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Research Assistant positions with Tufts Professor – Costa Rica

by Marilene Rivas-Chavez on January 24, 2020

Faculty: Colin Orians, Professor, School of Arts & Sciences

Project Locations: Medford, MA and Santa Maria de Dota, Costa Rica

Dates: early June–early August 2020

Project Title: Exploring the resilience of coffee production in Costa Rica

Project Details: Small-scale farmers around the world struggle to maintain stable production to support their livelihoods. Inherent drastic fluctuations in the quantity and quality of perennial crop yields, also known as alternate-bearing, thus pose an important socio-ecological problem. Such oscillations are widespread among fruit and nut crops, but the mechanisms differ across species and remain poorly understood in a globally important commodity crop: coffee. Coffee (Coffea arabica) is predominantly cultivated on small-scale family farms in rural regions of developing countries with limited adaptive capacity (Barrucand et al., 2017; Quiroga et al., 2015). In pilot interviews conducted with 33 coffee farmers, all participants confirmed alternate-bearing as an obstacle to livelihood stability but reports varied regarding its underlying causes and the potential for effective management (Garcia, in progress). The overarching aim of this project is to fill a critical knowledge gap by revealing the mechanisms of coffee’s alternate-bearing and their relation to the broader context of farm management decision-making and farm landscape. In doing so, we hope to identify the social and natural factors that promote yield stabilitya critical component of the system’s socio-ecological resilience. We have two primary objectives: Objective 1: Identify the mechanism underlying fluctuations in fruit quantity and quality and isolate the effects of two key management practices (fertilizer and shade trees) on resource allocation tradeoffs. We are developing a theoretical model to characterize these tradeoffs. Objective 2: Determine the effects of landscape, management, and their interaction on growth-reproduction tradeoffs and alternate-bearing. We are developing a conceptual model of the relationships and feedbacks between social and environmental factors affecting stability. To date, we have established a three-year manipulative experiment, and initiated an observational study of 30 farms along a 500 m altitudinal gradient For this observational component, we are pairing farmer interviews and ecological farm assessments to characterize the role of farmer perception, knowledge, and priorities in farm management, in stability. This coffee project forms the basis for Gabriela Garcia’s PhD thesis. Through hands-on participation in all research activities described above, the global research assistants will gain unique exposure to environmental research methods from both natural and social sciences. In addition to the satisfaction of seeing their results, the students will gain important skills in hypothesis development, statistical analysis, and data visualization. The students will also help We believe this experience in international environmental research will provide the global research assistants with numerous lessons that will continue to serve them throughout their academic journeys.

Qualifications: Professor Orians will hire two research assistants for summer 2020. At least one of the students should be a fluent Spanish speaker. Students with a background in biology/ ecology, an interest in agriculture and knowledge of Spanish would be preferred. Preference will be given to students with prior research experience and evidence of independence and comfort working in the field. All interested students are encouraged to apply.

Description of Field Site: The field site is in a small, rural town nestled in the coffee-covered mountains of Costa Rica. The farms are at a high elevation (1500-2000 masl) very close to a tropical cloud forest. WiFi access will likely be limited to the local cafes and restaurants, though cell service is good if students choose to purchase an international plan or a local SIM-card (requires an unblocked phone).

Housing in Costa Rica: We will stay in a hotel in San Jose before departing to Santa Maria, where we will rent a house. Students should feel comfortable preparing most of their own meals at the field house.

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