Organization for Tropical Studies

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Organization for Tropical Studies

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Home arrow Education arrow Undergraduate Program arrow Biology and Conservation arrow Tropical Biology Summer Program in Costa Rica
Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change and Human Health Semester Print
Semester in Costa Rica
Newly Revised Program Starting Fall 2015: Environmental & Human Health


Fall: August 17-December 1, 2015
Apply Now! - Scholarships still available!
Cost: $25,715

Download the Undergraduate Program Brochure APPLY NOW
If you are interested in a semester with a deadline that already passed, contact otsadmissions @ duke.eduor call us at 919-684-5155 for availability.

The OTS Global Health semester program in Costa Rica is being revised starting in the Fall 2015 semester to expand the focus of the program on the impacts of environmental change on the human health.  The revised program, Tropical Disease, Environmental Change, and Human Health, will explore the effects of environmental change including climate change, habitat fragmentation, and disruption of ecosystem services on the spread and severity of tropical diseases.

The program will continue to focus on research with local communities surrounding the three OTS field stations in Costa Rica.  We will work in both intact and altered ecosystems to assess disease transmission dynamics including insect and water vectors.  The Ethnobiology course explores the tradition use of plants by indigenous communities.  The program will visit Nicaragua to provide insights into health issues in another Central American country.

This course emphasizes both the biological nature of tropical diseases and the ecological and human health outcomes resulting from changes to ecosystem structure and functions. Instruction is based on the strengths and experience of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and our staff, and focuses on the highly respected OTS method of field-based, experiential learning.

The curriculum will focus on three major themes – the biology of tropical disease, disease and human health, ecosystem health and human health – which will be addressed through a series of lectures, labs, hands-on field experiences, and faculty-led research projects.  As the students are introduced to the biology of a broad array of tropical diseases, pathogens, and vectors, they will also learn of the ecological and human context in which they thrive. For example, when exploring the viral disease dengue, lectures and laboratory exercises will be used to teach students about its biology, evolution, and epidemiology and its mosquito vector. Through field visits and faculty-led research projects, the students will then explore the socio-economic and environmental determinants of transmission and demography of this emerging infectious disease.  Other types of lab exercises and field visits include measuring parasite loads in toads from disturbed and undisturbed habitats, quantifying microbial contamination of cell phones by hospital workers, evaluating impacts of arsenic on soil and water in rural communities, visiting rural health clinics in Nicaragua, and assessing environmental and health impact of pesticides in coffee plantations.

The program faculty will invite an array of scientists, professionals, and other experts to give students a wide array of perspectives and insights related to environmental and human health. By the end of the course, students will have a good understanding of how biological, environmental, and socio-economic factors contribute to our understanding of human health issues facing Costa Rica and the tropics today.

Optional post-semester clinical internship:  We are offering an exciting post-semester clinical internship opportunity for students who take the fall semester.  Participants will have a hands-on experience in a clinical environments in a small community in Costa Rica.  You will shadow local health care professionals and help to facilitate the operation of clinic days in underserved communities.  Specific details on this option will be available soon.

Program Highlights

  • Live and work in communities within many tropical ecosystems
  • Immerse yourself in the scientific, intercultural, and social aspects of global health, tropical medicine, public health, ethnobiology, and research
  • Visit numerous primary care facilities in both urban and rural areas, as well as research facilities, museums, market places, and agricultural farms
  • Explore the realities of access to both Western and traditional healthcare in indigenous territories throughout Costa Rica
  • Receive 16 credits as a study abroad student at Duke University
  • Work with experts and doctors on local health issues such as dengue epidemics and water quality
  • Learn about disparities in health care, public health campaigns, and the Costa Rican public and private healthcare systems by visiting and participating first-hand
  • Conduct research with environmental experts and health professionals on pressing local health issues such as biological, social and economic determinants of infectious diseases
  • Improve your Spanish abilities while living with a Costa Rican family, taking intensive conversational lessons, and interacting with local people in Spanish throughout the course
  • On the fun side, eat breakfast with toucans and monkeys, learn how to salsa dance, and enjoy midterm break traveling a tropical country on your own

Who is this program designed for?

  • Pre-meds and other students considering careers in public health or other health-related areas and students pursuing careers in biology and ecology
  • Hard workers ready to expand their perspective of environmental and human health on a global level
  • Students with an avid curiosity for new cultures and experiences

What do students do in this program?

  • Live and work with 2 resident professors and multiple invited faculty including health professionals
  • Visit multiple ecosystems including the three world famous OTS biological field stations to learn how ecosystem health impacts impact human health
  • Meet doctors and local health officials to understand medical issues in a down-to-earth way
  • Visit plantations (sugar, chocolate, pineapple, banana, etc.) and meet the farmers to hear their perspectives
  • Collect data for the local health authorities that is needed to address disparities in healthcare
  • Visit rural and urban clinics, large and small, and work with local health authorities to set up a rural clinic in Las Alturas
  • Participate in classes and discussions to build a strong foundation in the concepts of global health, research, and ethnobiology
  • Gain expertise in the ways that humans are impacting tropical ecosystems via climate change, habitat destruction, etc., what is being done about it on the ground, and the ways that those impacts influence human health

What Duke courses do students earn credit for in this program?

  • Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change and Human Health (BIO283A; 4 credits)
  • Research Practicum (BIO 281L; 4 credits)
  • Ethnobiology (BIO 282LA; 4 credits)
  • Culture and Language in Costa Rica (SP 92A; 4 credits; with an emphasis on medical Spanish)

Where does the course go?


Las Cruces Biological Station

  • Serves as a home base for the semester
  • Set up temporary clinic in rural community at nearby Las Alturas
  • Get to know the local Costa Rican and indigenous populations and their health needs
  • At the end of the semester, conduct 2 week research project in the community

La Selva Biological Station

  • Visit banana and pineapple plantations
  • Participate in house-to-house Dengue campaign with local clinic
  • Side trips to interact with traditional healers in indigenous territories

Palo Verde Biological Station

  • Work with local company doctors and researchers to explore water quality problems
  • Study irrigation impacts on human health and agriculture by touring the watershed

Masaya and Granada, Nicaragua

  • Live with a homestay family for a week in Masaya
  • Nicaraguan History and Culture. Three clinic days in local communities
  • Masaya market, visit San Juan de Oriente and experience Nicaraguan Verbenas in the evening
  • Compare healthcare and markets with those in Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica

  • Live with a homestay family for 3 weeks to improve Spanish skills
  • Visit local museums, hospital, and markets

Who are the professors?

The resident faculty for this program are experienced professionals in health related fields. As a student in this program you will learn, eat, work, laugh, and travel together with the professors and get to know each other very well. Students generally stay in contact with their OTS professors for years after the program.

  • Jessica Arias, M.Sc. (Semester Coordinator)
  • Nicolás López, M.D.
  • Hector Castaneda, Ph.D.

Invited faculty are the highlight of the program. You will have the opportunity to interact with well-known specialists in the field of ecosystem and human issues health research (human health, environmental health and wildlife health).

What are the prerequisites?

  • One semester of college-level biology or the equivalent by the start of the semester
  • One semester of college-level Spanish or other exposure to speaking Spanish (please contact otsadmissions @ for more detailed information)
  • Graduating seniors are eligible to participate the semester after they complete their coursework if they can stay enrolled at their home institution.One year of college-level biology or the equivalent by the start of the semester

What is the cost?

  • Tuition for OTS semester program: $23,825
  • Program fee: $1,850
  • Duke lifetime transcript fee: $40 (does not apply to Duke students)

Tuition and fees cover:

  • Housing and food at hotels, homestays, and research stations
  • Local travel to program sites
  • Participation of many local and international healthcare officials, public health researchers, doctors, and other experts
  • Laundry costs

Tuition and fees do not cover:

  • International travel
  • Independent travel
  • Incidentals
  • Personal spending

Is there any scholarship aid available?

Scholarships: OTS is committed to providing opportunities to all eligible students interested in participating in our programs. We make scholarship applications available to students upon acceptance into an OTS program and offer funding on a rolling basis. Applicants attending institutions that are members of the OTS consortium have priority, but all qualified applications will be considered. We have dedicated a substantial amount of funding to provide partial scholarships to students who need financial support. Apply early!

Non-Duke students: Please consult with the financial aid office at your institution or write to us at otsadmissions @

Duke students: Please consult with the Duke University Financial Aid Office.

What travel arrangements should I make for this program?

When you are accepted to the program, you will receive an orientation packet filled with information about how to prepare, including a packing list. All participants should plan to arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica by the evening of the first day of the semester program. Students must have a valid passport to participate. If you will be traveling to Costa Rica on a non-US passport, please contact otsadmissions @ to determine whether a Costa Rican visa will be necessary. For more information, please write to otsadmissions @

What is the payment schedule for the program?

  • Notice of acceptance made on a rolling basis.
  • Upon acceptance, $1000 deposit is required to confirm a place in the program (plus $40 Duke lifetime transcript fee for non-Duke students)
  • First payment of remaining tuition and fees is due 1-2 months prior to program start date.
  • Detailed payment information with amounts and due dates will be provided by the Duke University Bursar's Office.

I am interested, who can I talk to?

We would love to hear from you! If you are interested in this or any other OTS program please write to us at otsadmissions @ or call us at 919-684-5155. Duke students can also contact the Duke University Global Education Office for Undergraduates.

All applications will be considered without regard to race, color, national or ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation or preference, gender or age. The Organization for Tropical Studies and Duke University reserves the right to cancel this program. Should it do so, refunds will be made in accordance with the policy of the Duke University Global Education Office for Undergraduates.

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