge would be useless in Costa Rica because I anticipated knowing little about the flora of the tropical rainforest.                    

To my surprise, I discovered many remarkable similarities between the floras of Costa Rica and Kansas. Costa Rica has a lot of pasture land, which means, that there are a lot of different species of grasses, as in Kansas. This is strange to me because Kansas has a dry continental climate with low rainfall, in contrast to Costa Rica’s Tropical climate with high annual precipitation. This following diagram on the right shows the peak temperatures and precipitation in Kansas.

Costa Rica however has the least amount of rainfall in June with the rainy season beginning in August; the graph at the bottom shows average rainfall and temperature of both San Jose and Monteverde.  The temperature of Costa Rica at varying elevations is consistent with varying rainy patterns whereas Kansas experiences true seasons of varying temperature. This knowledge brings to light the question of how many plants of the same genus can survive in both Kansas in Costa Rica with such extreme differences in year round weather. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Caroline Chaboo

I am Caroline Chaboo, Director of this 2015 program to Costa Rica.  Normally, I head to Peru every June with students.  However, this year Costa Rica is on the menu due to several factors and opportunities. The University of Costa Rica and the University of Kansas have a long established relationship of collaboration in research, education and visits.  This program is supported by KU's Office of International Programs.

In 2014, I expanded one aspect of my Peru research, arthropod communities on Zingiberales plants, and sought a  second site for comparative study.  Two UCR colleagues, one I met more than 10 years ago, developed a grant proposal which was funded.  One UCR collaborator visited KU recently (his first visit to the USA). Our plan is to develop a Central American site and study the diversity (taxonomic and food web relations) of the arthropods that are associated with these distinctive Zingiberales plants (familiar ones are bananas and ginger, but flowers are also sold in shops).

The field course program developed as a way to initiate a joint education program alongside the larger research so we could bring KU and UCR students together, conducting research towards their first scientific publication as they gained exposure to rich tropical habitats and acquired several field skills. 

Some KU participants opted to pursue grants for research, which they were awarded. We have met several times to discuss everything, from travel medicine to hiking shoes.  I am excited to renew collaborations with the excellent UCR biology faculty and to expose KU students to Costa Rica = "rich coast" = rich biodiversity. 

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Kaitlin Neill

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

The day after our arrival in Costa Rica, we went to a volcano!!  We went to Irazu Volcano National Park (here is a map of the volcanoes of Central America; this one was number 28). It is still an active volcano.  The last time it erupted was in 1963 and happened to coincided with former US President John F. Kennedy visiting the country .  The last activity was in 1996.  Irazu is the tallest volcano in Costa Rica, reaching over 11,000 ft!  While there, we saw our first mammal of the trip: a coati! 

The volcanoes in Central America are part of the ring of fire, a ring of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean.  The volcanoes are closely spaces and easily accessible, as well as running generally parallel to the Cocos Plate (a tectonic plate).  Those factors make Central America a great place to study geochemical variance, especially those caused by plate tectonics.  

Later that day, we went to a coffee plantation that had a pool fed by a hot spring!  John Kaiser translated what the owner was telling us about the processing of coffee.  They grew some of their coffee on hills that were stair-stepped (pictured below).   When walking down from the processing building, we saw a rock with carvings from the aboriginal people!  The hot spring pool had quite a view. 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, June 5, 2015
Vivek Patel

I am a soon-to-be junior majoring in organismal biology and minoring in Spanish. I enjoy sports, traveling, and trying new things. I am a pre-med student and have recently taken to the task of learning more about the health care of different regions of the world. Going to Costa Rica will hopefully give me a chance to observe firsthand some differences and similarities between the systems there and in the U.S.    

Friday, June 5, 2015
Jake Kaufmann

My name is Jake Kaufmann. I am studying Visual Art at the University of Kansas. I am participating in the Study Abroad program in Costa Rica because of my interest in the country's environmental sustainability and to enhance my connection to art and science. I am very excited to explore the region's cloud forests and to draw inspiration from the abundance of nature and culture. My goal is to reveal the beauty of environmentalism by depicting the Costa Rican landscape, while conducting field research and interacting with local people. 

 

Friday, June 5, 2015
Hannah Boyd

My name is Hannah K. Boyd. I am a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. I am broadly interested in the diversity of organisms and their behaviors, herpetology, and entomology. During this study abroad program, I will carry out a study of insect communities on plants of the Marantaceae family and hopefully a niche model study on eyelash vipers (Bothriechis schlegelii). This will be my second time traveling out of the country and conducting research with Dr. Chaboo. Our work last year on the biodiversity click beetles (Elateridae) in collaboration with Dr. Johnson of South Dakota State University, is currently being prepped for publication and we discovered some new species. I am excited to be able to conduct the field research that i enjoy so much in a beautiful country like Costa Rica and hopefully I can learn a little more Spanish this time around. 

Friday, June 5, 2015
Eric Becker

My name is Eric Becker and I’ll be a senior at the University of Kansas.  I’m currently studying organismal biology with an unofficial concentration on entomology with a bit of arachnology.  I’m particularly interested in behavioral biology.  In addition to the research being conducted as part of the course, I’ll be using this opportunity to work with parasitoid wasps, a group of insects I have an interest in. I plan to compile a list of parasitoid wasps in Costa Rica that are attracted to cantharidin, a toxic substance produced by blister beetles.

Thursday, June 4, 2015
Emma Overstreet

My name is Emma Overstreet and I'm in my fourth year at KU. I'm currently majoring in Genetics, but I have broad interests in organismal biology and particularly entomology. I love travelling and hiking and am always looking for ways to spend time in nature. While in Costa Rica, I hope to broaden my knowledge of ecology and appreciate the incredible biodiversity the tropical climate has to offer, while gaining useful insight into the process of field work and research.

Thursday, June 4, 2015
Kristen Bontrager

My name is Kristen Bontrager, I am a senior at Washburn University majoring in Biology with a focus in ecology. Currently I am working on expanding our herbarium collection and documenting the species of oaks in our research plot in Topeka, Karlyle woods.  

My interests include growing plants, the soil composition that they are able to grow the best in including biotic and abiotic matter. In the summer I am usually in my garden, which I bring inside in the colder months and continue to grow in my own semi-greenhouse all winter long. I have a passion for eating food that I know where it comes from, and what exactly the nutrients are. I also enjoy hiking throughout the entire year. As long as I have the proper clothes to wear, I can manage to hike in the snowy months with my dog.