Summer Research Spotlight: Julia Palmucci
By Julia Palmucci, Special to The Gettysburgian
This past May, Dr. Trillo’s Tropical Biology Class set off for what was destined to be an experience of a lifetime to Peru where we would see some of the most incredible natural wonders of the world. The itinerary included a whirlwind tour through numerous biological life zones from the peaks of the Andes, high-elevation cloud forests, and some of the most pristine regions of the Amazon rain forest. As a young woman from suburban New Jersey, I was one of ten participants whose experience in the outdoors ranged from working for several years as a ranger for the National Park Service to never having slept in a tent prior to this expedition. My class posed a unique challenge for Dr. Trillo to not only teach us a wide range of biological concepts in a hands-on fashion but also to carry our motley crew through the challenging experiences we would surely face.
One member of the class, Kyle Kameika, pointed to the all-encompassing and truly hands-on learning we were afforded through this class as one of the most rewarding experiences of his college career. Reflecting on our time in Peru, he writes:
As a student specialized in biology most of my nights studying were focused on learning cellular pathways, animal anatomy, and many microscopic bacteria. In Peru studying biology was completely different, my specimens were not under a microscope but instead up in a tree, and instead of being dead or frozen they were alive…The noises and sights were so abundant I began to feel my mouth slip open in awe. I felt like the idea of biology, the study of life, really started to sink in for me during this trip.
Active learning is a true passion of Dr. Trillo’s, and one that she does immensely well. During daily lecture hikes we would often stop to discuss whatever a member of the class found in the thick greenery that surrounded us. The best way to teach students tropical biology is to take them to the tropics and have them (sometimes frantically) identify bird species, mutualisms, and plant adaptations in real time.
Beyond the curriculum, though, we also learned how the pressing issue of climate change and deforestation is affecting the areas we visited and the individuals living there. Dr. Trillo prepared us well for the humanistic side of the course as well. Humans are an important part of the ecology of the area, and we studied the positive and negative aspects of human presence in an ecosystem as well as many of the challenges facing native tribes who have lived in the furthest depths of the Amazon for thousands of years.
Our class personally felt the effects of climate change during our 11 km day hike from an Incan holy site at the top of the Andes down through multiple life zones over several thousand meters of elevation. During the last week of May, we should have been squarely situated at the start of the dry season, meaning that although the trail would be challenging, weather would not be a concern. However, after lunch, hours of torrential downpour pushed the morale and physical abilities of our group to their limits. The hike that should have taken ten hours took some of us sixteen; park guards who worked their for years have said that this rain was completely unprecedented, and it has become increasingly difficult to predict the end of the wet season because of the seasonal shifts resulting from climate change. It was a powerful lesson to learn firsthand, especially when we discussed what this meant for the communities entirely dependent on agriculture for their own survival.
The effects of deforestation and hunting were omnipresent during our travels through Peru. Cocha Cashu Biological Station, the field station where we stayed for the majority of our trip, was in a highly protected area of Manu National Park accessible to only those conducting scientific research with special permits. The animals were abundant in this area and held little fear of people, most likely because of the lack of poaching. Conversely, entire species like spider monkeys were noticeably absent and the forest considerably quieter in the unprotected areas we traveled through down the Madre de Dios River.
The lessons our class learned in Peru will stay with us for a lifetime. It taught us, not only class material, but also enhanced our appreciation for biology and the natural world. During our last reflection, our class spoke about how genuinely life changing this experience was for each of us. Personally, I found an unshakable self-confidence that I can depend on moving forward. It is an incredibly motivating thought to remember you survived the Amazon. And we did not just survive the Amazon, but flourished in it, tackling each and every challenge with the strength of our teamwork and our friendship. We mentioned how most individuals at home will not ever be able to understand the powerful nature of what we faced; pictures and anecdotes cannot do the Amazon justice. However, we know we must try to share a portion of our experience with others in the hopes of bringing about some of the same compassion for the natural world we all found in the depths of the Amazon and the heights of the cloud forest.