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Organization for Tropical Studies


Celebrating more than 50 years, OTS is a consortium of about 50 universities, colleges, and research institutions from seven countries on four continents. OTS’ mission is to provide leadership in education, research, and responsible use of natural resources in the tropics. Our purpose is to sustain our tropical ecosystems by driving scientific discovery and knowledge, by enriching human perception of nature and by enhancing worldwide policy actions in the tropics.


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Yes, I recommend this program

An Adventurous Summer in Costa Rica

This course was terrific! We had learning experiences both outside and inside the classroom. During our stay in Costa Rica, we visited four biological stations. We went on multiple hikes, during which our professor gave us mini-lectures based on the interesting plants and animals we saw. We also attended lectures given by other scientists working at the biological stations and learned about their research. For faculty-led projects, we had the opportunity to work closely with experienced researchers. We also practiced writing scientific papers and giving presentations. Besides, there were plenty of fun activities—watching alligators, catching bats with mist nets, observing quetzal birds, to name a few. Words can never do justice to the wonders I saw in Costa Rica. I would highly recommend this program to anyone interested in nature and science!

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
We saw a termite nest during one of the hikes, and our professor persuaded us to eat termites. Surprisingly, they tasted like peanut butter!
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Yes, I recommend this program

Field Ecology Rocks!

This inexperienced Detroit girl found the loves of her life during her OTS graduate summer course in Costa Rica. I was going to be a cell biologist, spouted 10 reasons why a woman should never marry, and was NOT going somewhere with spiders. And bugs! Hmmm. I became a tropical field ecologist, married a Costa Rican naturalist, and got a PHD in Entomology. Well, well. I guess you can say that an OTS/OET course can change your life. Yes! 40 years of great adventures. Recently retired (Professor Emerita), I bought a small piece of land near Corcovado National Park where I conducted my individual research project for my course in 1978. Life is good.

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
We ecologists from the 1970s, I’ve heard are famous for “ putting everything in our mouths.” Indeed, our instructors, and so we, used our senses - we tasted leaves, bark, fruits, ants, whatever. It’s not a great idea.... thus the teasing from the more sophisticated students we later took out into the forest.
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Yes, I recommend this program

A semester of a lifetime

After nearly twenty-four hours of travel, I landed in the Johannesburg Airport. My excitement overcame my nerves while driving to the backpacker’s hotel to meet my twelve new classmates for the next three months. Recollecting on this moment, I could not have comprehended how these people, brought together from around the United States and South Africa would soon become so much more than my classmates. They are my collaborators, supporters, and incredible friends.

The Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative (SSLI) in Skukuza, Kruger National Park was our home and base location for the program. Though safely surrounded by a fence, we fell asleep and woke to the calls of hyenas and lions in the distance, showered in the presence of kudu and waterbuck, and consciously protected our bananas from the local vervet monkeys. Our lectures on savanna ecology, evolution, or statistical analyses supplemented the knowledge we gained while working in the field. In groups of three to four we completed long-term research projects with topics ranging from microplastic pollution in river systems to differences in the species richness of birds between sites of varying levels of controlled herbivory.

We left the park and drove to the village of Venda in the north east corner of South Africa. In groups of three we said goodbyes to our friends and departed for four days in rural homestays. Equipped with my camera, two pairs of clothes, and a toothbrush I walked through the gate into our homestay family’s yard in the Sanari village. For the next four days we learned to cook traditional meals of pap with spinach or mopane worms, collected and carried wood (on our heads) from the bush, and spent many hours each day playing with over fifty local kids. Each night we fell asleep on hand woven grass mats and woke to the rooster’s call and the chiming of goat bells. Even with a wonderful translator, language remained a barrier, but the human ability to connect over a smile or gesture became profound. Being surrounded by people filled with generosity, pride, joy, and an incredibly rich sense of community has touched me in ways I have yet to realize.

My time in South Africa with OTS was informative, fun, and truly life changing. I highly recommend this program for anyone with a sense of adventure, love for learning, and drive to connect to people and nature alike.

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
You may think 3 months is a long time. It's not. Get up early, go on every game drive, take walks when you can, and get to deeply know your fellow classmates, instructors, and support staff. Make every day worthwhile! Push yourself to try new things (like rock climbing or eating mopane worms), engage fully, and learn all that you can because you are surrounded by incredible people and places.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Tropical Biology Field Course in Costa Rica (Organization for Tropical Studies)

Excellent course , full of wonderful experiences, learning, nature and great people. I think this is a vey good opportunity to learn a lot of basic and very important ecological aspects of tropical environments and put your hands in the ground, I mean, having the opportunity to practice what you learn inmediatelly in a natural environment. Costa Rica is a beautiful country and the natural reserves of the Organization for Tropical Studies are just amazing.
Teachers are great and I think that having the chance to meet people very passionate about nature from all over the world and is wonderful. I think it could be nice to have one day per week as free time for resting a little because sometimes the activities performed were physically exhausting.

What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
For me, it was amazinf to have the opportunity to watch Quetzal birds and very beautiful and full of color venemous frogs!!!
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Yes, I recommend this program

OTS Costa Rica Summer Biology

This was a really fun program. Only six students and two leaders were in the program, which was a little intimidating at first, but ultimately it made us all rather close. The course was somewhat loose, with us doing different activities every day, but was anchored in three research projects at each of the main research stations. I liked this approach, because it allowed for a lot of exploration and asking questions.

Overall, I feel like I learned a lot. I think I would have preferred having a few more people on the trip, but otherwise, I really enjoyed it.

What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
We saw two scorpions mating! It was really incredible.


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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose this program after I studied abroad with OTS in summer of 2017, as a student of their Costa Rica program. With fieldwork at my lab coming to an end as we transitioned to the winter season, I decided to ditch the cold for more experience in ecology in South Africa. Additionally, I wanted to build my network with professors and other undergraduates that were just as passionate about ecology/evolution as I was, all while being able to see the wild side of the world by studying in a tropical ecosystem.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The program lasted for 99 days in my 2019 program, so the headquarters in North America assisted me with obtaining a visa through the South African Embassy by providing detailed instructions and materials to successfully apply for one.

In terms of what to bring and what to expect, the official site provides a syllabus, an orientation packet, and the provider organizes a call with all students and South African professors where professors guide students through what the program will feel like, what to bring, and answer any questions students may have.

The orientation packet provides a very detailed packing list that covers recommended, essential, and optional items to bring to your study abroad, even breaking it down to the exact number that's recommended, as the list was created as suggestions from students and professors of the program.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Be adventurous by taking every opportunity you can to explore the park and South Africa. Eat mopani worms, go on game drives, and do hikes when you can, because you're going to miss them when the 3 month program flies by and you find yourself on the flight home just like that. Our professors will tell you on the first few days of the program that as a student studying abroad with OTS, you are in a very privileged situation.

You will primarily be studying at Kruger National Park, the largest national park in South Africa, where many researchers dream to study. However, through OTS, you have the permits and permissions to do research, like studying in restricted areas of the park where rhinos are present.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

The program does not really have a *set* schedule, but professors give detailed breakdowns of schedules in advance.

A typical field day has students waking up bright and early at 6AM to pack a lunch, eat breakfast, and prepare equipment and yourselves for fieldwork. Fieldwork can last up to 6-8 hours, but the company and research make it worthwhile. Instructional days usually have students wake up at 8AM with lectures until about 4PM (breaks included!).

Free days are offered, with students being able to organize activities with the help of professors outside national parks.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was being abroad so far away from home.

I've been to Costa Rica, but going across the globe was a bit terrifying, as the time zone difference was much more pronounced and I was away from friends and family. Also, not being able to communicate as readily with these people, as I was operating in places without internet at times. However, connecting with professors and other students that were in the same boat as me and immersing myself in being in some of the best places for ecological research was worth it.

I still miss the breathtaking views, the star-ladled skies where galaxies could be seen, and game drives even 3 months after the end of the program.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Lisa Nupen

Job Title
Lecturer and Researcher
Lisa is an evolutionary biologist with strong interests in marine ecology, vertebrate behaviour, wildlife disease, and conservation genetics. She has worked on a variety of vertebrate taxa, primarily seabirds, reptiles, and primates.
Lisa Nupen

What is your favorite travel memory?

I love the ocean and have spent lots of time snorkeling and SCUBA-diving in southern Africa. A few years ago in Mozambique, I was lucky enough to encounter whale sharks while free-diving. Their immense size and gentle grace in the water was mind-bending and deeply humbling. It was magical to spend a few minutes alone with them in the water. More recently, I visited Madagascar and saw leaf-tailed geckos for the first time – they are the best animals in the world!

How does your role have a positive impact on the experience of international students on your program?

I think that the most adventurous, enthusiastic and driven students choose to come to South Africa for their semester abroad. We spend a lot of time together and learn from each other throughout the 100-day programme. I hope that being here teaches students effective problem-solving skills, instills an authentic appreciation for nature and ecology and that they can accomplish anything if they are determined to do it!

What do you enjoy most about working with international students?

I enjoy witnessing the astounding transformations that take place during their time in South Africa. For many students, their semester abroad is their first extended period away from home, and they learn important things about themselves, and about the world around them.

I love the diversity of views and fresh ideas that arise during fieldwork and class discussions. We have interesting discussions around the fire about conservation, music, culture, philosophy and travel. Staying connected to the “hip” world of 20-somethings is also fun and invigorating. I often joke that I am a lecturer, doctor, driver, and parent all rolled into one person!

What makes your program a great place to study abroad?

South Africa is amazing! And our course is a real opportunity to challenge yourself and experience true transformative learning. We visit a great variety of sites, from big oceans to big mountains, and of course, big-five country.

You will certainly be out of your comfort zone for at least some of the time – which is when the best kind of learning happens. However, you are always safe and accompanied by attentive staff – which makes this a uniquely great environment for personal and academic growth. We try to remove tension and competition from the learning space and encourage creativity and agency.

What makes Kruger National Park a great place to study abroad?

Kruger National Park is a great place to learn about conservation in Africa because it has an excellent track record of putting conservation science into practice.

Our research projects feed into the real-world management of the Park and we assist conservation authorities with wildlife monitoring and research throughout the 100-day programme. This means that our work is valuable, and we hold students to high standards.

This is an academically demanding program, which will challenge you at every level – but it is made easier by the fact that you are immersed in wild spaces – waking up to game-drives and elephants and falling asleep to the sounds of hyenas and bush-babies. You will never be bored!

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in creating an excellent experience for study abroad students?

I don’t think that we can “create” an experience for students – the effort they put in is what really makes a course great. We can facilitate learning and personal growth by providing a safe space that is conducive – through exposing students to other ways of life and to new experiences.

Studying abroad should help you broaden your knowledge about the world, reflect on your place in it and (re)consider your worldview.

Accomplishing this is a collaboration with each new class.

Professional Associations

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