Located in the tropical island of Hispaniola in the Dominican Republic, the Punta Cana Association on Sustainability and Biodiversity, formerly known as the Cornell Biodiversity Laboratory, has become a greenhouse of opportunity for undergraduate research and a springboard for ecotourism. The laboratory, located on a 10-acre site within the 1,555-acre Punta Cana Ecological Reserve, is the only one if its kind in the world and has grown to incoporate students and faculty from other academic institutions such as Columbia and Harvard Universities and the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Founding Director Eloy Rodriguez, the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, emphasized that the lab at Punta Cana is unique in its hands-on approach to fieldwork and the interaction they have with locals inhabitants of the area.
“This program is different from Study Abroad. Students scuba dive, snorkel, climb mountains — the Eureka of discovery! It’s a pretty good deal,” Rodriguez said.
The lab’s focus on ethno-medicine requires students to investigate naturally-occurring compounds that may have potential medicinal value. For example, a bubbly, silk-like substance emitted in self-defense by a certain species of moth may mean a poisonous death for some creatures or a cure for malaria in humans.
“Anything biologically active has the potential to be used as medicine,” said Ben Jahnes ’03, a biology major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a participant in the program at Punta Cana last summer.
Of the impact the lab has had on his plans for the future, Jahnes said, “It intensified my interest in biology and opened up windows to new areas. My decision to apply to the Peace Corps was a direct by-product of the cultural exposure element of the program.”
Originally intended to attract students bound on the pre-med track, the laboratory and adjacent Punta Cana Resort and Club has succeeded in drawing hotel students interested in sustainable tourism.
Theodore Kheel ’36, principal benefactor of the laboratory and renowned New York labor mediator, remarked that the development of the facility has become an example of a kind of tourism that will lend itself to the conservation of biodiversity. Guests of the resort also tend to come back after their first visit. “Sustainable tourism seeks to be profitable while respecting the integrity of the environment. People who visit the resort realize that warm climates and beautiful beaches are not the only important things. They enhance the joy of their visit if they learn about the environment,” Kheel said.
Guests at the Punta Cana Resort and Club have the opportunity to take guided walks along “nature paths” branching throughout the ecological reserve where they encounter a wide variety of Caribbean plant and animal species. The Punta Cana Association on Sustainability and Biodiversity has also been a part of a series of lasting changes to the layout of the Punta Cana area as a whole. “The Nature Reserve has changed the whole economy of the eastern coast [of Hispaniola ]. The area used to be a jungle — the workers who were once cutting down trees for coal are now working in 28 hotels. We have succeeded in creating a sustainable development,” Kheel said.
According to Kheel, the best thing about the lab at Punta Cana is that, “it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
Rodriguez, however, has a slightly different perspective on the program. “It’s an incredible eye-opener. I honestly believe it is necessary for students to have a vision that extends beyond doing better in science courses. The ultimate educational experience, in my thinking, is for undergrads to do research.”
Archived article by Evelyn Ngeow