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Students conduct summer research in Puerto Rico, Cuba

Barry McNamara
06/25/2014
These Monmouth College students paused for a break while conducting summer research on Isla Mona in Puerto Rico. Another group of Monmouth students spent 10 days on a research trip to Cuba. Both trips, which were designed to be transformative learning experiences that took students out of their comfort zone, included biology professor James Godde, who then headed to India as part of his very busy summer. Pictured above are, from left, Maxwell Holle, Amanda Hanks, Connor McGuane, Nick Olson, Andrea Gasow, Anthony Larios, Tom Lawson and Corey Yost.
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Mere hours after the college’s last final exams of the spring semester on May 14, Monmouth College biology professor James Godde was on a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with eight students for a research trip.
        
The group returned to the U.S. one week later, but Godde soon departed again, leading eight more students to Cuba on a 10-day trip that concluded June 4. Other faculty members on that interdisciplinary trip included modern foreign languages chair Tim Gaster, English chair Marlo Belschner and Dan Ott, assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies.
        
“Cuba is a beautiful, complex and fascinating country, and this opportunity allowed us a glimpse of its struggles and its potential,” said Belschner. “The two students who were working with me, Stevie Croisant and Alex Hernandez-Sotelo, interviewed the representative from the Federation of Cuban Women, and learned so much about gender issues in Cuba. They constantly sought information about these issues as we traveled throughout western Cuba. I am very pleased with their work and focus, and I am confident that the experience had a huge impact on them – as it did on me.”
        
Lauren Kellen, a senior biology major from Mendota, felt the same way about her time conducting scientific research in Cuba.
        
“The whole trip was a fantastic adventure,” she said. “It was quite the experience to venture through another country and learn their customs. The ecosystem and environment were beautiful.”
        
The group saw such sites as Orquidiario Soroa (an orchid garden), Havana cathedrals and a variety of caves, including Cuevas de Bellmar and the prehistoric mural at the Cuevas del Indio near Vinales.
        
Kellen even passed along a little knowledge about Cuba’s caves, one of the “fascinating” bits of information she acquired from the “passionate” guides.
        
“The calcium carbonate stalagmites and stalactites grow constantly, and you can tell by the constant dripping of water,” she said. “The dripping signifies that the cave is alive.”
        
Kellen, a high-scoring forward on the women’s soccer team, enjoyed speaking the “universal language” of her sport.
        
“One night that we had downtime, I went for a run into the city and found a group of boys playing soccer. I used the little Spanish I know to ask if I could play and had a blast. It was a really cool cultural experience.”
        
One of Kellen’s teammates, Rachael Landrey, a junior elementary education major from Wonder Woods, was also on the trip.
        
“My favorite academic part of the trip was visiting the Presbyterian church, and my favorite fun part was going snorkeling,” she said. “It was a great learning experience, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to go.”
        
The students and faculty were able to experience both rural and urban Cuba because of the generosity of Stan ’63 and Karen Barrett Chism ’65.
        
“The interdisciplinary focus on the trip to Cuba was, in my opinion, the full realization of the generous donors to the program, the Chisms, who have a deep passion for undergraduate research and interdisciplinary teaching and learning,” said David Timmerman, dean of MC’s faculty.
       
The dean was referring to a recent gift to Monmouth College of $50,000, presented in conjunction with Stan’s 50th class reunion, which funded a new academic initiative, the Off-Campus Learning Experience Program (OCLEP).
        
“I’ve found that it is often these trips with faculty members, and the extended conversations that take place during the travel and at the sites, that are some of the most transformative experiences for students,” said Timmerman. “They become the catalyst points where all their prior learning fuses.”
        
Nick Olson, a senior chemistry and physics major from Genoa, agreed with Timmerman about his time in Puerto Rico.
        
“Simply being out of my comfort zone for the better part of the trip was transformative,” he said. “The whole trip was a huge change from what I’ve experienced in the past three years at Monmouth, and it has caused a change in my thinking. As my first major travel experience, I wouldn’t want it to have gone any differently.”
        
The group camped in such spots as the El Yunque Rainforest and Playa Pajaros, and also did a lot of hiking. They had an early wake-up call for a 3 a.m. chartered boat trip to Isla Mona, where they did much of their biological research.
        
“I took the wilderness ecosystems class, and that meant I read about what we could find on Isla Mona before traveling there,” said senior biochemistry major Andrea Gasow of Mt. Zion. “It was amazing seeing everything that I read about spread out in front of me. It’s an interesting island with both desert conditions and tropical wilderness in one, something you wouldn’t expect. Huge cacti are just a few feet from the large palm trees that line the shore. There are still train tracks around the island from the guano mining that took place there years ago.”
        
Some of the plant life that Olson discovered couldn’t have come at a better time, while another provided a memorable distraction.
        
“During our scorching hike on the third day on Isla Mona, someone pointed out the plentiful aloe plants growing on the side of our trail,” he recalled. “Those who were sunburned broke off some leaves and smeared the gel all over their skin, myself included. That was a huge relief.”
        
The day before, Olson said, “about four of us became obsessed with opening the coconuts that were laying all around our campsite. Using sharp rocks that we found, it took about two hours per person to open just one coconut. However, the coconut milk payoff was worth it. Plus, Professor Godde got to eat a ton of coconut.”
        
Gasow’s home is not far from the city lights of Decatur, so she got a whole new perspective when the sun went down.
        
“Since there are no lights on the island, the stars are extremely visible,” she observed. “I’ve never seen anything so remarkable in the night sky as I did on Isla Mona. It is definitely an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. This was a once in a lifetime trip, and I’m so glad that I took this opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico with Professor Godde.”
        
Anyone hoping to drop by Monmouth College’s new Center for Science and Business this summer and catch Godde in his office is probably not going to be successful. Following the Puerto Rico and Cuba trips, Godde left the country yet again to participate in the ASIANetwork Faculty Enhancement Program titled “India: Religion, Globalization and the Environment.”