Drawn to Nature
Costa Rica program merges biology, art, and culture
Friday, July 23, 2021
Students pose for picture in Costa Rican jungle

Tate Taylor ’23, Caelia Marshall ’23, and Leah Troy ’23 are not artists.

Or, at least, that’s what they’d have you believe.

But in biology professor David Ribble’s Costa Rican Ecology program—back this summer after a year-long COVID-19 hiatus—Trinity students have discovered how art and cultural skills can make for better biology. For six years, Ribble has taken students on a journey into the world of climate science, studying how temperature, moisture, and other elements affect the distributions and movements of mammals.

This summer, the group added a twist: bringing along Trinity English professor Gregory Hazleton and Trinity art and art history professor Elizabeth Ward to inject cultural and artistic components into the course. 

From left, Hazleton, Ribble, and Ward enjoy a moment in the shade in Costa Rica

“There are some subtleties between different species of mammals that I can recognize in a heartbeat, but I’m not sure I can explain them very well,” Ribble says. “Thanks to Liz’s art perspective, I have a better idea of how drawing can make you a better biologist.”

“Thinking about how the cultural environment and the natural environment interact, and expressing the natural environment through artwork, allows for a completely different kind of understanding to emerge,” Hazleton adds. “I’m amazed at the insights our students had about themselves, the country, and the whole experience.”

This year, the expedition picked up where the program left off in 2018: setting live-traps, planting cameras to “trap,” and observing small mammals at various locations around Costa Rican forests, coasts, and mountains. The group visited past, familiar locations, while adding new ones to the data collection. Ribble notes that the group, for the first time ever, captured a jaguar on video.

Collage of Costa Rica wildlife

Each yearly trip adds data on mammalian species to a larger set of information on how climate affects the preferred elevation of these populations. And doing this research is no easy feat: students can hike miles each day amid tough terrain, intense heat, and long hours.

“This is intense,” Ribble says. “There are so many nuances to field biology. But our students really came through well this year.”

Taylor, Marshall, and Troy can all speak to the rigor of the program. Each day, students woke up at 5 a.m. to check camera traps, some of which required a trek up and down mountains, counted critters on film, ate breakfast, took tours, lectures, worked on presentations, enjoyed a bit of down time, then went back out to reset the traps before dinner.

Taylor, a biology major, says Ward’s artistic influence was a welcome addition to this science-heavy schedule.

Tate Taylor

“The art aspect was really cool because we got to learn some observant methods, like using negative space shapes and drawing techniques,” he says. “And art is definitely not my major, so that was a challenge. But it was fun to learn and experiment.”

Ward’s artwork has always focused on nature and natural history. In Costa Rica, she says the students in the program learned to draw the species they were observing and, in the process, gained a more in-depth understanding of their physicality and biology.

“I was pleased at the effort the students put into it, and I think the students got a lot of satisfaction out of making something visual in Costa Rica, which is just so beautiful.”

Troy says she enjoyed Hazleton’s in-depth look into the people of Costa Rica. “Culturally, it was interesting to go to a place different from everywhere else I had experienced. Meeting the people of Costa Rica, that was an experience I might not get again, so I’m thankful for that.”

Students in Costa Rican jungle

Hazleton says the group spent time reading and listening to lectures about the rich history and culture of Costa Rica. The group heard about the country’s unique ecology, while also learning about the surrounding community of nations within Central and South America. 

“Five weeks isn’t enough to master any culture, but you can make an introduction,” Hazleton says. “This trip gave students the chance to immerse themselves in the Monteverde region, visiting towns, to tie their experiences on the ground to what they’ve previously learned in textbooks about history and culture.”

The Trinity students, Hazleton says, found themselves seeking to understand, challenge, and question sweeping generalizations made about Costa Ricans: some founded, some more complicated. 

Caelia Marshall

Marshall, a neuroscience major, says she appreciated the little things about getting to meet new people, instead of just reading about them. “I’ve never been abroad before, so I found it super interesting to ask our tour guides random questions and get to know them one-on-one. One of my first impressions was that everyone would wave. I love to wave, so for hours on our bus, I was just waving to people. In Texas, it’s, like, a 50/50 shot whether someone waves back.” 

Ribble says there was certainly a palpable excitement surrounding the group: not just from the Costa Rican locals and tour guides, but within the group itself.

“This group was just incredibly kind to each other. Maybe it was just the pleasure of being in person again, but everybody was so considerate of each other’s quirks and so forth,” he says. 

“And our Costa Rican collaborators, they were excited to see us, because it meant they got to resume the things they cared about too—guiding, learning, and introducing people to their home. Our collaborators from the Monteverde Institute were simply outstanding.”

Leah Troy

Troy says she was thrilled to be on a live journey that didn’t involve a microphone and internet connection. “I think this trip was an adjustment—after a semester of being online, looking through screens, to go to living in close quarters in the jungle. But it was odd to be able to kick off this introduction back into the real world, to doing things in person again, this was a phenomenal way to do that.”

While the trip was a departure from previous courses in the cultural and artistic aspects, the science also provided some eye-opening—and timely—revelations about the environment.

“I think we have a good data set to see the effect of [climate changing] in the future. There’s already one species that may be moving up (in elevation), Ribble says. “Up in the forests, we won’t know the extent of the impact, but we know it’s going to start affecting amphibians, plants, and mammals.”

One location the group visited, Paloverde, was particularly disconcerting. 

Costa Rican landscape

“What’s definitely happening in places like Costa Rica, where they have a dry season and a rainy season driven by a complex system of currents from the Caribbean and the Pacific, what’s clearly changing is the rain patterns. These used to be consistent. But what’s showing up is periods of dryness during these rainy seasons,” Ribble says. “Paloverde is by the coast. And by the end of May, it should have been four, five weeks into its rainy season.”

“We expected the wet season, heavy rainfall, that kind of deal,” Taylor says. “But there was three weeks of drought. It was almost Texas-like, dry heat the entire time we were there.”

“Dry as a bone,” Ribble adds, bluntly.

As the data gathered around expeditions such as the Costa Rican trip continues to amass, Ribble says he’ll have a stronger idea of just how much climate change is affecting the region.

And to do that, he’ll continue relying on Trinity’s undergraduate researchers, strengthened by the very interdisciplinary methods unlocked on this 2021 expedition.

Taylor says he’s become a better researcher by “knowing the aspects of art and culture that affect biology, because people interact with biology. In Costa Rica, they care about their forests, and there are so many individual people trying to help us study and learn more about the environment and the land around us.”

So, while Troy, Taylor, and Marshall might not consider themselves artists, they’ve started considering the liberal arts in a whole new way.

“It’s easy to get pigeonholed into just focusing on science in some classes,” Troy says. “But programs like this help us broaden and enhance our view. The truth is, whatever you end up doing in life—science or art—there’s more that goes into it than just the science or just the art. You have to be able to understand how your knowledge weaves together from different places, and how that makes it stronger.”
 

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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