Study Abroad course in Biology explores ecology and genetics.

The Department of Biology recently debuted a new course, BIOL 309/409 (Biology Field Studies), in which faculty and students travel to a remote site and conduct research in a natural environment. Drs. Chris Cullis and Ron Oldfield worked together to establish the course, designing it so that it could be offered in different countries and at different times of year (typically winter break or spring break). Before the trip each semester, class meetings in Cleveland cover logistics, biodiversity, and current ecological, environmental, and social issues surrounding the specific ecosystem being studied. Time at the field site is spent listening to resident lecturers, receiving guided tours, observing and identifying wild organisms in their natural habitat, and conducting the research project. So far, Cullis and Oldfield, running the course individually in different semesters, have taken students to Belize, Costa Rica, and Namibia.

When Dr. Cullis taught the course in Spring 2018, it included a trip to Namibia. The course was an integral component of an international effort to develop the marama bean as a possible crop for resource-poor farmers in arid regions of Southern Africa. During the 10-day field trip, students collected marama leaf, seed, tuber and soil samples from four different sites near Windhoek, along with immature seeds from 10 individuals. Working with students from the University of Pretoria and the Namibia University of Science and Technology, the CWRU students extracted DNA from 40 soil samples and 46 leaf samples. One of the excavated marama plants had a tuber weighing more than 500 pounds.

The analysis of the material was continued in Biology 301/401 (Biotechnology Laboratory: Genes and Genetic Engineering). This interchange between collection of material from the field course and molecular characterization in the laboratory course provides the basis for rapid advancement of the domestication of this interesting and nutritious species. Such progress would not be possible without the students’ involvement

The trip concluded with a visit to Erindi Private Game Reserve, where the students observed various forms of African wildlife, and to a traditional San village. Dr. Cullis is currently teaching the course for spring of 2019.

In the Fall 2018 version of the course, students spent winter break conducting research with Dr. Oldfield in a tropical rainforest at the world’s most famous tropical biology field station: the Organization for Tropical Studies’ La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. La Selva, situated at the confluence of two major rivers in the Caribbean lowlands of northern Costa Rica, comprises 1,600 hectares (3,900 acres) of tropical wet forests and disturbed lands. This was the second time Dr. Oldfield led the course to La Selva.

Over winter break 2017, the students travelled to Costa Rica. Their projects explored such topics as the feeding ecology of monkeys and agoutis, colonization patterns of epiphytes on trees, social behavior of leaf-cutter ants, locomotion of large forest floor millipedes, and the effect of human development on distribution of collared peccaries. The course also involved a trip to the 250-foot-tall La Fortuna Waterfall, a rafting tour of the Sarapiqui River, and a chocolate-making demonstration. Prior to that, in spring 2017, Oldfield took a class to Belize, where students conducted research in both a tropical rainforest and on the Belize Barrier Reef.

After returning from this trip, student Elizabeth Tobin won first place in the 2018 CWRU Study Abroad Photo Contest in the Landscapes, Buildings and Bridges category for her photo of the rainforest landscape. A student from Dr. Cullis’ course noted that learning by doing was a welcome departure from traditional coursework, saying, “I had an incredible experience on this trip. I have learned an absurd amount about the marama plant.”

The goal is to continue to develop the course to become an iconic experience at CWRU, rivaling the long-running study abroad courses offered by some other departments. Oldfield and Cullis look forward to expanding the travel to new destinations and increasing enrollment, so that more students get an opportunity to intimately experience natural environments in different parts of the world before they disappear.

Dr. Chris Cullis with students in Namibia with a marama tuber.


Dr. Ron Oldfield Ron Oldfield and students posing in front of an enormous Ceiba tree, an icon of the tropical rain forest.