Jesse Hollister, a political science major at the School of General Studies at Columbia University, spent part of the summer of 2010 in Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic, participating in the Summer Ecosystem Experiences for Undergraduates (SEE-U), a summer study program offered by the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.
CERC builds environmental leadership and emphasizes the essential role of the natural world in sustainable development through the synthesis of research, applied research and education. SEE-U provides students with the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in unique natural settings and to participate in a combination of classroom lectures and lab work. SEE-U provides undergraduate students of all majors from all accredited colleges and universities with a global understanding of ecology and environmental sustainability.
Jesse’s advisor suggested the program to him as a means of fulfilling his core science requirements. Jesse’s time with the five-week SEE-U program proved to be a career plan-altering experience. He had been planning to become a lawyer, and still does, but after his time studying in Punta Cana, he now knows that he will want to specialize in environmental work. The SEE-U Program in the Dominican Republic was taught by Dr. Jenna Lawrence.
“Had I visited as a tourist, I could have traveled to Punta Cana and easily remained ignorant to the environmental issues that affect the Caribbean: I would have seen clean beaches and blue water and been lulled into the assumption that everything was “fine.” As a participant in SEE-U, however, not only did I have access to eye-opening instruction in the classroom but I then was able to go out into the field and see the effects of the environmental issues we discussed. There is a lot of sugar coating when it comes to environmental issues. I don’t think most of us want to hear, nor accept that we’re killing our planet—and most of us need a wake-up call. This was mine.”
As part of his coursework during his experience with CERC’s SEE-U program in Punta Cana, Jesse devised a study to assess the availability of illegal hawksbill tortoiseshell products. While in Punta Cana, Jesse had heard accounts that indicated illegal sales still occurred in the area despite a 2008 Dominican Government crackdown on their sale and a follow-up census conducted by the environmental watchdog group, TRAFFIC, which demonstrated a noticeable reduction in the availability of this contraband merchandise created out of the shell of an endangered species of turtles. Jesse’s conversations with Punta Cana residents caused him to become suspicious as to whether the 2008 crackdown had been effective in deterring subsequent trade, and he decided to study the situation himself, two years after the crackdown.
“I devised a two-part study to determine the availability of tortoiseshell products in souvenir shops in the vicinity of Punta Cana and, furthermore, to identify shop patrons most likely to purchase these items. I visited souvenir shops in prominent shopping plazas and found an abundance of tortoiseshell products for sale. Unfortunately, I discovered in only a handful of shops four times the number of items reportedly found throughout the entire country during the TRAFFIC census. The second part of my study sought to determine who was buying these products. I collected data through written and oral surveys at the Punta Cana Resort and Club and the Punta Cana Airport. Results showed a clear correlation between one’s awareness of wildlife conservation efforts and one’s propensity to purchase tortoiseshell regardless of age, gender, nationality, level of education, etc.”
Throughout the time Jesse was involved with his individual research project he was also participating in classes held at the Biodiversity Center, located on the grounds of the Punta Cana Hotel and Resort, which contains a computer lab, a classroom and several biology and chemistry labs. The Biodiversity Center, which is near the town of Veron, is located in an area of mostly tropical scrub forest and freshwater lagoons. The adjacent coastal area has beaches, seagrass beds and offshore coral reefs. For Jesse, it wasn’t just the location but the structure and staffing of CERC’s SEE-U program that made the experience so valuable.
“I think the combination of classroom instruction, field work, and individual research really made for a successful program. But I doubt I would have gotten as much out of the program if it had not been for the quality of the instruction. The professor and the teaching assistant were both incredibly knowledgeable, passionate about their work, and they clearly loved teaching. It was a joy to learn from them.”