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A Greensboro teen who studied tropical environments in Costa Rica discovered that getting up close and personal with nature can be wonderous.


Ask Ramani Balu, 16, what he did on his summer vacation this year, and you'll walk away with an education.

That's because Balu, a former Grimsley High School student, will fill your ears with tales of his three-week summer study trip to the Central American country of Costa Rica. Balu, who transferred to the N.C. School of Math and Science this year, was chosen as one of 32 students nationwide to participate in the program.He lived in a variety of mountain lodges, research stations and hotels, rising at 5 a.m. to breakfasts of some of the sweetest, freshest watermelon and papaya he'd ever had.

He spent days hiking in the world's most unspoiled, unbelieveable pristine rainforests, sharing the day with monkeys, hummingbirds, frogs, and breathtakingly beautiful snakes. And the mosquitoes were so bloodthirsty, they could sting you through your pants.

He floated down a gurgling, bobbing river while miniature crocodiles - not the man-eating kind - watched lazily from nearby rocks.

He was bitten by a scorpion, but the bite only raised a walnut-sized lump on his hand. Contrary to popular wisdom, he said, scorpions aren't poisonous to humans.

And basically, he learned that there's more to the study of science than laboratories, test tubes and memorizing plant names.

``I came into Costa Rica not knowing much about ecology, but I learned so much,' Balu said. ``But it's not like we were taught, we just saw these things day in and day out. After a while, you just knew that that was a spider monkey. And you could recognize different types of snakes.'

Balu, know as ``Rom' to his friends, doesn't intend to become a scientist.

Right now, he plans on attending medical school. But he was offered the opportunity to take the Costa Rica trip after he had taken courses in Duke University's Talent Identification Program for high school students, which he attended in 1990 and 1991.

``Ramani Balu and his colleagues are an extraordinary group of young scholars who performed graduate-school level projects in one of the most meaningful scientific field discovery environments in the world,' said Tom Ulmet, director of educational programs for the TIP program.

Balu and the 16 other students in his group traveled for three weeks in the areas near the University of Costa Rica in San Jose. There, the group visited and studied ecology at: Monte Verde, a mountain cloud forest (so-called because it is so high, it actually sits among the clouds); in La Selva, a wet tropical rainforest; in Palo Verde, a dry tropical rainforests and at Tamarindo, on the Costa Rican coast.

During the trip, they bumped into some of the world's most dedicated students of ecology. Some worked on research theses, other filmed documentaries for nature shows and some did research projects for companies.

Balu was particularly impressed by Pia Paaby, a professor at the University of Costa Rica in San Jose, who was the group's tour guide.

``You usually think of scientists as being all stiff and like a nerd,' Balu said, laughing. ``But she was nothing like that. She was so energetic and funny. She was one of the best teachers I've ever had for anything.'

In fact, Balu said Paaby helped erase his idea that most scientist are ``techno-dweebs.'

``I'd like to do more research in tropical ecology, but I don't think I'd like to go into it as a career,' he said.

Balu says he grew in a lot of ways through the experience: he learned about a different culture, made friends with teenagers from all over the country and surprised himself with his own bravery and daring (imagine coming within walking distance of a snake the size and width of a baseball and not running away!).

``The really interesting thing - it didn't really hit me while I was there - is that you are seeing the animals in the wild, like they really live - not like in the zoo,' Balu said. ``It's an opportunity that a lot of scientists don't even get to have, and here I am, a high school student, getting to experience it.'


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