Summer in Central America

NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates in Costa Rica crosses cultures and disciplines.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 20, 2013) – It's a bumpy ride over unpaved roads once you turn off the Pan American Highway in Costa Rica to head into the cloud forest toward Monteverde. That doesn't keep away somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million visitors each year – a special group of USF students included.


Attending the University of South Florida's Globalization and Community Health Field School in the town of Monteverde provides the perfect research experience for them. There is plenty to learn about life in a small remote rural mountain village and the impact of globalization on its population. The Research Experience for Undergraduates program is funded by the National Science Foundation.


However, Monteverde is more than a living research laboratory. This major ecotourism destination is a place for providing much needed services and nurturing lasting relationships.


Professor David Himmelgreen and Associate Professor Nancy Romero-Daza, in the Department of Anthropology, have been taking students to Costa Rica for the past 10 years and have become part of the community even though their visits are just during the summer. Staying in touch throughout the rest of the year through email, Facebook and Skype helps. They work in collaboration with the Monteverde Institute, a local NGO, in what they describe as a “wonderful partnership.”


“We've reached the point now where people know us and greet us when we're walking down the street,” Himmelgreen said. “Personally, it's one of the nicest things.”



A Perfect Fit


USF’s National Science Foundation-funded REU Globalization and Community Health Field School in Costa Rica appeared to be perfectly suited to Joseph Friedman’s seemingly disparate interests. The senior pre-med and anthropology major at the University of Vermont with minors in biochemistry and Spanish was “overjoyed” when he found out about it.


“I was looking for a research experience that would combine my interests in medicine and social sciences,” he said. “Applied anthropology, the use of anthropological theory for tangible goal-centered applications, seemed the best way to combine the insights of social science with the pragmatism of medicine.” Fortunately, for him, the field school “was focused on using applied anthropology for community health benefit.”


Read more about Friedman's experiences.

Over their 10 weeks in the research program – consisting of six weeks of interdisciplinary methods training and four weeks of intensive research on health-related issues – the students not only learn how to carry out community-based research, they run a health fair and then work together in teams on various projects.


The students each live with a local family and work on their projects six days a week. Himmelgreen and Romero-Daza serve as their full-time mentors with the help this time of three graduate assistants: anthropology major Allison Cantor and engineering majors Stephanie Paredes and Adib Amini.


Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Sarina Ergas also spent time training the students – two weeks in Monteverde and during the program's online component, which included an overview of related topics, methods and ethics.


This year marked the first time the two anthropologists included engineering students with the typical group of anthropology, public health and medicine majors. The 12 students in this year's cohort were evenly divided between the social sciences and engineering.


“We had come to recognize that there are a lot of technical issues such as pollution, water contamination and a growing population, so we decided that including the engineering component would be a good thing. We also saw that the cultural component would provide a unique and enlightening experience for the engineering students,” Himmelgreen said. “What makes this particular field school unique is its cross-training, multidisciplinary aspect. Most field schools typically involve only one area of specialization.”


Romero-Daza noted, “Monteverde reflects what's going on globally. We're witnessing a rapidly changing economy whose primary emphasis on agriculture has now become tourism. This has impacts on the population's physical and mental health as well as the environment.”


Himmelgreen pointed out, “The main purpose of the grant is to train underrepresented minority students in research methods and to encourage them to go to graduate school. Our goal in this regard is to cross-train in community-based health research as well as sustainable development.”


“This has served as the first opportunity for some students to do research in a developing country,” said Romero-Daza. “And the experience has led people to go on to study in different branches of anthropology and public health or go to medical school and into other related careers.”


The students give two presentations on their findings including one to the local community in Spanish at the end of the program. This is more than an academic exercise though.


“Several of the research projects and their findings have resulted in longer-term improvements such as the development of a weekly farmers market and the development of measures to increase worker safety at the local cheese factory,” Himmelgreen explained.


Among other topics, they have also looked into HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive health and health care access, and also worked with a group of local women on a project to provide HIV/AIDS awareness, following a student research project, Tourism and HIV.


“The local women created a package of materials themselves to make sure they were culturally appropriate,” Romero-Daza said.


In fact, the Monteverde community developed and prioritized its own list of needs from the beginning and the two professors have worked with the different groups of undergraduate and graduate students over the past 10 years to address them.


“This year the students completed two major projects, including the construction of community keyhole gardens and an assessment of community perceptions of pig farms in the area,” Himmelgreen said. “The garden is a type that has been used in Sub-Saharan Africa and was specifically designed for people with disabilities and who have little land for agriculture. Because of tourism and associated decreases on local food production in the area, there is a high level of food insecurity.


“Animal waste management also is becoming a big concern in the area. So the second project focused on the threat of water contamination from a local pig farm. Our students analyzed water samples and interviewed residents about their related experiences – both positive and negative.”


Joseph Friedman, a senior from the University of Vermont with a double major in anthropology and pre-med, learned from the engineering students about water testing methods, GIS (geographic information systems) mapping and more (see sidebar).


“I think these skills will help me approach health holistically; focusing not just on pathogens and symptoms but also on other important aspects such as food and water quality,” he said.


Himmelgreen observed, “NSF-REUs are difficult to get and this is a golden opportunity for USF to offer students interdisciplinary training. Everything about Monteverde makes it worth the trip.”


For more info about the field school click here or visit

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563