April 12, 2002

Research Program Goes To Amazon, Carribean

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Can you imagine living with indigenous tribes, observing exotic birds, capturing native insects or sneaking a peak at a unique pink dolphin or an 18-foot anaconda? The Cornell Undergraduate Research Program (CURP) in Biomedicines will offer a summer program in the Amazon and the Caribbean for undergraduates with an interest in medicine and biology research at no charge to students.

Eight years in counting, the research trip starts in May and lasts until the end of August under the direction of Dr. Elroy Rodriguez, plant biology. In addition to Elroy, there are a handful of assistants that work with students from Cornell, including the U Cal. System, Harvard, British Columbia and an ornithologist from Paris.

Students conduct research in Peru and the Dominican Republic with no costs incurred, thanks to financial support from the federal government and various Cornell donations. Daily schedules are rather regulated since researchers must take care in following Indian guides and working cooperatively so as not to get lost in the Amazon rainforest. Although no credit is earned, many report that the experience is invaluable in itself.

“A very satisfying aspect of the research [at both sites] was that Dr. Rodriguez encouraged us to develop the projects ourselves, allowing us to pursue our interests and make use of our own creativity and passions. We worked hard every day, but it was such a positive learning atmosphere filled with passionate instructors and excited students that it didn’t even feel like work,” said Kelvin Gorospe ’03.

Comprising a vast pool of ethnic and racial backgrounds, students apply with a genuine interest in science, working towards a career path in medicine or wildlife conservation.

“We do receive a large number of applicants and are limited as to how many we can take. Typically, the program receives nearly 100 applications for 27 spots. We try to select students that have a background in biology and an interest in medicine or biochemistry. It’s really about passion,” Rodriguez noted.

Apart from undergraduates, many of the students that attend the program are in medical school or pursuing graduate and professional studies. Popular applicants include Weill Medical College pharmacology students, entomology colleagues from Harvard University and many others.

“This experience is quite unique as students conduct [original] field research and learn about [their surroundings] at the same time. That is unheard of and is [most likely] the only program of its kind in the United States,” Rodriguez asserted.

As research assistants, students partake in a comprehensive study of the rainforest and marine coral reefs, contributing towards the discovery of beneficial, novel medicines, according to Rodriguez. For example, students will continue researching a cure for breast cancer and diabetes this summer as part of the program in both countries.

“Ever since I was five, I was an explorer at heart. Plunging into the deep sea to study coral reefs and venturing into the Amazon rainforest were childhood dreams that this program brought to life,” Gorospe added.

The program is the brainchild of Rodriguez. As an undergraduate that published three papers on a research visit to Mexico, Rodriguez was convinced at an early age of the value of research experiences abroad.

“Students can participate in critical writing and thinking exercises and learn from the practical experience. They use common sense and make the connection between [classroom material] and practical applications,” he explained.

Kuon Lo ’04 will be researching in the Dominican Republic this summer, studying the local flora and fauna that abound in local ecosystems.

“I applied to the program in hopes of gaining both research experience and cultural immersion for my background as a pre-med and Spanish major. The process was very competitive, and I feel very fortunate to have been selected for this great opportunity,” she commented.

One group of 15 visits the Dominican Republic while the rest research in Peru. Students conduct research in the laboratory at both sites, situated at a central location that also features student dormitories. According to Rodriguez, the program presents students with an opportunity to live in close proximity to indigenous tribes, learning about their medicine and culture along the way. Although students actively work in the field and the jungle, malaria and other diseases have not been a problem in past years and “should not be feared,” according to Rodriguez. He stressed the importance of collective work, as oftentimes students depend on their research partners to assist in times of need.

“You have to [depend on others for help] when a tarantula falls on your back,” he said.

The Caribbean site is positioned alongside the ocean, and students work in and out of air conditioned laboratories with full electrical power and research equipment built by donations from Cornell alumni for the purpose of training students in research, biodiversity and rainforest conservation. Dormitories are located within close proximity to the labs. The Peruvian cathedral laboratory offers an attractive structure and dormitories also supported by various Cornell alumni.

Apart from conducting original research and learning from indigenous cultures, students typically institute programs of their own intended to teach indigenous tribes about science and medicine as a separate, voluntary component of the program.

“Many students are already in the program because they are interested in Latin America; we sometimes take U.S. born Latinos who can speak to the tribes and assist with translations,” Rodriguez claimed.

Anna Herforth ’02 reflected on her past experience participating in both programs over the past two years.

“I have always wanted to travel. These programs were beyond by expectations. The research sites are two of the most biodiverse places on earth, especially the Amazon. The research you do is exciting, the people are wonderful and the memories will last a lifetime,” she said.

Rodriguez meets with students before departure to ensure that everyone understands the methods by which the projects will be carried out. “They help me with my own project as well. For example, a Harvard professor and I discovered how animals medicate themselves in the wild, and students [assist me in this ongoing research]. In addition, anticancer research is conducted on plants and we will study how to rid organisms of parasites,” he remarked.

In the works is a tuition-based, credit-bearing semester program at both sites slated for the fall of 2003.

“It’s an important experience — a combination of hands-on research, seeing the organisms and taking classes from the experts and ecologists. I like undergrads to be successful and in order to have that happen, you have to give them a unique experience,” he said.

Rodriguez underscored that the program has formal agreements with both host country governments to compensate officials, scientists and students in newly discovered research findings so everyone benefits from the discoveries. As a culmination of the program, students write and publish their own journal from the rainforest, standing as the only one of its kind that reviews all results from their findings, according to Rodriguez.

Archived article by Chris Westgate