An Undergraduate's Experience in the Field

Written by Jason Kawalec, Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Class of 2023, Planetary Science Major

Date- July 12, 2022

Location- San Pedro, Costa Rica

Jason Michael Monte La CruzToday marks my twelfth day living in Costa Rica! I’ve had a wonderful time, full of memorable experiences and new opportunities. The food is delicious, the people are friendly, and the views are spectacular. This is the first time in my life I can see a volcano from my apartment window! 

I’m here in Costa Rica as part of a grant funded by the Rutgers Global Program titled “Dangerous While Asleep.” This grant is a collaboration between Rutgers EPS Professors, Dr. Lauren Neitzke Adamo and Dr. Vadim Levin, and University of Costa Rica (UCR) Professor and Rutgers EPS Alumnus, Dr. Paulo Ruiz, to conduct an in-depth examination of the Barva volcano.

Barva is a complex stratovolcano (a volcano built up by alternating layers of lava and ash), located ~25 miles North of the city of San Jose.San Pedro Sunset Barva last erupted in the 1700s and has remained dormant since then. Barva has not been extensively studied due to its long inactivity. The close proximity of a major city (i.e. population of ~340,000 people), means there is a high risk to people and property if the volcano becomes active again. Much can be learned about its eruption history and future volcanic risk by studying the current geomorphology. This project will examine several sites of interest around Barva by drone. The images collected will be developed into high-resolution 3D models and digital elevation maps. I will work with this data and interpret these models over the next academic year for my Honors Capstone for the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program (SASHP) and for my departmental Honors in Geology. 

The first few days here were especially unique for me. I was living alone in a country 4,000 miles away from my home and my last experience with Spanish was during my first semester at Rutgers. These few days gave me time to explore the city on my own, attempt (and struggle) to relearn some Spanish, and get settled into my new home, a hotel by UCR in San Pedro called the Gran Casa Universitaria. One day I went to the Museo del Jade (Jade Museum) with Dr. Ruiz and his family. It was incredible to get a sense of just how much culture and history there is behind this land of jungles and volcanoes. 

Setting Up DroneSoon, my friend and fellow Rutgers EPS major, Michael Pinnella, arrived to assist with the field work. I was very happy to see a familiar face. We started moving quickly on our project with Dr. Ruiz, spending time preparing our drones and field equipment, completing a test flight, and outlining our flight routes around several volcanic deposits. Amidst all this, I turned 21 and had my first birthday outside of the U.S.! We celebrated that evening with an Imperial and some Chifrijo – a popular Costa Rican beer and a local delicacy.

My favorite day was our first day in the field at Monte de la Cruz (translates to Mountain of the Cross), a national park located 12 miles North of San Jose. Dr. Ruiz identified two parasitic cones (a smaller cone on the flank of a larger volcano) of the Barva volcano that can be seen in the park. Using our drone, we set out to image and analyze this unexamined part of Barva. We were met with strong winds in the morning that prohibited us from flying at high altitudes. Fortunately, we found success in the afternoon when the winds died down and our drone captured some wonderful aerial photographs of the two cones. We have already started to create the higher resolution 3D models of Barva that will be the most detailed maps of these sites to date. I’m looking forward to returning to Barva and exploring more of Costa Rica once the rest of the team arrives!