Pair of Helias seniors lay groundwork for medical studies while in Costa Rica

Two seniors at Helias Catholic High School spent two weeks this summer studying tropical medicine and ethnobiology in Costa Rica.

Two seniors at Helias Catholic High School spent two weeks this summer studying tropical medicine and ethnobiology in Costa Rica. Submitted

The indigenous tribes of Costa Rica have much to contribute to western medicine, two Helias Catholic High School seniors learned this summer.


Julia Ceglenski and Andrew Pierle pose near a waterfall during a 5-mile hike. On top of studying at the Las Cruces Biological Station, the students also learned about Costa Rican culture.

Andrew Pierle and Julia Ceglenski, both 17 and interested in medical careers, were selected to participate in Duke University’s “Talent Identification Program” held at the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica. The teens spent two weeks at the station this summer to learn more about tropical medicine and ethnobiology.

Situated in the southern, mountainous Puntarenas province of Costa Rica, Las Cruces is the newest of the three research stations operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies. It includes a biological research station, tourist facilities and lush botanical gardens. Much of the research conducted there focuses on agroecology and forest fragmentation.

Ceglenski said the research base serves as a place for mostly graduate-level college students to study the natural world. However, after submitting essays and filling out applications, 26 high-school students from across the United States were invited to learn at the facility as well.

Although the trip wasn’t free, the experience was nothing short of completely amazing for the two Helias seniors.

“All I can tell people is: ‘It was crazy.’ It was so spectacular on so many different levels,” Pierle said.

Once there, they learned about illnesses endemic to tropical climates, such as malaria, parasites, bacterial infections and even HIV.

“We learned how some of these diseases are transmitted, how to diagnose them and how to prevent them, if possible,” Ceglenski explained.

The students also learned more about the remedies indigenous tribal people have developed during the thousands of years they’ve lived close to the equator.

“These guys will take a leaf, boil it in water, and either drink it or rub it on their skin,” Ceglenski said.

The teens said the researchers they met in Costa Rica are working hard to bridge the gap between the technologies developed by Western medicine and the remedies of Costa Rica’s native people.

Pierle was particularly interested in the sessions on tropical medicine; Ceglenski was fascinated by ethnobiology, or the study of how people from different cultures interact with their ecosystems. The students met with representatives from both the Ngöbe and Borucha tribes.

Pierle said the cross-cultural exchanges expanded his understanding of their world and punctured negative stereotypes he previously held.

“I had a misperception that they were from the Stone Age,” he said. Instead, the students met people who wore western dress and used cellphones, lived sustainably on the earth, depended in part on the tourism trade for their living and valued their own traditions.

During their visit, they also visited Las Selva, another station that features a grassy plain and abundant animal life. There, the students saw snakes, iguanas, monkeys, insects and bats.

Both teens enjoyed the experience of living in a new country and experiencing a new culture. The 26 teenagers shared a house and ate communally with the rest of the Las Cruces community.

“The food was so good. I liked it more than our American food,” Pierle. said.

“Yeah, it was lots of beans and rice ... and rice and beans,” added Ceglenski.

Pierle said the Costa Rican bananas were the best he’d ever tasted.

And, unlike their lives here at home, they were temporarily isolated from the technology — television, social media, cellphones, etc. — Americans have become so dependent upon. And they didn’t miss it much.

Instead, the students would stroll through the botanical gardens, hang out with their new friends and engage in friendly political debates.

“We played cards,” Ceglenski said. “We kind of drew a crowd in the airport when 26 of us were playing Spoons (a card game).”


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