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Fieldwork in Costa Rica

While conducting research in Costa Rica, this conservation geneticist also watches God order his steps. by Monica M. Jones

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Whether from marshes in DuPage County or from lakes, swamps, and rivers in Costa Rica, freshwater turtles that face potential challenges in their environment have been a focus for Dr. Rodney Scott, associate professor of genetics. By analyzing the DNA of these turtles, he hopes to contribute to their long-term survival.

In the work he has done in Illinois, Dr. Scott has studied mating patterns in the endangered species, Blanding’s turtles, since making the transition to conservation genetics about six years ago. “I felt that in order to do science for the benefit of God’s creation, I wanted to find a project with a much more direct application to my work,” he says. Having taught at Wheaton since 1989 and conducted research in the field of botany during most of that time, Dr. Scott moved from basic research to more applied research. For the past several years, he and his students have worked with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County to gather blood samples from baby Blanding’s turtles for DNA analysis.

Two years ago while in Costa Rica, Dr. Scott connected with the biology department chair at the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR) who, after hearing of his research, encouraged him to come back on sabbatical.

That opportunity was realized in early 2012 when Dr. Scott returned to Costa Rica, on sabbatical sponsored by a Wheaton Alumni Association Faculty Grant, the administration of Wheaton College, an Aldeen grant, and a Fulbright grant. He worked at the university for five and half months, on three different research projects in conservation genetics.

Project 1

In his first project, Dr. Scott examined the DNA of two species of freshwater turtles to evaluate how closely the two species are related to one another. In the past and among some scientists still today, the two species were considered to be different subspecies of a single species. Dr. Scott recently received the DNA samples he collected in Costa Rica (after a long wait to obtain the necessary permits to have them shipped), and he hopes to complete this project by the end of summer in 2013. He says, “These freshwater turtles have never been studied this way, and even though Costa Rica is still a very natural place, there’s a lot of development going on. Scientists need to be able to figure out in more detail what genetic conditions exist in populations of all sorts of animals in Costa Rica.”

Project 2

The second project involves trying to identify genetic markers that will function with nine freshwater turtle species in Costa Rica. UCR colleagues will collect specimens from turtles in Costa Rican zoos and forward those DNA samples to Dr. Scott who plans on having Wheaton students help test the samples. He hopes to have sufficient results to publish a small paper on the study in the next two years. Looking at what molecular markers will work with these species “will open the door for me, some of my students, and even the wider community to do work that hasn’t been done before,” he says.

Project 3

Dr. Scott’s third project developed organically. A UCR graduate student was extracting DNA from macaw feathers. A Fulbright grant student at a different location who was working on a project with toucans e-mailed Dr. Scott to see if he had any use for the leftover toucan feathers. Dr. Scott and the UCR graduate student gathered molecular markers that have been shown to work in woodpeckers and started testing those on the toucan DNA. Dr. Scott is serving as a consultant on the project that is still in development stages, but has yielded some promising results. He hopes this project will conclude in the next year or two, and he plans to contribute to writing the results for publication.

Before heading to Costa Rica, Dr. Scott contacted a number of biological supply companies and secured more than $10,000 worth of donations of chemical reagents and equipment vital to his work. Getting the donated supplies to Costa Rica proved to be a more creative task: connecting with Wheaton alumni working in a Christian school in Costa Rica to pick up supplies that were dropped off by a missions team from College Church, and picking up items from the American Embassy. Dr. Scott donated all the leftover supplies to UCR, including a PCR thermal cycler used to amplify DNA. “Here at Wheaton it’s something that’s really not hard for us to come by,” he says. “But in Costa Rica the programs are not well supported, so it really felt good to be able to leave something that would help that lab be more productive.”

While on the trip, Dr. Scott also visited the University of Georgia field station at Monteverde and lectured at the Whitworth University Costa Rica Center, catching up with former Wheaton faculty member Dr. Lindy Scott who now serves as a director at Whitworth. While at the two campuses, Dr. Scott hoped to find out ways Wheaton might interact with the institutions in the future. After discovering that Wheaton’s Spanish department will use the Whitworth campus for the Wheaton in Costa Rica trip in May 2013, Dr. Scott is now working to see if he might take several biology students on that trip as well.

Back at Wheaton, Dr. Scott appreciates being able to bring a deeper level of enthu- siasm into the classroom. Reflecting on the trip he says, “At different steps along the way, there were choices that I made and things I pursued that, for whatever reason, I feel as though God was at work directing me.”

The opportunity to work in another culture sparked fresh insights. He says, “In Costa Rica, a lot of times things don’t go according to plan. A machine breaks down that’s crucial to your research, and you just have to wait and see what’s going to happen.

“I think in Western culture we find ourselves often trying to live our lives as though we have control over everything,” he says, adding that he appreciates these “good lessons.”

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