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Environmental Portrait

Daniel Bernal ’21, Sophia Pessagno ’19 and Celia Castellano ’19 spent four weeks in Costa Rica.

Pictures may be worth a thousand words sometimes, but the two shared equal billing for students conducting thesis research in Costa Rica this summer.

Using photography and interviews, Celia Castellano ’19 and Sophia Pessagno ’19 joined Karen Allen, professor of earth and environmental sciences, in her work involving the Bellbird Biological Corridor. Both students are investigating conservation and sustainability in communities within the corridor, which is a designation used to promote connectivity of habitats and sustainable development across a wide region.

Castellano had been to Monteverde, Costa Rica, as a tourist. But it was like visiting a new place when she returned to conduct research in the same region.

“I was looking at it in a different light, for a different reason,” she said.

Allen is beginning her third year at Furman. She has spent more than a decade researching in Costa Rica, many of those years actually living in the country. This was her first opportunity to bring Furman students to the field with her.

Allen selected team members who were sustainability science majors from the earth and environmental sciences department for both their creative research potential and their Spanish-speaking skills. In addition to Castellano and Pessagno, she also brought field assistant Daniel Bernal ’21.

The team worked primarily in two communities within the Bellbird Biological Corridor. Most of the more than 40 corridors in Costa Rica contain a range of mixed-use land. Some also encompass destinations for nature, adventure and eco-tourism, such as Monteverde’s Cloud Forest in Bellbird.

While the corridors exist on paper, their infrastructure is skeletal. The goal is for corridor leadership to partner with existing local organizations on conservation initiatives that will impact the entire corridor.

Allen’s work plays a role in that. This summer she conducted workshops to provide education about the corridor’s objectives and how those fit within each community’s priorities – “quite literally, connecting people,” she said.

Her students’ summer research will help define the priorities and concerns within the communities they investigated.

Castellano used a methodology called photo voice. She gave people cameras to capture answers to her questions: How are you personally connected to the environment? What conservation efforts are you part of? What environmental changes have you seen within your lifetime? When they came back with photos, she interviewed them about how each photo provided an answer.

Pessagno, who is fluent in Spanish, worked through more formal interviews with leaders of community organizations, asking questions about conservation plans within the organizations and contact with other groups within the corridor. Some conversations lasted five minutes, others went as along as 90 minutes.

Back at Furman, both students used software to help identify repetitions, contrasts and themes in the answers. Together, the projects help tell a more complete story of the corridor.

Pessagno enjoyed the personal side of the research.

“I liked that it was more human-centered,” she said.

And Castellano found the work fit perfectly with her naturally social personality.

“It’s a good characteristic in someone who does social science research,” said Allen, who wants her students to view the work as more than data collection.

She’s committed to research that values local input and furthers the vision of the communities involved.

“It’s important to acknowledge their participation in the research,” Allen said.

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