Truly a ‘RARE’ experience

Drew Myers, right, and Morrgan Duncan, left, look at a monkey at an animal rehabilitation center in Peru.
Drew Myers, right, and Morrgan Duncan, left, look at a monkey at an animal rehabilitation center in Peru.

Clad in dirt and mud – and several new smells – Radford University students and faculty members returned from a transformative experience in the Peruvian rainforest.

Ten Radford students and two faculty participated in the Radford Amazonian Research Expedition (RARE) Program from May 20 to June 11, an experience that expanded students’ boundaries and pushed them to new heights. Students conducted individualized research projects, hiked, climbed an 85-foot tree, explored the jungle and, after all that, became tourists when visiting Cusco and the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.

The RARE group flew to Puerto Maldonado, a remote city in southeastern Peru. After staying in the city for a couple of days, the group headed north on the Trans-Amazonian Highway for a little more than an hour before venturing down a long, muddy and bumpy logging road for a couple more hours.

After the group reached Lucerna, a small, remote town of 75-100 people, luggage was loaded onto a small boat that took them the remainder of the distance to the biodiversity station. The trek was not over yet as the group still had to make a quarter-mile hike with a steep incline – before reaching their temporary home.

Sydni Pennington, of Dublin, Virginia, is one of the students who benefited from the transformative experience.

The 2019 RARE group

Top row: Hanna Jang, Wanda Cato, Sterling Bennett, Alexa Stapleton and Sarah Redmond. Middle row: Kateri Schoettinger, Addison Weddle, Jean Mistele, Morrgan Duncan, Drew Myers and Sydni Pennington. Bottom row: Trevor Tidwell.

“I feel like I am more ready to take obstacles head-on,” Pennington said. “I was in the Amazon for two weeks, so I feel like problems at home are a lot easier to face. I learned about myself and how to push my limits.”

Trevor Tidwell, of Rural Retreat, Virginia, learned a lot about himself, as well as the people around him.

“I definitely pushed myself a lot harder than I would here in America,” Tidwell said. “Overall, I found new limits for myself, and I’m really grateful for that.”

Each of the students overcame issues in the field. For Kateri Schoettinger, of Cincinnati, Ohio, it was equipment issues for her research. Schoettinger was measuring the carbonic acid and PH of covered streams versus streams in direct sunlight. The equipment she brought on the trip was not working, but there was some backup equipment left at the biodiversity station. “You have to be flexible,” she said.

Sterling Bennett, right, prepares to climb an 85-foot tree under the supervision of Paul Rosalie, left.
Sterling Bennett, right, prepares to climb an 85-foot tree under the supervision of Paul Rosalie, left.

“I always knew I wanted to study abroad and take as many opportunities as possible,” Schoettinger said. “Since RARE has been such an impactful experience, it seemed like it should be the one I attend. Every time we go out into the jungle, we learn something new.”

The research projects conducted by Radford University students in the jungle were:

  • Water properties in relation to tree cover, conducted by Kateri Schoettinger;
  • Observing people and their behaviors, conducted by Sterling Bennett;
  • Application of international disability accommodations in remote Peru, conducted by Sydni Pennington;
  • Comparing veterinary practices in Peru versus the United States, conducted by Drew Myers;
  • Movement and presence of animals around trail areas used by humans, conducted by Wanda Cato;
  • Characteristics of microclimates in areas around the river basin in relation to the effects of deforestation, conducted by Trevor Tidwell;
  • Forensic decay in the Amazon Rainforest in comparison with the New River Valley, conducted by Morrgan Duncan;
  • The behavioral response of monkeys and apes to manmade sound, conducted by Alexa Stapleton;
  • The identification of different butterfly species in the Amazon, conducted by Addison Weddle; and
  • Identification of bioluminescent organisms in the Amazon, conducted by Hanna Jang.

One of the Radford University faculty members helping guide the students through their RARE experience was Associate Professor of Mathematics Jean Mistele, Ph.D. She said that one of the most rewarding experiences is seeing how the students use their newfound knowledge after returning to Radford University.

“This is a fascinating program,” Mistele said. “It’s a wonderful way to work with students and help them grow. It’s a very unique opportunity.”

The second professor on the trip, Assistant Professor of Biology Sarah Redmond, Ph.D, enjoyed seeing the growth of students over three-week experience.

“Seeing the students develop their projects from their initial proposal to troubleshooting problems as they encountered them in Peru was great,” Redmond said. “They all came away with a new appreciation for the rainforest, but each one was also able to tie their experience into their own discipline through their projects.”

For the last five years, Radford University has partnered with Tamandua Expeditions, an eco-tourism company that focuses on conservation- and sustainability-based expeditions, to guide the students through their life-changing experiences.

The RARE group looks up while the 85-foot tree is climbed.
The RARE group looks up while the 85-foot tree is climbed.

Paul Rosolie, a conservationist, author and guide for Tamandua Expeditions, stressed how important it is to get aspiring researchers out in the field conducting research projects.

“They’re learning how to adapt their projects, because you have methods, but out in the field it’s a different story,” Rosolie said. “They have to adapt and push through things they’re scared of. The best part for me is making a connection between the people and the jungle so when they leave here it’s one of the best experiences of their lives.”

Rosolie was there when the idea for RARE came about from Radford University Associate Professor of Biology Jason Davis, Ph.D.

“Jason had this line that I love,” Rosalie said. “Sitting right here, he said, ‘As an educator, it is my duty to bring students here.’ He saw this place once and said, ‘I’m not doing my job unless I bring students here.’ I feel the same way; this place has done so much for me. I’ve seen it change people’s lives.”

A role of the guides, Mohsin Kazmi said, is to help students navigate their research and what it is like to work in a field environment.

“Every day is a chance to show these students how special this opportunity is for them and what it can mean for them in the future,” said Kazmi, one of the guides with Tamandua Expeditions. “It’s been such a rewarding opportunity to see these students grow from their transformative experience and make decisions that impact the rest of their lives.”

The RARE experience, Kazmi said, is a one-of-a-kind study abroad.

“We’ve been able to create a study abroad program that I’m confident is the only study abroad program like this in the United States,” Kazmi said. “There are individual students working on individual projects. The professors are coming from interdisciplinary backgrounds. They are working so hard to allow these students to feel a real-life work experience. They go into the jungle and solve problems. They are getting a head start on their career before they approach graduation. It’s empowered people and changed people’s lives.”

Tidwell said a saying in the Center for Global Education and Engagement summed up the lasting – and profound – impact the trip has on those who attend.

“Not all classrooms have four walls. I really believe that,” Tidwell said. “This trip is one of the best experiences of my life so far.”

Tidwell, and the rest of the students on the trip, emerged from the rainforest with a new global perspective and understanding of the world, embodying the transformative nature of RARE and what Radford University has to offer.

Jul 9, 2019
Max Esterhuizen