Premed student Allison Gottwalt ’13 didn’t just study in Costa Rica. She researched topics from medicinal plants to controlling dengue—with her 22 new best friends. 

By Allison Gottwalt ’13

Trinity, North Carolina
Biology major
Anthropology minor

Where else can you be awakened by toucans and distracted from class by a troop of white-faced monkeys swinging by? I wanted a study abroad experience where Spanish was spoken and my pre-med focus would fit in, and the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica was perfect. The monkeys and toucans were a bonus.

As part of a group of 23 students, three professors, and a teaching assistant, I visited clinics and hospitals throughout Costa Rica, from the city of San José to remote communities where a doctor visits only a few days a year. It was really an eye-opening experience: I had never been exposed to so many different populations and so many levels of poverty.

We also conducted research into the availability of medicinal plants and the relative experiences of two groups of indigenous people living closer to, and farther from, the highway. We surveyed households to learn about immunization rates and made educational visits to combat the mosquitoes that carry dengue fever. We compared healthcare in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, both of which have universal healthcare but radically different budgets for implementing it.

When the time came to leave, we agreed that in going home, we were leaving behind our 22 new best friends.

At the program’s end we did a larger research project on adolescent dental health. High school students were surveyed about their eating and brushing habits and we joined the dentist as she examined the students’ teeth for plaque, tartar, gingivitis, and cavities. We did data analysis, wrote up our findings, and then presented those findings at a poster session in both English and Spanish.

It was challenging in so many respects. I’d never traveled alone internationally before and it was very different to use Spanish every day, especially when conducting research. But the entire term was an incredible experience—from the intense studies to the fresh mango juice to the close bonds we built. When the time came to leave, we agreed that in going home, we were leaving behind our 22 new best friends.

April 6 2012

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