From sea lions playfully splashing in the waves to the calls of frigate birds nesting on the volcanic cliffs, the Galápagos Islands will enchant any traveler who ventures ashore. When naturalist, Charles Darwin, explored the archipelago nearly 200 years ago, the ecological curiosities he discovered inspired his theory of evolution and forever changed the course of biology.
This past summer, Jim Krupa, Ph.D., biology professor in UK’s College of Arts and Sciences, had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to direct an education abroad program in the Galapagos. His five-week program, Evolutionary Ecology of the Galápagos Archipelago, teamed up with UK’s partner university, Universidad de San Francisco Quito (USFQ) to bring a group of UK undergraduate students to USFQ’s Galapagos research center, where they experienced evolutionary theory in action. Krupa and his students, accompanied by USFQ researchers, followed in the footsteps of Darwin, traveling by boat to various islands where they conducted field research and compared the unique biodiversity of each island.
The opportunity to teach students in the Galápagos was particularly sentimental for Krupa. Fifty-five years prior, his doctoral adviser, Charles Carpenter from the University of Oklahoma, encouraged Krupa to pursue research in the Galápagos Islands. In the 1960s, Carpenter studied the behavior of lizards on 14 islands across the Galápagos—a feat that only a select few researchers had the opportunity to do at the time, according to Krupa.
“There was kind of a legacy that he always expected me to go,” Krupa said. “Only a small group of scholars can say that they have taught evolutionary ecology on the Galápagos, so I thought that I should take this opportunity to do it.”
Krupa facilitated hands-on learning opportunities for his students, taking full advantage of the Galapagos’ unique biodiversity. Students conducted field research with Galápagos’ finches at the USFQ’s research center, under the supervision of Dr. Jaime Chaves of USFQ. The UK group also explored the islands to understand tropical vegetation, plant zones and volcanic activity. Students observed firsthand the feeding and social behaviors of animals including the famous Galápagos’ tortoise, the Sally Lightfoot crab and the blue-footed booby bird, among many others animals unique to the islands.
“The purpose was to see how on every island, the plants and the animals are all a little different—that’s what Darwin saw,” Krupa said. “I’ve been studying and teaching evolution for over 40 years, but to actually see what he [Darwin] saw through his eyes was pretty amazing.”
According to Katy Comer, a UK biology junior, she and her peers broadened their understanding of scientific inquiry, as they were constantly encouraged to make observations from the perspective of a scientist.
“I was able to see the evolutionary theories I have been learning truly come to life in the place that first inspired them,” Comer said.
Not surprisingly, the education abroad program reassured and influenced the students’ career trajectories. UK biology senior Ciara Frassinelli, who aspired to attend medical school since childhood, completely shifted career outlook because of her experience in the Galápagos.
“We were mist netting Darwin’s finches—catching them, weighing them, measuring their wing and beak size, and I loved every second of it,” Frassinelli said. “I loved getting up early to do this field research and I never felt that way about getting up early to do any other job.”
Frassinelli is now in the process of applying to graduate school with the goal of earning her doctorate in biological oceanography and working with marine life.
Comer, who plans on applying for UK’s College of Medicine upon completion of her biology degree, left the Galápagos more sure than ever about her career aspirations. “From handling the finches and seeing examples of evolution, to observing how island locals’ live and eat, I got to experience the life and culture of the Galápagos in the most realistic way,” Comer said. “I saw so many applications, and I was particularly interested in the people and their social health issues.”
When they were not in the field, students were exposed to island culture by living with local host families during the program. According to Krupa, many students developed close relationships with their host families, and learned valuable life lessons that extended far beyond the scope of science.
“We are better people when we get out, go to other countries and immerse ourselves in different cultures,” Krupa said. “I think that everybody should study abroad if they can— you don’t fully understand the world until you have seen the world.”
Krupa will return to the Galápagos to teach Evolutionary Ecology of the Galápagos Archipelago next summer and the research legacy, inspired by his doctoral mentor 50 years ago, will live on with a new team of curious students.
UK Education Abroad has more than 460 programs available in more than 70 countries. In addition to study abroad opportunities, students can participate in internship, service, research and teaching programs abroad. Students interested in learning more about education abroad opportunities can go online or visit the Advising Center at 315 Bradley Hall. For more information about Education Abroad opportunities and resources visit international.uky.edu/EA. Stay up to date with UK EA events, deadlines and more on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.