Tropical Biology, University of Georgia -- Memo from James Porter, April 3, 2008

Date: April 3, 2008
To: Tropical Biology Interest Group
From: James W. Porter
Associate Dean, Odum School of Ecology
Meigs Professor of Ecology
Subject: Summary of the ad hoc faculty discussion held on the UGA Costa Rica Campus,
San Luis, C.R. on March 27, 2008

John Pickering, Ron Carroll, Cathy Pringle, Alan Covich, Laurie Fowler, Jim Kundell, Milton Lieberman, Diana Lieberman, Seth Wenger, and I converged at the UGA Costa Rica Campus in San Luis, C.R. and held an informal brainstorming meeting. Rather than a full narrative, I provide some bullet statements of findings and perspectives that came out of this wide-ranging and open-ended dialogue.

  1. The University of Georgia's strengths in tropical biology are quite extraordinary, but are currently almost completely unrecognized both within the university, and nationally or internationally.
  2. A case can be made that we could create, with existing personnel, one of the strongest tropical biology programs in the world. If this program were defined in terms of the New World tropics, including tropical marine environments, it would definitely be the strongest academic program in the world.
  3. The combination of:
    • Our existing UGA Costa Rica Campus facility.
    • Our existing university faculty (in Ecology and elsewhere across campus - see Table 1).
    • Our existing instructional programs in all of the life sciences (at both the graduate and undergraduate level).
    • Already make us a (the?) leader in tropical biology.
    • Virtually no one knows this.
    • This must change.
  4. The UGA Costa Rica Campus has several unique aspects that set it apart from most other tropical residential research centers owned by either U.S. or by Costa Rican institutions:
      This facility is unique in having an elevational gradient. If you consider other tropical biological stations, such as La Selva (in Costa Rica) or Barro Colorado Island (in Panama), the UGA facility may in fact be unique in the world. When considering the broader landscape perspective of the physically adjacent land in conservation (The Monteverde Reserve, the Eternal Rainforest Reserve, etc.) immediate access to strong elevational gradients makes us one of the most unusual tropical biological stations in the world. While global warming is predicted to reduce biological diversity in the tropics (as well as world-wide), the UGA Costa Rica Campus sits in the middle of one of the very few places on earth who's biological diversity may actually increase, as lowland-wet tropical plant and animal populations find refuge in up-slope cooler climes. The long-term data base being developed here on trees, birds, and butterflies will contribute to these discoveries and debates. Long-term ecological observations, following standard protocol, repeated every semester by a UGA class, CURO students, or repeated visitations from students in the Foundation Fellows Program, could make a major scientific contribution to the emerging science of global change.
  5. The station is also unique in having:
      Such close relationships with the extraordinary people and community of San Luis Valley
  6. The station also has:
    • Extraordinarily comfortable living conditions for both visitors and students.
    • The ability to host world-class conferences of moderate size (40 - 60 attendees) on site.
  7. Finally the station has extraordinarily easy access to nature.
  8. In combination, points 1 - 7 suggest that we should move quickly to:
    • Highlight our programmatic strengths both on the UGA Main Campus and within the broadest possible scientific community at large.
    • Take full advantage of the UGA Costa Rica facility strengths.
    • Help shepherd and steer future growth and development at the station
  9. This station is uniquely situated to allow us to:
    • Train students to observe the living world
    • Train students to do rigorous ecological research on the living world.
  10. We feel that we are at a pivotal point to insure the viability and long-term success of UGA Costa Rica, and to steer further scientific development at the station.
  11. Since we have great facilities and great access to the natural world, we should construct teaching and research programs that take advantage of these amazing opportunities and this amazing on-site support system.

Resolutions from the ad hoc meeting:

  • Create a Steering Committee / Advisory Committee in the Odum School of Ecology to shepherd UGA Costa Rica research and teaching initiatives. This committee should also recruit and encourage participation of life scientists from all over campus who have an interest in Costa Rica and the Neo-tropics (see Table 1 for a start of this list).
  • John Pickering, Cathy Pringle, Ron Carroll, and Laurie Fowler expressed a willingness to contribute to leadership responsibilities associated with this steering committee.
  • In the next iteration of the Odum School Strategic Plan, we should highlight our tropical faculty, tropical programs, and the UGA Costa Rica Program. [Even though an initial review of our Strategic Plan recommended that we stream-line it, not expand it, we feel that an emphasis on Tropical Ecology should be highlighted in both our Strategic Plan and our Mission Statement.
  • We should "internationalize" the Odum School of Ecology curriculum. This would mean listing a foreign residential experience, specifically UGA Costa Rica, as a major emphasis of our core curriculum.
    • This emphasis results from our perspective that a firsthand knowledge of the tropics should be a part of an ecologist's professional experience.
    • Whereas approximately a third of all UGA students study abroad, the effect of "internationalizing" the Odum School curriculum would be to greatly increase this percentage among our students.
    • Because of higher costs associated with study abroad programs, "internationalizing" our curriculum will also require us to seek travel and endowment funds ear-marked to support study-abroad student scholarships.
  • Although complicated, there appears to be a systemic and debilitating problem with the way in which the UGA Costa Rica office is funded up here on campus. With student fees "taxed" to cover not just in-country Costa Rica expenses, but also (apparently) all of the States-side program administration costs, this creates a large financial burden on these tuition dollars. Alternative ways of funding the on-campus costs of this study abroad program must be explored.
  • The Odum School must work closely with the UGA Costa Rica office to assure that (1) financial matters, (2) student recruitment, (3) course development, and (4) course administration are handled efficiently and expeditiously. A vetting of start-up problems associated with ECOL 4XXX/6XXX Conservation Medicine (Carroll & Hernandez-Divers), and ECOL 85XX Comparative Biodiversity (Fowler), will illustrate the challenges (and hopefully the needed solutions) to these problems. While the Tropical Biology Steering Committee may possibly play a role in identifying some of these administrative issues, this committee will not substitute for the Study Abroad Program Office staff or their functions. The steering committee would be willing to act as an oversight and advisory body to the Study Abroad Office to assure a close alignment between Study Abroad activities and Tropical Biology program priorities.
  • The ad hoc Tropical Biology interest group praises and encourages formal association between faculty in this interest group and (1) the Foundation Fellows Program, (2) the Honors Program, and (3) CURO. To this end, we may wish to seek funds from the CURO program to house students down there to do individual research, as well as to contribute to long-term research programs which actually exist there, but are, as of now, un-staffed [e.g., (a) summarizing climatological data from the manual weather station and integrating these historical data into the soon-to-be-installed automated system, (b) recording growth rates and flowering periodicity of plants in both the herb garden and the commercial crop garden, and (c) following tree growth and survival in the on-campus reforestation program]. These scientific endeavors are (a) already underway, (b) very important, (c) labor intensive, but, as mentioned above, (d) currently un-staffed.
  • The Tropical Biology faculty interest group would like to help create a 10-year plan for the facility. The desire to initiate such a plan is an explicit acknowledgement that many of the goals which will be set will require lead time and money to implement.
  • Something must be done immediately to upgrade, expand, and enhance independent investigator and graduate research laboratory space at the Costa Rica Facility. At present, there are no vehicles, very little equipment, very little expendable supplies, and almost no modern laboratory space for individual investigators at the San Luis facility. To move beyond observational studies, to quantification, experimentation, and analysis, money must be spent on scientific infrastructure, not just on lodging infrastructure.
    • Lack of a functional Internet connection is a crippling problem.
    • Until the Internet problem is solved, there may be no way to elevate the stature of this station from a first rate teaching facility (which it already is) to a first rate research facility (which it also must become).
  • Now that the facility has been in operation for several years, a renewed discussion on the balance of support for its teaching and research missions should occur. The faculty assembled at this ad hoc gathering expressed a desire to push, in parallel, both its teaching and its research missions, but it is not at all clear if there is wide-spread agreement (let alone consensus) on exactly what this means. Clarifying these issues may be an appropriate first step to finding functional solutions.
    • For instance, some kind of differential fee structure is critical for at least five broad classes of highly desirable potential station users who, up until now, have mostly been excluded SOLELY DUE TO COSTS:
      1. Graduate students doing dissertation or thesis research
      2. Graduate classes, such as OTS's world famous Fundamentals of Ecology courses, that previously visited the station, but which no longer do. (The University of California has built, and the University of Texas is building, field stations within a short walk of the UGA Costa Rica Campus. One of their first decisions was to lower user fees and costs for selected graduate courses, and specifically for OTS graduate courses). Our ad hoc group feels that re-attracting OTS to the UGA Costa Rica Campus is absolutely essential for us to be taken seriously as an internationally premier education center in tropical biology.
      3. Costa Rican nationals wishing to study or take courses at the facility.
      4. First-time UGA research scientists wishing to make a preliminary, short-duration visit to scope out or set up research programs. To this end, we may wish to seek limited, mini-travel funds from OVPR to support a first-time visit to Costa Rica by faculty wishing to set up research programs there.
      5. Long-term research scientists and research students attempting to initiate or contribute to UGA Costa Rica Campus long-term ecological research studies.
    • One of the long-term campus growth plans being discussed in Costa Rica identifies graduate student housing and individual investigator space as the next phase of UGA Costa Rica Campus growth. We support this plan.
  • The group had several ideas for instructional programs at the station:
    • Teach a special section of ECOL 3500/3500L there in the fall semester
    • Create an "environmental science research emphasis" for the fall semester
    • Staff the current Fall and Maymester course offerings:
      • ECOL 3100 Tropical Ecology
      • ECOL 3510 Ecology Field Laboratory
      • ECOL 4960 Independent Study
      • MARS 4950? Tropical marine field studies
    • The group wished to acknowledge and work with the Study Abroad Program's desire to expand enrollment in the existing courses (both fall and spring) to bring course enrollments to 18 - 30 students.
    • To this end, they recommend that faculty, not administrators, should do the recruitment for the program. Faculty should bring in their own students and actively recruit others. Faculty should get the word out!
    • The goal is 18 - 22 students minimum in each class, with overall program participation in the range of 22 - 30 students minimum on campus per semester. [As an aside, from extensive personal experience, the group identified the optimal size of field courses at or below 30 students. With more than 30 students several more faculty are required.
  • We recommend that one Odum School T.A. line be dedicated to Odum School Costa Rica courses. If this T.A. could come from Odum School teaching assistantship salary lines, rather than from student fees, this would be preferable. The group recommends that Dean John Gittleman and Research Vice President David Lee visit the UGA Costa Rica Campus as soon as possible to become familiar with the facility and its potential to support both research and teaching.
  • The group also recommends that Misha Boyd visit the facilities to enhance her role and effectiveness in student recruitment.
  • We should create a Certificate in Tropical Biology
    The Certificate would involve:
    • Participation in at least one semester of course-work and study in Costa Rica
    • Submission of an independent study project or honors thesis
    • Delivery of a seminar on this project
  • We might even consider creating a Tropical Ecology Minor.

A Long-term Perspective and Possible Overarching Research Proposal for the Station
For reasons mentioned above, the group proposes that a major research and teaching emphasis of the UGA Costa Rica Campus should be made on climate change. This emphasis should explicitly capitalize on the unique elevational aspects of our location.

Table 1. Developing list of faculty and staff interested in Tropical Biology. If you are interested, please add you name by contacting John Pickering.

Name Academic Unit e-mail address
Jim Affolter Botanical Garden
Sonia Altizer Ecology
Darold Batzer Entomology
David Berle Horticulture (GIS)
Misha Boyd Ecology
Ron Carroll Ecology
Steve Castleberry Forestry
Scott Connelly Ecology
Bob Cooper Forestry
Gregg Coyle Environ & Design
Alan Covich Ecology
John Drake Ecology
Laurie Fowler Ecology
Bud Freeman Mus. Nat. Hist.
Mary Freeman USGS
David Gattie Ag. Engineering
John Gittleman Ecology
Ted Gragson Anthropology
Jim Hamrick Plant Biology
Sonia Hernandez-Divers Vet Med.
Carol Hoffman Mus. Nat. Hist.
Tim Hollibaugh Marine Sciences
Kris Irwin Forestry
Carl Jordan Ecology
Jim Kundell Ecology (Ret.)
Diana Lieberman Ecology / C.R.
Milton Lieberman Mar. Sci./C.R.
Joe McHugh Entomology
Michael Mueller College of Education (Science Ed)
Quint Newcomer C.R. Program
Chris Peterson Plant Sciences
John Pickering Ecology
Cathy Pringle Ecology
David Porter Plant Biology
Jim Porter Ecology
Brenda RashleighU.S. Environmental Protection
Jim Richardson Ecology
Dean Rojek Sociology (retired Meigs prof)
Amy Rosemond Ecology
Fausto Sarmiento Geography
Jay Shelton Forestry
Bill Tollner Agriculture and Environmental Sciences
Dorset Trapnell Ecology
Alfie Vick Landscape and Design
John Wares Genetics
Seth Wenger Ecology

Updated: 8 May, 2008

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