Global Impact | Research | Response Magazine

Getting down to earth in Costa Rica’s Cloud Forest

Every morning, Michaela Rubenstein awakens to the roaring calls of howler monkeys. Hers is a biodiverse world filled with the bright plumage of blue-crowned motmots and keel-billed toucans.

Michaela Rubenstein holds a hen.
Michaela Rubenstein ’17 is a resident naturalist in Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest. She leads tourists and scientists through the forest and cares for animals and spaces around campus.

A typical day for Rubenstein as a resident naturalist in Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest might include harvesting bananas, assisting researchers, and helping visitors identify insects, edible plants, or perhaps one of 230 avian species.

By day, she leads international tourists and scientists on hikes and tours, or aids in butterfly research, bird counts, or camera-trapping a variety of mammals to photograph and track them. In the evenings, she might translate for a cooking class or demonstrate moves and turns for a salsa or merengue dance class, translating from Spanish to English and back.

Not that long ago, the Seattle Pacific University ecology major and 2017 graduate awakened to the rhythms of life in Emerson Hall on SPU’s campus.

The internship of her dreams — nine months as a public speaker, teacher, and guide in this unusual forest that is nearly always covered by clouds and enveloped in moisture — resulted from a chance meeting with a young woman at an airport hostel after visiting her host family from a 2015 SPU study abroad trip to Costa Rica.

The woman had just completed a naturalist internship at the University of Georgia’s campus in the cloud forest.

The next day, an excited Rubenstein returned home to Silverdale, Washington, and completed the internship application at 2 a.m.

It’s a good fit, says her Costa Rican supervisor Jose Montero, who calls Rubenstein “a leader among interns” and “incredibly engaging with tourists and students.”

Associate Professor of Biology Ryan Ferrer says she was “a major driving force” in class discussion at Seattle Pacific. SPU science students, he notes, in addition to internships and faculty-advised independent research, have opportunities to do hands-on fieldwork off campus at the University’s Blakely Island Field Station. They can also go abroad to study coral reef ecology in Belize or ecology and oceanography in the Galapagos Islands.

After she switched from premed to ecology to spend more time outside, Rubenstein explored Seattle’s nature scene for her internships. She worked at the Woodland Park Zoo for one; for another, she worked with birds and mammals at the Seattle Aquarium. On her Costa Rica trip, she focused on life sciences and Spanish language and culture.

Four brown chicken eggs held by Michaela Rubenstein

All those hands-on experiences, she says, “made this transition a breeze.”

From first light to lights out, Rubenstein the naturalist is immersed in the wonder of creation. “I’m outside watching, pursuing, counting, identifying, or interacting with plants and animals,” she says. “I am constantly covered in dirt, dust, mud, and rain. I love it.”

However, keeping up to date on local animals can be a challenge. With the onset of their summer, wave after wave of dozens of new species of migrating birds show up in the Monteverde needing to be identified in order to stay one step ahead of the tourists.

Hurricane Nate pounded the surrounding community unexpectedly in early October, flattening one house in a landslide and washing out bridges. There were no injuries, but the university was without power and cell service for four days. A backup generator supplied electricity for cooking and using power tools.

Rubenstein’s deep longing for nature first stirred in adolescence in a home without cable TV. She preferred to spend time with pets (dogs, rats, rabbits), and ride at a horse rescue facility.

After a year at the University of Wyoming, she wanted a smaller school in a bigger city. She spent the night at a number of Seattle colleges, choosing SPU because “it felt most like home.” Though she would like to stay and work in Costa Rica when the internship ends this March, Rubenstein believes her future lies in the U.S. at a national park or zoo.

The more humans and animals interact, she reasons, the more understanding blooms.

To see more photos from Rubenstein’s internship, visit Day in the Life: Michaela Rubenstein, naturalist in a Costa Rican cloud forest.

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