Philippe J.R. Kok, PhD
I have been teaching to second year Master students at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) for 7 years. My course (“Field Herpetology”; 9 credits) was highly practical and served as an in-depth introduction to field herpetology with a focus on Neotropical herpetology. I fully coordinated my course and taught 2-3 weeks in the field in South America (Guyana and Venezuela have been the most popular destinations) every year.
Building on this expertise I am now proposing my course independently to any student from any country.
A life-changing experience
The course is academically rigorous and consists in fieldwork sessions and daily lectures for minimum 6 hours a day (max 10), seven days a week. Student teams are small, from 8 to 12, depending on the course location. Courses vary from 2 to 4 weeks in length.
The course is highly immersive and occurs entirely in the field, in the neotropics, where we usually investigate different ecosystems (rainforest, savannah, paramo, cloud forest, etc.). By working in the field, students acquire knowledge on biological life in the most practical way. Natural concepts and models are seen in real-life, which is one of the best approaches to understand biological interactions across biological organisational levels. More specifically, students learn how to organise scientific research expeditions in remote and challenging environments, how to establish secure base camps in the wild, and learn field techniques such as how to collect amphibians and reptiles, sample tissues for molecular studies (DNA, RNA, etc.), swab animals for parasite samples (e.g., chytrid fungus), preserve animal bodies for state-of-the-art museum collections, record and analyse anuran calls, photograph and measure animal body parts for taxonomic purposes, identify (e.g., using keys) amphibians and reptiles, and monitor amphibians and reptiles in the tropics. Students also master how to lower their impact on the environment during fieldwork. Courses are usually articulated around a specific research project, the additional skills learned depending on the nature of the project (ecology, systematics, field surveys, etc.).
Field preparation includes extended literature study in scientific field subjects. By working together in stressful and uncomfortable conditions, the students become very capable to take responsibility in any circumstances. Students have to write a group report on their field research to show their gained capacities on working as a team and how to report scientific results. Students understand how scientific research plays an important role in the community, also in foreign countries, and understand both the opportunities and ethical implications of this research. By searching, observing and identifying the discovered animals, students obtain a broad knowledge on the systematics, taxonomy, natural history and evolution of Neotropical amphibians and reptiles. When finishing this course, students are ready to participate in ongoing field research and should be able to independently perform and analyse observations in the field.