Scott Strobel, professor in biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University, wanted to train his students in biodiversity and for them to experience biology through understanding chemistry. For this reason, six years ago, he designed a course that gave students an opportunity to experience biodiversity first hand. The Amazon, as one of the most biodiverse places in the world, was the perfect setting.
“We chose Ecuador for two reasons, one for the Yasuni National Forest, which is of all the biodiversity hot spots in Latin America the most biodiverse, and the other is the ease of transportation to get to different forest types since it is easy to move from a dry forest to a cloud forest to a rainforest,” explained Dr. Strobel.
In his course Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory (REAL), Dr. Strobel takes students to the Ecuadorian Amazon for two weeks to identify microorganisms and explore their nutritional and health components. These students, instead of being told about science, get the opportunity to develop real research projects that have an impact on the real world.
“What we are looking for is microbial diversity associated with the botanical diversity of the plants in Ecuador,” says Dr. Strobel. “It is an opportunity to experience the forest and culture in Ecuador, to work with its amazing biodiversity and try to find solutions to challenging [health] problems.”
According to the course description, during the first four years of the project, some 70 students have isolated several hundred microbes, about 10 percent of which are novel at the genus level. Strobel and his students have given scientific names to some of the organisms and have published work in a number of journals.
But, perhaps the most important aspect of this class is that more than just the theory of science; it allows them to explore first hand the marvels of the world while developing their scientific instincts.
“This is one of the few courses at Yale in which a student can see a research project through, start to finish,” explains Samantha G. Lee, a REAL student at Yale University. “From choosing plants to collect in Ecuador to developing an individual assay to discover new natural products, the student gets to make the decisions about his/her project at every step of the way.”
The work of the students doesn’t end when they board the plane back to the United States; they often continue their investigations in subsequent semesters at Yale mostly trying to identify the molecules responsible for the activities that they identified in the organisms they see in Ecuador.
“Taking the Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory class got me excited about biology research and introduced me to the wonderful country that is Ecuador,” said Sophia Shimer, also a REAL student at Yale University. “I am still continuing my research in the lab, and I liked Ecuador so much that I returned this past summer.”
REAL is in collaboration with Catholic University in Ecuador and its students. In fact, Catholic University students not only join Yale students during the expedition but also have the opportunity to come to the U.S. and spend time in the Yale University labs.
“The idea is to get these undergraduate students excited about research and science at a very formative moment of their careers,” explains Dr. Strobel. “It is to help them see themselves as scientists not people who memorize scientific information.”
According to Dr. Strobel, the Ecuadorian Amazon’s biodiversity provides the opportunity for the students to observe for the first time new organisms, new species, new genera and also be the ones making discoveries.