Young scientists train for rainforest trip

13 students from Delaware Valley and Kittatinny will be traveling to Costa Rica this June

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  • Back row (from left): chaperone Alison Gely, Nellie Choma, Kate Sikora, Willow Meredith, Kris Kremsner, Natalia Mattar, tour director Tom Miller. Front row: Kathryn Merrill, Sam Givone, Alyssia Nagy, and Kate Orlouski (Photo by Frances Ruth Harris)

  • Delaware Valley’s Kris Kremsner (Photo by Frances Ruth Harris)

  • Alison Gely shows one of the articles of clothing recommended for the trip (Photo by Frances Ruth Harris)

  • Trip leader Tom Miller (Photo by Frances Ruth Harris)

  • Students at a recent orientation meeting held at Kittatinny High School (Photo by Frances Ruth Harris)

By Frances Ruth Harris

— Inspirational high school science teacher and naturalist Tom Miller, newly retired, is taking 13 students to do scientific research in a Costa Rican rainforest.

Students from Delaware Valley High School and Kittatinny Regional High School will begin their research projects in the rainforest on June 25. Kris Kremsner, a senior at Delaware Valley, will join 12 girls from Kittatinny Regional High School on the journey.

"I became interested in the Costa Rica trip when it was mentioned in my AP (advanced placement) Biology classroom early in September," said Kris in an email. "Traveling across the world is every person's dream, and since I have prior experience traveling for ten days touring China this past summer, I was eager to take up another opportunity. My chaperones on the China trip, Mr. and Mrs. Pol, as well as Mr. Gonzalez, taught me to take advantage of every opportunity allowing me to expand my comfort zone and explore the world, so an exploration to Costa Rica sounded like a dream come true."

Kris is the captain of the Delaware Valley swim team, so he's already pretty fit.

"When Mr. Miller described this trip to me, he emphasized the strenuous physical activity which we’d have to endure, and I was immediately up for the challenge," said Kris. "I have spent four years on the varsity swim team and have been competing since I was in elementary school, so the idea of pushing beyond my limits was not out of the ordinary." Besides Kris, others making the trip this year are Nellie Choma, Natalya De Waal, Samantha Givone, Emily Logsdon, Natalia Mattar, Willow Meredith, Kathleen Merrell, Kylah Ogar, Katie Orlowski, Alyssa Nagy, Kate Sikora, and Sophia Verhalen.

Miller's discipline is anthropology. "That is how we began the Primate Research initially, with captive studies at the Bronx Zoo and then in Central America," he said.

He has led expeditions into the rainforest for 15 years. Kittatinny received a Best Practice Award for the project from the New Jersey Department of Education.

Each student selects the mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, insect, or plant they will study.

"They have also begun an intense fitness regimen because the physical demands of the trip are prodigious," said Miller.

This spring the students will train by repeatedly climbing the steps of the High Point monument, said teacher-guide Alison Gely.

"It is one of the hardest physical challenges I have experienced," Gely said.

The most biologically diverse regionThe training prepares students for the trail up Mount Chirripo, a series of switchbacks requiring a commitment to cardio fitness prior to the trip. After Chirripo, students travel to the Las Alturas Biological Research Station, considered one of the most biologically diverse regions on earth, said Miller. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the top 20 places on the planet for biological importance.

The station is run by the Organization of Tropical Studies, a consortium of more than 60 universities and research institutions, including Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, Duke, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and the Smithsonian. Students begin census work using the Tazik Line Transect method, walking 100-meter transects plotted by GPS throughout the rainforest and measuring the relative populations of various species.

Students will meet scientists from all over the world. Miller said the expedition encourages students to pursue science as their life's work, and that many go on to earn doctorates. Students from previous expeditions have published more than 20 scientific papers in prominent research journals, Miller said.

Once work is completed at the Organization of Tropical Studies, students go on to the Osa Peninsula, the edge of the largest intact lowland rainforest in Central America. There, students continue their research using a new set of research transacts within new plots.

Miller said while students are on the peninsula, they'll measure how the lowland populations of their chosen species compare to those in the cloud forest.

"Osa is a biological wonderland," said Miller. "Endangered species like the scarlet macaw and the Costa Rican squirrel monkey are seen regularly, and nowhere else in Costa Rica can you see Baird's tapir on a daily basis or have a chance to see charismatic species like the white lipped peccary."

After a full cultural day in San Jose, students will return to the tristates with a wealth of information and a new set of college-ready skills, Miller said.

As he talked to parents and students during a recent meeting, he explained the itinerary, the required physical training, and the types of clothing and shoes to bring.

"Clothing and shoes must dry easily as sometimes students will be up to their knees in water crossing a creek," Miller said.

Miller's wife is the administrative assistant for the trip. Kris, as the only boy, will room with Miller.

Some of the students making the trip shared what brought them to do research in Costa Rica.

Kittatinny student Alyssa Nagy said in an email, "I did my paper on botflies but I'm actually studying snakes! (I was one of the girls holding a corn snake.) When I am older I want to be a pediatric oncologist or something else with research! I realized how much I love science over the summer studying for a few weeks at Johns Hopkins University. I am currently a junior and I play club soccer at Rutgers University. I am in national honors society and volunteer at small local organizations pretty often, like Healthy Kids running series over the summer :)"

Kathryn Merrill, a Kittatinny junior, told The Courier in an email, that she had Miller as a freshman, "and he would tell us about the amazing time he would have in Costa Rica and that if I wanted one year when he was having the trip, I could attend too! So once I heard about the trip I was so excited to ask my parents if I could go. My dad, who is also a teacher, has brought his class to Paris, France, so he knew how excited I was. I did my paper on the Coati, which is a raccoon-like mammal. Some day I would hope to be doing something in the medical field or something with biology!"

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