left: drawing of frog in field journal, right: frog

Student Scientists Travel to South America for Tropical Biology Course

Not every student dreams of holding a snake and sleeping near a tarantula, but a group of Rutgers-Newark biology students did just that in the wilderness of Guyana during a trip in early January.

Jessica Ware with students on busFrom January 8-16, thirteen students from Rutgers University-Newark and NJIT traveled to Guyana for a 2-credit lab course on tropical biology. The group, which included undergraduates as well as several graduate students, was led by the Department of Biology’s Jessica Ware and Sara Ruane.

“My experience was unforgettable,” said Anthony Amin, a Biology Major graduating in 2021. “The night hikes were extraordinary. Sleeping with a tarantula was not on my bucket list, and neither was holding a snake, but the entire adventure pushed me way out of my comfort zone. The experience has definitely changed me forever.”

The Ware lab, which studies evolutionary biology with a focus on insects, particularly termites, cockroaches, and dragonflies, has brought students to Guyana to conduct field research regularly for the last decade, in collaboration with Godfrey Bourne of the University of Missouri–St. Louis, who studies evolutionary and tropical ecology. "Godfrey Bourne was integral in organizing the trip as well as imparting his impressive knowledge about Guyana and natural history," said Ruane.

According to Ware, Guyana makes for a particularly rich research experience because of its untouched natural history and rich cultural experiences. “Guyana is a country with rich natural history, and largely undersampled regions, so the likelihood of seeing something new and interesting is high—which students love!” said Ware. Ruane, who specializes in researching snakes, other reptiles, and amphibians, joined the group for the first time this year.

Sleeping with a tarantula was not on my bucket list, but the entire adventure pushed me way out of my comfort zone.

For PhD candidate Megan Wilson, who is interested in the evolution of social insects, especially termites, this was her third time in Guyana, but it was a brand new experience for the rest of the class. “Taking this class was an amazing, unforgettable experience,” says Shorooq Mohammad, a Biology major graduating this May. “Being able to get hands on experience helped me gain a better understanding of different species and their behavior. I would recommend anyone who is interested in biology to take this course!”

tiny frog on finger

Before traveling, students learned about the natural history of Guyana, and prepared for the trip in more practical ways, like learning how to use a mosquito net, reviewing safety protocols, and taking anti-malaria medication.

Seeing the students go from being hesitant or worried and unsure about sleeping in hammocks, eating new foods, or using rustic bathrooms, and concerned about ‘no internet’ for several days, to being a cohesive group who worked together, wanted to hike at night despite encountering wasps and spiders, and were open and engaged with new experiences and people, was heartwarming and one of the most meaningful experiences I have had as a teacher,” said Ruane.

collage of photos showing students in the fieldIn Guyana, students conducted field research at the CEIBA and Dubulay Ranch field stations, learned methods used by scientists for observing and documenting organisms, kept a field notebook, and learned safety and precautionary methods for fieldwork. In addition to the hands-on research experience, students also immersed themselves in the culture and landscape of Guyana.

“We usually travel with a diverse group, including Susan George, who is on the Amerindian Macushi tribal council, and she is able to give students detailed Amerindian knowledge about the flora and fauna at each site we visit,” said Ware.

Ruane recommends the course to any student looking for an opportunity to do real-world research in the field. “This is something a student won't regret doing and you'll grow as both a person and scientist.”