UMass students experience “true tropics” through international course and field work in Colombia

International collaboration between UMass Dartmouth, the University of Reading (UK), Universidad EAFIT (Colombia), and Universidad de Antioquia (Colombia) provides students opportunity to explore the abundance and diversity of microbial life

This summer nine UMass students (eight UMass Dartmouth students and one UMass Lowell student) were given the opportunity to study the different climates and ecosystems of the distinct tropical regions of Colombia. The experience was made possible through an international collaboration between faculty from UMass Dartmouth, the University of Reading (UK), Universidad EAFIT (Colombia), and Universidad de Antioquia (Colombia), who teamed up to develop this research-based study abroad course for which students earn credit toward their degrees.  This field course provides students an opportunity to explore the abundance and diversity of microbial life. Students from each university explored the microbial life in three different field sites and then test the bacteria for traits that have relevance to biotechnological and other applications.

“Field sites were chosen to expose the group to the ‘true tropics’ showing them that the tropics is not just about rain forests but instead comprises many different climates and thus ecosystems,” said Biology Assistant Professor Mark Silby, who helped organize the international course and field work. “An important part of the experience was cultural. It was very exciting to see our students getting to know their peers from the UK and Colombia and learn about each other.”

Two of the three sites, Santa Fé de Antioquia and Parque Arví, were day trips from the group’s base in Medellín. Parque Arví is cool and dry and Santa Fé de Antioquia is hot and dry, according to Dr. Silby. Above the ground, there was stark contrast in plant life and students were challenged to ask if the same was true of microbial life. The third site was a 40 minute plane ride to the north of Medellín, in an area called Urabá which is well known for being very hot and extremely humid. Students and faculty stayed two nights at a field station operated by the Universidad de Antioquia.

Students who took part in the international course and field work:

Sarah Christ, UMass Lowell

Biology major

Hometown: Andover, MA

Nora Cox, UMass Dartmouth

Biology major

Hometown: Salisbury, MA

Garrison Davis, UMass Dartmouth

Biology major

Hometown: Taunton, MA

Timothy Lorgeree, UMass Dartmouth

Biochemistry major            

Hometown: Rockland, MA

Bryan McDonald, UMass Dartmouth

Biology major

Hometown: Medway, MA

Andrew Myrick, UMass Dartmouth

Bioengineering major

Portsmouth, RI

Ashley Osborne, UMass Dartmouth

Biology major

Danvers, MA

Katelyn Pimental, UMass Dartmouth

Biology major

Fairhaven, MA

Victoria Quennessen, UMass Dartmouth

Marine Biology major        

Hometown: Denville, New Jersey

Teaching Assistant: Lucy McCully, UMass Dartmouth

Ph.D. candidate in the Biomedical Engineering and Biotechnology program

Hometown: West Caldwell, New Jersey

Their sampling sites in Urabá were in two very different settings. At the first site, the group spent time in a large remnant forest, where their guide needed a machete to craft the trail they followed. It was a very dense forest, complete with the normal flora and fauna one would expect in a tropical rain forest. The second sampling location was in an adjacent banana plantation. Urabá is a very big banana region, and the students and faculty were fortunate to be able to visit a plantation and learn about the process of growing and harvesting bananas. The students were fascinated seeing how the bananas they take for granted in the supermarkets are actually produced.

Colombia labBased in Medellín, students and faculty were hosted by Universidad EAFIT and used its laboratory facilities for experiments. Students attended lectures and seminars at the field station in Urabá and at EAFIT, on topics including forest ecology, evolutionary biology, biotechnology, and genomics. On the final day, students gave oral presentations about their work at a symposium and presented short movies chronicling their experiences over the two week course.

Approximately 10 percent of the Amazon rainforest is contained in Colombia. The Amazon rainforest is recognized as the largest collection of living plants and animal species around the world. The diversity of plant species is the highest on Earth.

UMass Dartmouth’s International Programs Office was also instrumental in the setup of this course. The office provides numerous study abroad opportunities pairing students with credit-bearing programs and courses that match their educational, civic, and social interests.  

Professor Silby and Dr. Robert Jackson, who also helped conceive the course, recently collaborated on research which found how simple bacteria can restart their 'outboard motor' by rapidly hotwiring their own genes within 96 hours to survive. The discovery was made by a team at the University of Reading, UK, led by Dr. Robert Jackson and Dr. Louise Johnson. The University of Reading team collaborated with scientists at UMass Dartmouth along with the University of York and University of Exeter. This research appeared in the February 27, 2015, issue of the journal Science, published by the AAAS, the world's largest general scientific organization.

UMass Dartmouth distinguishes itself as a vibrant public university actively engaged in personalized teaching and innovative research, and acting as an intellectual catalyst for regional economic, social, and cultural development. UMass Dartmouth's mandate to serve its community is realized through countless partnerships, programs, and other outreach efforts to engage the community, and apply its knowledge to help address local issues and empower others to facilitate change for all.

 Editor's Note: Video above is one of the short movies submitted by students showcasing the group's work and experience in Colombia.


College of Arts and Sciences, Research