UA students travel abroad for summer research opportunity in Tahiti


By Brandon Caster, Correspondent

Opportunity awaits the aspiring life scientist who studies abroad.  

Nestled in the Bermuda Triangle lies the island of Tahiti, a French Polynesian island that is bustling with tropical wildlife just waiting to be discovered.  

This summer, University of Akron students will have the research opportunity of their lifetime when travelling to Tahiti for a two-week class instructed by Dr. Richard Londraville and Dr. Peter Niewiarowski.  

From May 22 to June 4, life science students at UA will design and conduct their very own experiments at the Criobe Station in Tahiti.  

This travel experience counts as a four-credit hour summer class and allows students to be recognized as authors of a scientific paper. According to Londraville, some students use the class as a way to complete their honors project.

UA students walking through forest in Tahiti

 Londraville believes the benefits of this research opportunity extend further than just the extra credits.  

He describes it as a “rare opportunity to go through the whole research process in a short time.” According to Londraville, this process includes finding a question, collecting data, discovering data’s meaning and writing a paper for sharing the research with other scientists.  

Before traveling to Tahiti, certain preparations are necessary. The group will meet weekly before the trip to work on a hypothesis and to design their research projects.  

Total expenses will come in at roughly $3500 a person and $1500 of the total is due at the end of the current semester. Study abroad scholarship opportunities are available to interested honors students to help offset the cost. 

While the $3500 covers most expenses, it does not cover food and tuition expenses for the summer semester class. Although refunds are possible, they aren’t guaranteed. 

Dr. Randy Mitchell, professor of ecology at The University of Akron, said that students always seem to come back with good things to say about the experience. 

“I’ve heard great things from students who’ve gone on past iterations of this trip,” he said. “Many of them develop projects into posters for the annual Biology research symposium, and even into published papers.” 

Mitchell noted that students just “can’t stop talking about the adventures, experiences, surprises, and friendships they developed during the immersive experience.” 

While in Tahiti, students will be busy developing skills as research scientists. Collecting samples, conducting experiments, implementing scientific procedures and teamwork are just some of the skills one can develop during this research trip.  

Since the research projects are based on the study of tropical vertebrates, it only makes sense that students will have the opportunity to dive into the deep blue to collect samples or observe specimens.  

Students will be allowed to dive up to 10 times for free, which Londraville says is important since dives in Tahiti typically cost $100 each time you go out. Students are only required to get their diver certification before traveling to Tahiti if they plan on diving for their research project.  

If diving doesn’t appeal to students, then they can choose to study terrestrial tropical animals. Students will go on hikes through the tropical rainforests and learn to safely capture or study a species of their choice. 

Some items that will be useful for hikes include band aids, sunscreen, a water bottle, a flashlight, a hat and bug repellent. Fins and water shoes will be useful to those who choose to dive. It is also important for students to bring laptops with Skype in order to work on their projects, compile data and communicate with other students.  

The curriculum to receive four credits in Tahiti is rigorous but is not exam oriented. The coursework is a group grade with the exception of some natural history presentations at night. In just two weeks, students are expected to complete the entire scientific research process and then produce a paper for publication. 
Niewiarowski mentions that they usually “need more hands than what they have,” so students will be busy at all times, either completing tasks for their own research projects or helping others  complete tasks.  

Although students will be busy at work for much of the trip, that doesn’t mean there won’t be time for some rest and relaxation. On their off time, students can go on hikes through the tropical rainforest, attend Luaus, purchase ornamentals and souvenirs, tour facilities and participate in sightseeing. 

With this research opportunity, students will learn what it is about the natural sciences that interests them. Londraville believes that this trip isn’t just a research opportunity but an experience for students to interact with the natural world.  

Londraville’s driving force for becoming a zoological research scientist is that he “very much wanted to figure out how organisms solve problems,” and that “by learning how organisms deal with an environmental challenge . . . we can learn so much about how we work as organisms.” Londraville also noted that he “just really likes fish.” 

UA students group photo in Tahiti
A previous study abroad trip. Photo courtesy of University of Akron.

“Field research and travel are some of the best ways to really learn things. Classrooms can only get you so far, but a deep understanding usually requires applying or testing those concepts in studies of your own design,” Mitchell says. 

Any students interested in this research opportunity can reach out to either Londraville ([email protected]) or Niewiarowski ([email protected]). The group will be meeting weekly before the summer trip to develop research projects and discuss any further details.