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Alumni Spotlight:
Rebecca Vera
Her Science Research Experience in Costa Rica

Rebecca learning to catch fish in a net at Finca Cantaros, a nature reserve in Costa Rica. Rebecca fishing with Octavio, another REU intern Making friends with the local creatures Rebecca was on a research team that studied Emerald Glass Frogs. Interns on expedition

Posted October 15, 2018 


Alumna Rebecca Vera (’18) spent the summer of 2018 basking in the tropical beauty of Costa Rica and meeting new friends from diverse cultures, but she was not on a luxury vacation.

Rebecca, who received her associate’s degree in biology, with honors, last May, was among a group of research interns, selected from international applicants to participate in a three-month tropical research project through Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation that offers unique research opportunities to minority undergraduate students.

“It was a really amazing experience,” said Rebecca, who applied for the internship last February through Bridges to Baccalaureate, an alliance of community colleges that supports the success of minority students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).

In Costa Rica, the students complete original ecological research under the guidance of experienced researchers through the Organization for Tropical Studies, which maintains two research locations there, the La Selva Biological Station and La Cruces Biological Station, where Rebecca studied. She also maintained contact with PCCC science professor Erica Foote, who served as her U.S.-based project mentor.

The tasks and schedule were demanding, requiring attendance at daytime seminars and workshops followed by nighttime research expeditions that started at 8:30 p.m. and ended around 1 or 2 a.m. 

“We learned different data collection techniques for different organisms, such as aquatic life, lizards and amphibians, insects, and birds from the research mentors,” said Rebecca. “Overall, it was an intense experience, but we all supported each other and collaborated.”

The research group Rebecca was in studied the mating systems of the Emerald Glass Frog. These tiny, typically bright green frogs are nicknamed “glass,” because many have transparent abdominal skin.  “The study aim was to determine whether male glass frogs with larger body size would emit stronger mating signals and therefore mate more successfully than smaller frogs,” Rebecca explained.

After analyzing the collected data samples, “We concluded that there was no relationship between body size and mating success in this population of Emerald Glass Frogs,” Rebecca reported.

Now a student at Rutgers University where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology, Rebecca said the Costa Rica experience gave her a “real feel for ecology,” and taught her valuable lessons for personal and professional benefit.

 “Working in groups does not come naturally to me,” admitted the “take-charge” young woman. “Now, at Rutgers, I’m working in groups all the time,” she said. “The internship helped me to interact and communicate better in a group setting.”

Rebecca especially enjoyed the cultural exchange.  “The interns were from so many different places,” she said. “Until this trip, I had never met a Pacific Islander before. We even got to spend time with people from the indigenous tribes.”

REU encourages interns to present their research and invited Rebecca to be a presenter at this year’s SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) Conference held last weekend in San Antonio, Texas.

Thrilled by Costa Rica, Rebecca said she would definitely consider returning either for future studies or vacation.  “It is one of the most biodiverse places on earth and is unlike anything we have here in the U.S.,” she said.   “I encourage every LSAMP* student to apply for the Costa Rica internship. It is an opportunity you don't want to miss.”

*LSAMP is the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, a non-medical Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program, funded by the National Science Foundation and designed to increase the number of professionals from minority groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. The program provides support services at many levels to help interested students be successful in STEM majors  (Learn more)

Written by Linda Telesco
Photos courtesy of Rebecca Vera