Students in the Tropical Ecology Program discover the unique flora and fauna of the Galápagos—biology’s most famous archipelago.
Though smaller than the state of Nevada, Ecuador is among the most ecologically diverse countries in the world. Within its borders lie portions of untouched Amazonian rainforest, snow-capped peaks and lush valleys of the Andes, coastal swamps, white sand beaches—and the Galápagos Islands, the world’s most famous nature reserve.
“From an ecological point of view, Ecuador is an extraordinary place,” says Professor Thomas Kunz, director of the Arts & Sciences Center for Ecology & Conservation Biology, who chose the country for the semester-long study abroad program he began developing in the early 1990s. Launched in 1996, the BU Tropical Ecology Program (TEP) has since become extremely popular—many biology students say that the highly competitive program strongly influenced their decision to attend BU.
Twice a year, TEP gives approximately 15 high-achieving students an opportunity to perfect their Spanish and explore the biodiversity of Ecuador while earning 18 credits through Boston University and its partner institution, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. The highlights of each semester are a visit to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station—with its canopy tower providing 360-degree views of acres of pristine Amazonian rainforest—and a weeklong expedition to the Galápagos, the islands made famous by Charles Darwin and still prized for their extraordinary number of endemic species that exist nowhere else in the world.
Four years ago, Jaclyn Aliperti (CAS’10) chose Boston University because it offered her a chance to get off Long Island and out of New York. She had no idea how far out she’d eventually go.
The biology major spent a semester in Ecuador last year with BU’s Tropical Ecology Program, and during spring semester—her final semester before graduation—she’s been learning wildlife management in Kenya and Tanzania. “I love Boston University so much that it feels weird for me to say that I’m spending a quarter of my time away from campus,” Aliperti says. “But, obviously, I think it’s worth taking advantage of these amazing experiences BU has to offer me.”
During her semester in Ecuador, Aliperti combined lectures at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, near the country’s capital, with expeditions to the Pacific coast, the Galápagos Islands, and the Amazon rainforest. Visiting the Galápagos, she says, was a magical experience. “The Galápagos is like a Mecca for biology students. To see a blue-footed booby lift up his blue foot and start a mating dance—it sounds corny, but it’s a dream come true.”
The Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the Amazon offered its own brand of magic. “In the Galápagos, you can be standing right in front of the animals, and they’ll just go about their business. They don’t seem to mind that you’re right there,” she says. “But the rainforest is an adventure. You walk the trails, and you never know what you’re going to see. I spent a lot of time by myself in the rainforest because it’s the perfect place to take walks by yourself and explore and come back dirty.”
The rainforest is also where Aliperti began a love affair with bats. Throughout her time there, she assisted an Ecuadoran bat specialist with his research—netting, processing, and releasing the bats he was studying.
“To see a blue-footed booby lift up his blue foot and start a mating dance—it sounds corny, but it’s a dream come true.”
“When I left Ecuador, I was crying in the cab,” she says. “I had so many emotions mixed together. I was excited to go home, I was so sad to leave, and I was also really sad because I didn’t know when I was going to work with bats again.”
This spring, Aliperti temporarily traded Amazonian bats for African baboons. Thanks to a program offered by The School for Field Studies—an environmental education institute founded by BU Trustee Emerita Terry Andreas (COM’64) and accredited through BU—she’s been in southern Africa taking lessons in Swahili and studying the wildlife management methods used in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania. She’s also conducting field research that may benefit wildlife managers in the region. “This land is a natural migratory path for a lot of wild animals—elephants and giraffes and so forth—but at the same time, the locals want to use the land for tourism and agriculture,” she says. “They’re trying to find a proper balance, and I’m really looking forward to helping them.”
Aliperti hasn’t yet decided what she’ll do between her BU graduation and her eventual enrollment in graduate school. Fieldwork with Professor Thomas Kunz, CAS’s resident bat expert? A job in a biodiversity station back in Ecuador? A stint as a national park ranger in the western United States? They’re all appealing, and they’re all strong possibilities. When she enrolled at BU, Aliperti thought she wanted to become a veterinarian, but her studies have broadened her interests beyond dogs and cats, she says. “I’ve figured out so much about myself—and half of that is just that I’ve realized I want to explore everything.”
BU Abroad: Finding the Galápagos
Jaclyn Aliperti (CAS’10) explains why the Galápagos Islands are every naturalist’s must-see.