High school students bring back valuable biology research from Costa Rica

Published: Jul. 21, 2023 at 7:06 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Even before the events of the last few years took place, there’s been a growing issue with how much antibiotics are prescribed and the need for new ones to help battle diseases. There’s ongoing research to learn more about the drugs, and those researchers are getting some help from South Dakota.

Sixteen high school students from southeastern South Dakota, ten from Harrisburg High School and six from other area schools, recently spent 10 days in Costa Rica. But it was more than a scenic trip. Instead, the students spent much of their time learning about the biology of the rainforest, and the insects that live there. Specifically, the students focused on leafcutter ants and their relationships with the fungus in the rainforest. That could be key in learning about new antibiotics, and helping with the medical crisis going on over much of the world.

The trip was put on by Seeds of Change, a non-profit aimed at interesting students in careers in STEM fields through programs like this. Harrisburg High School science teacher Andrew Koch helped lead the students during the trip, and said the students got to conduct research and test experiments that those much older than them normally do.

“I think for the kids, not only the experience of travel was really cool, but also the opportunity to really engage in scientific research in a way that most people don’t get to do until they’re 20, 21,” Koch said.

Some of Koch’s own students got to go on the trip, helping expand their own interest in biology with their own work. Harrisburg High School Senior Maddie Scott said science has been an interest of hers for a while, and after being a student in Koch’s class this year, a trip to do real research in Costa Rica was a perfect scenario.

“I really enjoy nature, and just all of the things that go with it. I liked that class a lot, and it as exciting to kind of finish out the year with something like Costa Rica,” Scott said.

Coming from different high schools, they had to come together as a team to work cohesively. But it didn’t take long for them to bond, according to Sioux Falls Lincoln High School Senior Clark Egland. While the students were there, they kept a blog for keeping others up on their research as well.

“It was kind of awkward with all of the Harrisburg kids. We didn’t really talk that much. But then around day three, it was a lot of fun and we were close and good friends,” Egland said.

Another lead on the trip was Augustana University Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Gubbels. Gubbels not only helped with the students research, but also wanted to bring some of that same information back to Augustana as they work to get their new bioinformatics major off of the ground.

“Then at the same time, they were taught by professors at the University of Costa Rica about the whole scientific process. About making observations, coming up with a hypothesis, conducting their own experiment,” Gubbels said.

This is the first group from South Dakota to go bioprospecting in Costa Rica, but Harrisburg High School Junior Emily Huggins said hopefully they won’t be the last.

“What we’re doing now is what kids in our state and maybe even across the nation could be doing in just a few years. Especially as we all had a great opportunity and experience, and it would be awesome to get to see other kids get the same experience,” Huggins said.

Not only did the kids get the experience of conducting real research, they also got college credit from Augustana. Associate Professor of Biology Carrie Olson-Manning said those skills will be useful if those students end up going into that new bioinformatics major, which is scheduled to launch this fall.

“That major, using computational skills in biology, is growing in every sector of biology. Whether it be healthcare or environmental,” Olson-Manning said.

This won’t be the one and only trip from South Dakota down to Costa Rica with Seeds of Change and Augustana University. The district is already organizing another trip, hopefully going down next year. As for the 16 students that just came back, their project isn’t done either. They’ll continue to dig into their research, and then present it to their peers and others at events coming up this fall.