Intense field work in Panama transforms student researchers

Senior Jon Benner is graduating in June, but his transition to life after Princeton really started more than a year ago in the jungles of Panama.

It began on days like the one when he drove a pickup truck around a mountain rain forest and discovered, all on his own, an inexplicable pattern in the distribution of certain male and female trees. Or the couple of days he struggled in vain to figure out whether lichen was more likely to grow on one kind of tree bark or another.

Benner is one of a small number of students whose Princeton education has taken a sharp turn 2,000 miles south of campus. Each spring, seven to 15 juniors majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology participate in that department's "Semester in the Field" in Panama, a program that immerses students in biological field research. For three months, the students work side-by-side with some of the top field biologists in the world, becoming partners in high-level research and generating their own projects.

"I definitely view Princeton in three phases: before Panama, during Panama and after Panama," said Benner, whose experience in 2002 convinced him to apply to graduate school at Stanford University, where he will attend in the fall. Stripped of the inevitable distractions of competing courses and extracurricular activities, students in Panama enter a "crucible of learning" unlike anything else he has known, Benner said.

On May 2, a new group of juniors returned with fresh stories of wildcats, monkeys, giant bats and leatherback turtles. And those who had once wavered about whether they could bear to leave campus for a semester were preparing to proselytize about the trip to sophomores. "It was just the best decision," said Rebecca Barak. "I am sure if we hadn't gone, and then heard people talking about the trip, all of us would have been kicking ourselves."

For the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the trip has become a powerful tool for plugging students directly into the excitement of discovery that scientists often strain toward conveying in the world of textbooks and blackboards. "These kids come back transformed," said Daniel Rubenstein, chair of ecology and evolutionary biology. "It truly is a different learning experience than students will ever get on campus."

The semester in Panama program began about seven years ago when Rubenstein and former department member Stephen Hubbell wanted to emulate the success of a core graduate course that the department has taught for decades. In that course, graduate students work in a tropical ecosystem for just a week or two, but the experience is profound for both the students and teachers. "When we got back we said, 'You know, we are much better teachers when we are teaching in the field,'" said Rubenstein. "We can reach out and literally touch nature and demonstrate the dynamics underlying the patterns that we often talk about in the classroom."

Hubbell first took undergraduates to Panama during spring break in 1996 as part of a freshman seminar. The trip was a success, but the professors wanted more. They decided to make it a full semester and set about moving a mountain of obstacles to make it happen.

The first problem was that students could not devote an entire semester to one course; they needed at least four. At most, two Princeton faculty members could teach in Panama. For the other two teachers, the department built on its longstanding relationship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which runs the major research facilities in Panama and employs some of the leading tropical ecologists. The University, through its standard appointment process, now regularly names two Smithsonian scientists as visiting lecturers. The courses led by those scientists become a regular part of the students' Princeton transcripts.

The full story is available in the Weekly Bulletin.

Contact: Evelyn Tu (609) 258-3601