While many Yalies will head south this spring break, 15 will miss out on beaches to venture into the jungles of South America and forage for fungi.
“Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory,” MB&B 230b, is a science seminar taught by chemistry professor Scott Strobel, along with professors Carol Bascom-Slack and Kaury Kucera. As they have for the past five years, students in the class will travel to the Amazon rain forest, where they will procure plants that contain fungal specimens and bring them back to New Haven. Students will then spend the rest of the semester and the summer working with the fungi in a laboratory setting, researching real-world uses for compounds that the fungi produce.
“I’m really excited about doing the lab techniques that I already know in a different context,” said Meredith Redick ’14, a student in the class. “I’m going to be able to see how everything I’ve learned in classes applies in real life.”
Since the semester began, students — generally science majors with no particular background in fungi — have received what Giovanni Forcina ’14 describes as a “crash course” in botany. He said they have learned about plant systematics, different plant families and the history of the native people in the rain forest they will be visiting.
Strobel said that students must focus their research on a “theme,” such as poisons used by natives to kill fish or plants that stop hemorrhaging. Neither Redick nor Forcina has chosen a theme yet, though discussion of possible themes and their research implications has been a major part of the class so far.
Former student Zach Belway ’13 said that fungi are not well-studied, especially endophytic fungi, which are fungi that live inside plants which they have a symbiotic relationship.
“Because of this relationship, there’s a very high probability that they are producing something interesting,” he said.
Trip preparation has also dealt with the medical dangers posed by the Amazon, Strobel said. A nurse spoke to the class about staying healthy in the rain forest, and students will be prescribed antimalarial medication and immunized against yellow fever.
Redick said she is nervous about the risk of mosquito-borne infection, and Emily Yin ’13, who took the class last year, admitted she had been nervous before the trip. Yin recalled one close call from her trip when a student almost stepped on a deadly snake, which even frightened their guide.
This year’s trip will be the sixth since Strobel began teaching the class in 2007, and it will be similar to last year’s trip with only a slightly modified itinerary. For example, this year’s trip will spend more time in Yasuni National Forest, Strobel said, which he described as “the hottest of the hot spots for biodiversity” in South America.
In addition to the rain forest, the students will visit an old-growth cloud forest, Strobel said.
“Walking through the rain forest, [there are] really tall trees and you’re walking through a barren area underneath where there’s no sun and just falling leaves,” Strobel said. “In the cloud forest, everything’s growing on top of everything else because most of the water is collected not through roots but through the mist that’s in the air. Everything is covered with bromeliads and orchids.”
Yin chose abortives and contraceptives as her theme. On Feb. 1, she and other former students spoke to this year’s class about their experience in order to help current students to choose their themes. Yin chose her theme after consulting ethnobiological texts, which describe how native peoples use various plants.
Ultimately Yin abandoned her theme of contraceptives because the fungi that she obtained on the trip did not enable her to do such work. Instead, she researched the effects of different compounds on zebra fish development in the lab of molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Scott Holley, a project begun by another former student of the class.
According to Yin, it is common for students to spend the second half of the semester and the summer doing research that is not directly related to their planned themes, as a result of difficulties finding desired plants in the jungle. One strategy is to bring laminated cards with information about the plants they are seeking to the rainforest with them, but this is not always enough to collect the expected 25 specimens, Yin said.
Moreover, she said, the endophytes, fungi that live inside of a plant and are the object of the class’s inquiry, are not always responsible for the observed functionality of a given plant.
Belway’s initial theme was plants that purify their environment, and he ended up researching organic molecules that bind to iron in the hope of discovering molecules that could bind to pollutant metals.
Even if many students don’t stick with their themes, the process of searching for particular plants makes for a more enriching experience, Strobel said.
“Exploring [the rain forest] becomes a much more interesting exercise into seeing this huge diversity in front of you and saying ‘It’s not just all green, I’m looking for something that has a particular feature, a particular flower, a particular leaf,’” he said.
In the past, the trip has discovered an average of one new genus per student. Redick said this statistic was intimidating, adding that she wouldn’t want to be the only student to fail to discover one.
Students are admitted to the course by application.