Ann Arbor junior Kara Bowers, biology major and student-athlete, decided last year that she needed a break from Putnam Hall and a more hands-on experience in science.
Last August, Bowers traveled to the Atherton Tablelands of Queensland, Australia for a full semester of classes, conducting research and volunteering through The School for Field Studies. During this time, she would forego dorm living for cabin life in the rainforest where Internet was limited, leaky roofs were ordinary and pythons were viewed as “cool” instead of terrifying. Being immersed within the Wet Tropics of Australia provided Bowers an unparalleled experience that not only gave new-fangled meaning to her environmental science concentration but an unforgettable experience to share.
Located twenty minutes from the nearest town, Bowers was based in the Wet Tropics World Heritage site in the northeast state of Queensland, Australia, which, according to Australia’s Department of Environment, “contain[s] an almost complete record of the major stages in the evolution of plant life on earth.”
Bowers lived with nine girls in a cabin on site of their biological station where lectures were also held six days a week. On Fridays, students volunteered planting trees and partaking in other ecological activities to dig deeper in the environment around them. Bowers’ lectures, Natural resource management, tropical ecology and socioeconomics policy, were all relevant to research she conducted in order to complete her final research project on the restoration of cleared forest lands. Classes began at 8 a.m. and ran through dinner but this schedule may have been the only real consistency of the program.
“There really wasn’t a typical day,” Bowers said.
Bowers explained that power outages were normal and sometimes even scheduled. At one point during the semester, the site’s water pump stopped working and water was trucked in every few days, limiting students to five-minute showers or no shower at all. During the first month, daily rainfall was heavy and cabin roofs did not always hold up.
“There were a couple times where we couldn’t get into our cabin because we had a hole in our room and tree snakes would get in,” Bowers said.
Packing a first-aid kit was basic protocol when exploring and Bowers said she got used to looking like a dork wearing a headlamp. Exotic wildlife surrounded their work site and Bowers was able to regularly witness incredible creatures such as the Cassowary, tree kangaroo (“actual living teddy bears”), monitor lizard and, Bowers recalled, on one occasion almost stepping on a python while walking back to her cabin.
“[Almost stepping on a python] was more cool, I wasn’t really worried about pythons as much as I would be worried if I almost stepped on a red-belly black snake,” she said.
For Bowers, tough conditions yielded resourcefulness, independence and disconnect that she learned to value. On top of not having a cell phone, all twenty-nine students shared four computers with Internet capability.
“It was really nice to kind of unplug from the world for a bit,” Bowers said. “I kind of used it to my advantage like, ‘oh sorry, I didn’t get that [message], I’ve been in the rainforest!’”
On top of studies and research, Bowers hiked three hours away from the site to see the infamous Curtain Fig Tree with 49 foot aerial roots. She and other students also hiked to a nearby waterfall circuit and drove to Lake Eacham on weekends. Bowers also described what sounded like an incredible road-trip adventure around New Zealand where she and her friend slept in their rental car and used a map in less conventional and more ambiguous ways.
“We’d wake up, point to a place on the map that we wanted to go, drive there, hang out and find a campsite that was close by,” Bowers said. “We’d get there when it was super dark and we’d be like, ‘Well, tomorrow we’re going to wake up in a beautiful place!’”
While Bowers chose the program primarily to get a hands-on approach to her studies, being able to spend five weeks, including Christmas, with her sister who works as a nurse in Sydney, Australia was a bonus. Studying biology in its purest form will be an experience that will impact Bowers’ future career and surely give her an upper leg in any environment she applies her knowledge and research to.
Photo courtesy of Kara Bowers