Students Study Rain Forest Through NSF Grant

Instead of whiling away the summer at the beach, Occidental College students are among the undergraduates researching the Costa Rican rain forest through a grant from the National Science Foundation.


The three-year, $107,504 grant is making it possible for six students from Occidental to conduct research in the 3,900-acre La Selva Biological Station and Reserve, one of the most important areas in the world for tropical rain forest research. Joining them are five students from Cal State Dominguez Hills, which received a similar NSF grant for $150,000.

The grants are the second round of such funding to help pay for the two-to-10-week undergraduate research program, which this year runs from May 26 through August 10. The program is open to all students, but especially those who come from groups underrepresented in the sciences, such as first-generation college students and low-income or minority students.

The summer research program, called the "Tropical Ecology Mentorship Program of Southern California," allows the students to do something usually done only at the graduate level: conduct on-site ecology and biodiversity research, said Elizabeth Braker, a biology professor at Occidental. She and Cal State Dominguez Hills professor Terry McGlynn ’93 are co-principal investigators of the project.
"This is a training grant to get students excited about doing tropical biology in the field. It’s total immersion," she said. "Also, by promoting undergraduate research, we’re showing them that they can ask an original question, gather the data, and produce research that will be important to the scientific community."
La Selva’s campus-like setting fosters collaboration among researchers, scientists and students from all over the world, Braker said. The station is owned and run by the Organization for Tropical Studies, a nonprofit consortium of 63 universities and research institutions. Occidental is one of only two liberal arts colleges that are OTS members, and Braker serves on the OTS board of directors as the vice-chair for education.

The students’ research projects are diverse. They include the effect of leaf-feeding insects on forest trees; how ants cycle nutrients and protect leaves from herbivores; how bacteria help epiphytic plants such as orchids feed and thrive; and the life histories of leaf-feeding insects such as caterpillars and grasshoppers.

Faculty-mentored undergraduate research has been an important part of an Occidental education for decades, and has become one of the College’s signature programs. This summer, about 110 Occidental students are conducting academic research in fields from biology and chemistry to architecture and modern history. Their work is organized under the auspices of Occidental’s Undergraduate Research Center.
Information about Occidental College’s Undergraduate Research Center can be found here.

Information about the National Science Foundation can be found at:

Information about the Organization for Tropical Studies can be found at: