Transformative Travel: Discovering Your Inner Scientist

From snorkeling with whale sharks in Australia to attending a pig roast at a little hillside farm on the Isle of Youth, taking a summer field research course at Florida Tech isn’t your typical study abroad program.

More than half of American college students choose Europe as their summer study abroad destination. But Florida Tech students get a hands-on, up-close experience conducting real research while on a one-of-a-kind adventure that gives them a distinct edge after graduation. Through field surveys, scientific diaries and project reports, some students go on to present their research at scientific meetings or even publish it.

Far from ordinary, Florida Tech offers incredibly unique journeys to places, including the Pacific Northwest, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Peru, the Andes and the Amazon Rainforest, the Galápagos Islands and Cuba, among others.

Explore the rugged Oregon Coast, where students can survey salt marshes, tour temperate rainforests, take in tide pools, climb cliffs, meander through mudflats, search sea lion caves and delve into deep-sea biology on a research cruise.

“Time and again over the last two decades of my involvement, I have seen many students wake up to their potential in science and research,” said professor Kevin Johnson. “This is the moment when they stop feeling like just students fulfilling assignments and become anxiously engaged scientists with a sincere interest in what they are doing.”

For marine biology students who want a leg up in this highly competitive field, Marine Mammals of the Pacific Northwest allows them to observe seals and otters in their natural environments and get so close to a gray whale, they can see the shape formed by the mist exhaled through its blowhole.

Cassidy Myers, a marine biology and biomedical sciences student, said her participation in the course sets her apart when applying for internships in the marine mammal field.

“We rowed into town one night and witnessed bioluminescence in the water. It was something I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” Myers said. “Taking this course was something I will never forget, and if I could take it again, I would do it in a heartbeat.”

Ph.D. student Louis Penrod won’t soon forget his experience either. During his field course in Cuba, he captured the first ever video of a bonefish larva in the wild—a video that is now used in scientific conferences.


Associate professor Jonathan Shenker has taken students throughout the world on summer field courses, including two field sites in Cuba. Next, his class will head to a little island on Lighthouse Reef Atoll on the edge of the barrier reef in Belize.

Experience total immersion into the culture and terrain of Puerto Rico. Scuba dive or snorkel, then explore unique features of island biogeography like waterfalls, caves, rainforests and dry forests. Students even help with local research and monitor an important marine reserve, the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve in Rincon.


Molly Kingston, a biological science student, took a course in Peru for paleoecology research. By horse and by hike, the students finally reached their destination: Laguna Huayabamba. They were rewarded with some interesting finds, including ancient wall paintings and a cave filled with mummies.

“I will forever be grateful for the experience that made me push my limits and taught me new things,” Kingston said.

Go totally off the beaten trail in the Galápagos Islands. Hike a volcano, then make your way through both lush green and arid landscapes as you visit six islands, three with an indigenous population and three uninhabited. Observe sea lions, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, giant tortoises and sleeping sharks.

Archaeo-ecology of the Andes Amazon introduces students to the incredible cultural and biological diversity of the area. Visit Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Inca. Search the cloud forest for a wooly monkey before taking boats through the Amazon rainforest. In the lowlands, visit a Machiguenga village and spend several nights in the protected zone of the Manu Biosphere Reserve—possibly the most biologically intact area anywhere in Amazonia.

“To walk through an Amazonian forest at night or to encounter a giant tortoise on a trail is just unforgettable,” said professor Mark Bush. “The experience may completely change a student’s perspective on what fires their imagination—a lightbulb going off in their head. For some, who have never experienced a long hike in rubber boots or sleeping in a thatch hut under a mosquito net or done a 10-mile hike on a volcano, the adventure and sense of accomplishment boosts their confidence in a way that no other class can.”

Learn more about Florida Tech’s summer field research courses.

This article was featured in the 2019 print edition of Ad Astra Magazine.
Read the digital version here. 

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