Major: Biological Sciences
Home School: Wellesley College
OTS’ Program: African Ecology and Conservation
Clarissa is super passionate about nature, which led her to study Biological Sciences at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. When looking for a study-abroad program, she knew it had to be one that could put her in direct contact with biodiversity and real-life challenges, and contribute academically to her career. African Ecology and Conservation in South Africa offered her this and much more!
Clarissa describes her experience with OTS as one of “the best decisions” of her life! And she wants to spread the word about the wonders you can find in our programs and encourage young students to participate in this amazing experience.
“I will always cherish the short-lived, but uniquely powerful bonds I shared with everyone I met during my semester. We still stay in touch! “
I never planned on going abroad, but after apathetically attending some study abroad sessions, I discovered field studies programs for the first time. Given the 2-for-1 benefit of research experience and class credit, they were a perfect fit for me!
After doing my research, OTS stood out to me as professional, academically rigorous, and extremely well-connected to the global network of tropical scientists and ecologists. I imagined hurling myself out of my comfort zone to live in the breathtakingly beautiful South Africa while learning about my favorite subjects and even developing my career through unique, once-in-a-lifetime encounters, and I knew I had to do it. Let’s just say OTS exceeded expectations!
I’ll never forget my first rhino and only rhino sighting. I was in an amazing mood, after finishing our fieldwork early and leaving our research site along the hippo-filled Sabie river. I spotted a leopard (being the first one to spot game is always a confidence boost!) and not long after, we saw cars congesting. The tell-tale sign of a rare animal. After seeing the critical decline of rhinos first-hand, I was praying that it was a rhino… and it was! A giant and majestic, otherworldly, reality-defying adult rhino. The fact that I saw a nearly-extinct wild rhino was such a special privilege, one of the greatest blessings I’ve been granted. We had learned so much about them in class, and even did a research project on rhino middens (rhino toilets, basically, but ecologically vital!). I was moved to tears to see them still hanging on.
OTS is not perfect for everyone. It is seriously very different from “normal” semesters. You spend a lot of time outdoors, sometimes in adverse conditions, and will generally have to adapt to a life without some of the modern conveniences you are used to. Expect to abide by daily schedules where you spend a lot of time with your cohort. Since you will all take the same classes, assignments are more often collaborative, but still very challenging. Privacy can be hard to come by at times, so if you are the type of person who needs it, make sure you are intentional about creating that space for yourself. If you still think you’re a good fit, you definitely are! Just do it! I promise it will change your life. The coolest people do OTS (including you!), so go meet them!
To prove that invasive plant species can be harmful to ecosystems, we set up insect traps to compare the biodiversity of arthropod animal communities in invasive reedbeds (Arundo donax) and native reedbeds (Phragmites australis) along the Sabie River. We found significantly less biodiversity in the invasive reedbed sites by using both nets and pitfall (ground) traps in line with the “escape from enemies hypothesis” (which states that invasive species become competitively superior because they lack natural enemies in their new range). We also found that the invasive reedbeds had a higher density of other invasive plant species, suggesting an “invasional meltdown.” After presenting this work to SANParks, we gave them the site coordinates, and they go might remove this invasive plant we studied. What an impact to make!