AHSL Costa Rica 2017


The slopes of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano in north central Costa Rica are one of the most bio-diverse rainforests in the world. Partnering with us in this endeavor is Dr. Cameron Currie, a world-famous scientist at the University of Wisconsin who has made numerous discoveries studying leaf cutter ants in the tropics. Also partnering with us is Dr. Adian Pinto, a scientist at the University of Costa Rica and former student under Dr. Currie, and now leads field research projects in the Costa Rican forests. Many of these research projects are associated with grants coming out of Dr. Currie’s lab at the University of Wisconsin.


Organizational Meeting (February 5): Fundraising, Applications due, and 1st Assignments

Session 1 (February 26): The Country of Costa Rica

Session 2 (March 26): Leaf Cutter Ant Microbiology and The Scientific Method

Session 3 (April 30): Skype with Dr. Currie

Session 4 (May 21): Introduction to the Human Microbiom Project

Session 5 (June 17): DNA and Medicine

Session 6 (July 16): Leaf Cutter Ants Review


Leaf Cutter Ants – Why Should We Care?

The leaf cutter ant colonies in the forest vary in size from brand new colonies to colonies that have perhaps 8 million ants in the colony. We deal with a species of leaf cutters called Atta Cephalotes. These leaf cutter ants can be seen marching single file through the rainforest with leaf sections twice as large as the ants themselves. These sections of tropical forest leaves have been harvested form the very top of the canopy of the rainforest where the leaf cutters ascend to use their fast cutting lower jaws(mini saws that operate at 1200 cycles per second) to cut the leaf sections from the forest canopy. These leaves are toxic to the ants, never the less the ants transport the leaf sections down the height of the forest trees, along the forest floor to the entrance to the tunnel system that interconnects the various chambers of their colony. Once at the entry to the leaf cutter ant underground maize the leaf cutter turns the leaf over to another worker ant that is more suited to shredding the leaf into a pulverized mass at the same time as the ant creates a new compost pile of shredded material deep into the bowls of the system of chambers that make up the colonies underground city.

Once the material decays it provides nutrients which allows fungus to grow and it is the tips of the fungus that the ants use for food. Thus, we have another species on our planet, beside ourselves, that undertake farming to raise their own crops for subsistence. However, for 10 decades there was a mystery as to how these ants kept their fungus gardens free of contaminating pathogens.

This was a world class mystery until a young PHD student(Cameron Currie from the University of Montreal) came along and discovered that these fungus gardens not only have a deadly parasitic mold(called Escovopsis), but that the ants are indeed producing antibiotics which serve to provide protection to these rainforest ant cities from infections of their massive fungus gardens. Cameron Currie discovered that these ants cultivate a bacteria called Streptomyces which is the source of roughly half of the antibiotics manufactured by our pharmaceutical industry. This remarkable discovery has now given us a new mystery. The antibiotics that our pharmaceutical industry produces can only manufacture antibiotics that remain effective for two or three or four generations. We are literally running out of antibiotics because the diseases we use these against are evolving resistance to our antibiotics faster than we can create new antibiotics to be used against the new strains of diseases. Our population faces an imminent disaster as each year we have fewer effective antibiotics that the year before. We are running out of antibiotics at a rate that should be seen as nothing more than a looming catastrophe. Yet these ants have been successful in maintaining their fungus gardens for 65 million years. How do these leaf cutter ants, with brains the size of half a grain of sand, produce antibiotics in such a way to keep them viable for such a long period of time when as human beings we are not able to even keep our antibiotics viable for 50 years? Pulitzer Prize winning biologist Edward Wilson, who has made his life studying ants, has created the term “Superorganism” to describe what the combined intellectual power of social animals operating in mass with a single social goal can accomplish, feats that seem impossible to us never mind the low level cranium power of a tiny insect. Here is a subject worthy of research, the answer to which would have an obvious affect on the health


It is important that participants in this program understand the rationale as to why Costa Rica is suited as the ideal location for tropical field research. Costa Rica is situated at the juncture of Central America and South America and it is a long standing democracy with strong ties to the United States. It is often referred to as the Switzerland of Central America with a stable economic and political base. The country is known for disbanding its army back in 1949 and applying the savings to medical care and education within the country. In addition, Costa Rica has taken the unusual step of setting aside more than 27% of its land mass in national parks, biological reserves, national wildlife refuges and privately protected areas, to protect rainforest, a unique effort amongst all countries on the planet.

As planet earth underwent its continental development over hundreds of million years the land mass that is now Costa Rica became the land bridge between the South American continent and North and Central America. This was the geographic corridor which merged species from the two continents. The small narrow country is divided by a chain of volcanoes that form the continental divide between the Pacific side of the country and the Caribbean side. It is this geographic phenomenon that has created a land mass with dozens of microclimates, each of which supports a series of life forms suitable for the environment of the area. It is entirely possible for the traveler to be in a tropical rainforest at one moment and twenty minutes later find ones self in a Swiss Alps setting or in the same timeframe in a Northern Minnesota pine forest or a Caribbean beach or a Sahara desert.

It is this unique set of circumstances that grants Costa Rica a biodiversity not found other places. For example there are more than 850 species of birds, more than all of North America, 9000 species of flowers, 1200 species of just orchids, and more than 35,000 species of insects discovered so far including more than 2000 species of butterflies. It is this biodiversity that provides the natural setting for discoveries of new species of mammals or reptiles or plants or amphibians. It is this setting that gives Costa Rica an incredible menu for researchers using natural science as a basis for new discoveries. Today Universities, governments and Pharmaceutical companies have basic research projects underway in Costa Rica, taking advantage of the immense natural resource base one finds in these forests and jungles.

It is in this environment that Seeds of Change has chosen to host science trips by high school students in an area which even by Costa Rica standards offers bountiful biodiversity. Our research site is on the north east slope of the Rincon de La Vieja Volcano in an area known as the Rincon Rainforest. This is an area where tropical rainforest, cloud forest and dry rainforest converge to provide an explosion of bio-diversity. It is a remote area untouched by development or tourism which flourishes in much of the country. By hosting our students in this area our students are not only in a target rich research zone, they are also in a geographic area which a simple subsistence level life is the norm for villagers, giving our students exposure to a whole new view of life we cannot appreciate in our North American mindset.


Finca La Anita Rainforest Ranch


A first important briefing will introduce the students to the activities associated with the site, the ecological environment of the area, the various crops cultivated on site(chocolate/macadamia/taro/passion fruit/pineapple/ papaya/hearts of palm/bananas/cardamom/vegetables/ tropical flowers). Science briefings on leaf cutter any biology will commence on the first day of science work. The emphasis will be to insure that all students have an adequate level of understanding of the microbiology of the fungus garden and the ant colony. As quickly as possible the students will be broken into research teams. These teams will develop their own projects, with their own goals, with their respective protocols. Some of these projects may involve research sites deep in the forest, some will be laboratory based, some will involve a midnight journey to remote colonies, etc. These experiments will all be guided by Dr. Pinto and his grad students, but creativity and knowledge pursued will be the results of students establishing their own goals. Research is very much a collaborative effort and as such, research teams will be formed by students so that each team is working together on a different aspect of leaf cutter ant research. Upon completion of the research projects each research team will present their findings to the whole group the final night at Finca La Anita.


There will be various off site experiences included in the activities while the students are immersed in this research environment. These may include zip line activities on the slopes of the Miravalles Volcano, Cloud Forest hikes through Virgin forests into thermal waters on the slopes of the Rincon De La Vieja Volcano, horseback treks on the slopes of the Santa Maria volcano into remote waterfalls or to observation points on the slopes of the volcano. Or this time may be allocated to service projects to help the people of the villages in this sparsely populated area well away from modern conveniences, and direct exposure to local families so that students will clearly grasp the cultural differences embodied by these poor villagers. Each off site trip is unique and the off site experiences will be planned between SOC and the high school teachers.


On the eighth day of the trip, we move to a new research station in the hot, tropical dry rainforest on the Nicoya Peninsula where the new micro-climate supports a whole new range of biology. Here, we will expose the students to a research project on Eastern Pacific Rim Black Sea Turtles being undertaken by Dr. Bibi Santidrian of Drexel University. Students will learn the general plight of sea turtles today and in particular the research project being set up to learn about this particular turtle. Students will participate in beach patrols to intercept incoming female nesting turtles to gather data and tag them for on-going study.

​This gives students exposure to a remote virgin beach untouched by human development or tourism and will provide some relaxing “beach time” as a break from 10 days of intensive science. In addition as a final exercise of the trip, the students will have encounters with primates and will serve as a test bed for a project giving students exposure to collaborative creative thinking.


The cost of this trip is $3,710 per student. This cost is all-inclusive and includes airfare to Costa Rica, all ground transport in Costa Rica, lodging, food, supplies, off-site adventures, and, of course, the cost for the scientists and teachers who lead the research efforts. The only other cost that the student incurs is their passport fees. Obtaining their passport is a responsibility of the student. ​Once in Costa Rica, the student is also responsible for any spending money they choose to use, however, the research sites used by this program are very remote with little opportunity for spending by students. Some students may chose to buy t-shirts, souvenir jackets, or sweets, but the reality is there are simply very limited opportunities for spending money.

The $3,710 cost of the trip is broken into many partial payments. This trip is preceded by pre-trip classes, once per month in the months before the trip. These classes are used to prepare the students with the necessary knowledge in evolutionary microbiology, so they have a productive experience. The cost of the trip is paid by payments spread out over several months.

​​The first $100 refundable check must accompany the application. If the student is selected, the check becomes non-refundable. If the student is not selected, the check is returned. As each preparation class takes place, a portion of the remaining cost is due. Students will be provided invoices each month, showing the amount due and the amount paid to date.


This coffee is grown at 1,400 to 2,000 meters on the slopes of the volcano chain extending south from Finca La Anita. We think this is the highest grown coffee in the world. When the coffee is sold it accomplishes two goals:

This coffee is the livelihood of a co-op of 700 poor families who scraped together enough money to take their coffee to the 2001 Specialty Coffee Association trade show in San Francisco where it was judged ​“Best-In-The-World!”

This coffee is packed in 10 oz. bags and is available in classic roast ground, dark roast ground, classic roast whole bean, or dark roast whole bean. The coffee sells for $10 per bag of which the student receives half towards the trip. This fundraiser is effective because it is at the complete top end of the coffee quality scale and this means that once a student sells the coffee to a neighbor of friend, it is typical that the person comes back and asks for more coffee.



Amanda Akers amanda.akers@gmail.com 512.638.9722

Russell Baker russellbaker007@gmail.com 512.673.0068


Created with images by goloren1 - "jungle hiking rainforest" • Lucky2013 - "ant insect macro" • colleen_taugher - "leaf cutter ants" • Ross Elliott - "LeafCutterAnt 0514 22352"

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