MOUNT CHIRRIPÓ IN COSTA RICA—Framed by drifting clouds, ecologist Andrea Vincent surveyed the hot tub–size dome her students had erected here at nearly 3800 meters, on Costa Rica’s highest peak. “We did it!” she exulted. Vincent’s team from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) had made the steep 15-kilometer hike up to this tropical alpine landscape—known as a páramo—in a bid to understand how global warming might affect the mosaic of shrubs and grasses. The team had built 20 of the open-topped domes, which block the winds that buffet the slopes, thus slightly warming the plants inside and mimicking conditions they might experience in the future. “There are interesting questions here,” Vincent says. One is whether the páramo will be overrun by the oak trees now restricted to lower, warmer elevations, threatening its biodiversity.
Setting up the experiment in February marked a professional milestone for the 39-year-old Vincent: It was her first major project as a principal investigator on a grant from Costa Rica’s government, after years of working as a collaborator with other scientists, often from the United States. “It’s really cool when it’s your intellectual child,” she says. And she’s pleased that her project is part of a network of similar studies taking place in Ecuador and Colombia. “It’s ciencia criolla,” she boasts—a term of pride for projects led by scientists from Latin America.
Costa Rica’s renowned biodiversity has made it a go-to destination for field biologists from around the world. But despite its relatively small population of just 5 million, the country has also been successful at nurturing its scientific talent in recent decades. And Vincent, who grew up mostly in the capital of San José and trained in Europe, is one of a growing number of Costa Rican scientists who have returned home to launch their careers. It’s a trend the government has encouraged, in part by filling open slots at universities with Ph.D.-level scholars, including some promised jobs before they were sent abroad for advanced schooling.
The result, Vincent says, is a new generation of Costa Rican scientists that is better trained and more ambitious, especially in her field of tropical biology. They are no longer satisfied playing support roles for visiting researchers. “A lot of people are hungry to do research that is competitive at the international level,” Vincent says.
The blossoming has a downside, however: Although Vincent and other Costa Rican biologists have managed to build careers at home, the country is struggling to absorb all of the researchers it is producing. “There is no room in Costa Rica’s universities for the number of scientists who are coming back,” says plant ecologist Oscar Rocha, a Costa Rican working at Kent State University in Ohio. “A lot of well-trained scientists are now working for field stations or programs that are training undergraduates,” he says, instead of leading projects.
Granted, researchers in many nations face a scarcity of faculty jobs. But it’s an especially painful paradox given the natural riches beckoning scientists in Costa Rica. “A lot of us were pushed [to excel] in a good sense,” says insect ecologist Fernando Soley Guardia, who earned a Ph.D. in Australia and is now teaching courses at UCR and the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), a nonprofit research and education organization based in the United States and Costa Rica (see sidebar, below). “Now, a lot of us want to be back here, to do research where we learned from the environment. But there’s not enough space.”
Although definitive statistics aren’t available, observers say it’s clear that Costa Rica’s growing pool of Ph.D. tropical biologists marks a departure from 30 years ago. Then, for example, just 13 of 32 faculty at the UCR School of Biology had a doctorate. Now, 80% hold that degree, and a Ph.D. is mandatory for new hires.
Rocha, who is 62, experienced that transformation firsthand. While earning a master’s degree at UCR in the 1980s, he worked as a manager at La Selva, a research station some 80 kilometers north of San José run by OTS. The exposure to visiting scientists helped inspire Rocha to go abroad; he earned a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in the United States in 1990. He then returned to Costa Rica and later became chair of UCR’s School of Biology.
In that job, Rocha promoted efforts to send Costa Rican students abroad to Ph.D. programs—to avoid “inbreeding,” he says—and then lure them back. His department bolstered training in the analytical skills students needed to qualify for foreign programs. Faculty worked to place them with colleagues in the United States and Europe, and helped students win funding from foreign sources. Under a system called reserva de plaza, Costa Rican universities also directly funded graduate studies abroad for some students, if they agreed to return to a reserved university job. “The ball started rolling,” Rocha says.
Many of the biologists who have emerged from such efforts have moved beyond the taxonomy and descriptive science that has long been a tradition in Costa Rica. Vincent, for example, pursues broader, hypothesis-driven research as UCR’s first ecosystem ecologist, working to reveal how physical processes like geochemical cycles shape organisms and ecosystems. “There was a sense long ago that we were more like passionate technicians,” says forest ecologist Roberto Cordero, of the National University of Costa Rica, who at 58 is part of Rocha’s generation. “Now, we are demanding more and providing more insights.”
Microbial ecologist Adrián Pinto, 42, is one member of this new generation. Earlier this year, he stood in his lab on the UCR campus in San José peering into glass boxes housing leafcutter ants that he uses to educate schoolchildren. Some of the busy ants carried leaf fragments, others tended a brown fungal structure. Pinto’s graduate research at the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, showed how bacteria in the ants’ fungal gardens fix nitrogen, or convert it from the air into a biologically usable form; the work was published in Science in 2009. He then returned to Costa Rica, where he had a job awaiting at UCR because of the reserva system.
Pinto has shifted his focus from the nitrogen-fixing role of such bacteria toward mining them for useful chemicals. “Here basic research is very hard to fund,” he says. He and two co-investigators now lead a 22-person team devoted, in large part, to probing Costa Rica’s insect ecosystems for compounds that might be useful in medicine. (Biologists found one promising antibiotic, dubbed selvamicin, in a leafcutter ant garden at La Selva.) “It’s a great country for microbial ecology,” Pinto says.
Pinto is a rarity in Costa Rica: He’s also a co–principal investigator on a U.S. National Institutes of Health grant with researchers at UW. His lab screens bacteria for antimicrobial activity, then ships promising leads to UW for expensive animal studies. Pinto “has created a really good model for how to be successful” in Costa Rica, says UW evolutionary biologist Cameron Currie.
Other returning biologists have focused on conserving Costa Rica’s vulnerable species. Gilbert Alvarado, 37, a wildlife pathologist who studies threatened tropical frogs, earned his Ph.D. in Brazil. Now at UCR, Alvarado has helped rediscover several populations, and one entire species, of frogs in Costa Rica that were thought to have been wiped out in the 1980s and 1990s by a fungus called chytrid, which has killed amphibians worldwide. He and U.S. collaborators recently used Costa Rican museum specimens to show chytrid was present in the nation’s frogs a half-century ago, suggesting it spread slowly or evolved to become more lethal. He is now raising chytrid-resistant frogs in the lab that will be released to shore up vulnerable populations.
UCR evolutionary biologist Beatriz Willink, 32, who came back to Costa Rica 2 years ago after a Ph.D. in Sweden, is pursuing more fundamental research. She has studied why damselflies evolved certain colors to attract mates. She returned home not only because Costa Rica’s ecology abounds “with questions,” but also because she feels a moral obligation to teach here, attracted by “the idea that people from all backgrounds in this small Latin American country can have this great publicly funded education.”
Although Vincent, Pinto, Alvarado, and Willink have secured tenure-track positions, many other Costa Rican researchers are finding it difficult to land satisfying jobs. “I know people who are extremely qualified and have published lots of good papers who are just waiting in line,” Willink says.
One obstacle, several scientists say, is Costa Rica’s reserva system. Its intent, to lure back and retain talent by assuring doctoral candidates a job, once made sense, they say. (Only Vincent did not get her job this way.) But now, with an abundance of researchers trained overseas who are ready to compete for academic jobs, the reserva seems a bit “outdated,” says evolutionary biologist Marcelo Araya-Salas, a non-reserva Ph.D. who is job hunting in Costa Rica.
In a bid to stay active while waiting for a job to open up, some Ph.D.-level scientists are working for conservation organizations or teaching, in some cases squeezing in research part time. For instance, Jimena Samper-Villareal teaches and works on seagrass ecology and restoration at UCR’s marine science center in a staff scientist position that hovers between one-quarter and three-quarter time each year. She came back in 2016 after her Ph.D. in Australia so her two young kids could be close to family. But there are “very limited opportunities in Costa Rica,” Samper-Villareal says, and she’s “trying to keep my publications up” while watching for an opening.
Some researchers have opted to try to wait things out in postdoctoral positions abroad. Other have joined Costa Rica’s science diaspora, taking faculty positions in the United States or elsewhere instead of trying to return, Rocha notes.
Whether the job crunch will ease in the future is unclear. A shortage of funding has reduced the number of Costa Ricans receiving scholarships to pursue doctoral degrees; at UCR they dropped from nearly 50 a year in 2016 to just 22 last year. That could reduce the competition for jobs. But the same funding shortage could limit jobs at home. The country now spends about 0.4% of its gross domestic product on science, down slightly from previous years when its economy was stronger.
Another factor is a university pension system that appears to be discouraging older faculty from retiring and creating new openings, says geneticist Gabriel Macaya, a former UCR rector. One solution would be for research universities to set aside more funds to hire scientists for nontenured, fulltime positions, Macaya says.
Some senior scientists who have mentored this next generation are dismayed. “It is troubling to see good young people with good training not being able to employ their talents,” says William Eberhard, a leading U.S. evolutionary biologist who joined the UCR faculty in 1979 and retired about 5 years ago. “And it is especially frustrating when one has invested time and effort in helping them get to where they are.”
Among Eberhard’s undergraduate students was Soley Guardia, who went on to study how assassin bugs use clever strategies to catch web-weaving spiders for his Ph.D. in Australia. Soley Guardia now wants to do comparative research with Costa Rican species of these aggressive predators, but hasn’t yet found a tenure-track position. He says his twin brother Mariano, a biogeographer, is in the same situation.
Soley Guardia speaks wistfully of the prominent scientists, some from outside Costa Rica, who influenced him. “It was good to have that exposure,” he says. “Now we’re kind of self-sustaining in a good way. We come up with our own ideas.”
But he fears he won’t be able to follow through on them if he stays in his homeland. “The bad thing,” he says, “is we’re aspiring to do science at the level of developed countries without the money to pay for it.”
Travel for this story was supported by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C.