Wake Forest students on the summer 2018 Peru Tropical Biodiversity and Environmental Journalism pose for a group photo while on site at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru. Photo courtesy of the course blog.

While journeying down river in the Madre de Dios region of Peru this June, nine Wake Forest students saw Peruvians that looked a lot like them. They were young. They smiled and waved. But the same hands that greeted the students were the ones that sifted through the soil for gold – an illegal practice that has depleted the rainforest and infused mercury into its ecosystem for decades. 

“They are not criminals,” said Justin Catanoso, journalism professor and co-leader of the Wake Forest Peru Tropical Biodiversity and Environmental Journalism study abroad program. “They are just doing what they believe they need to in order to survive.” 

It is complex stories like this that Wake Forest students encountered in the ecology and science writing summer course co-taught by Catanoso and CEES Director Miles Silman. During the four weeks spent in Peruvian cities and biological sites, students conducted field-research in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth, sometimes hunting for scorpions at night and hiking a minimum of five miles each day. 

But the nexus of the course is where science meets storytelling – teaching students how to communicate urgent scientific realities into terms that are easily understood. 

“The scientists know that what they’re missing is being able to communicate their work to a broader audience,” Catanoso said. “When writing a story, you have two main points that you want to get across – what is important and why people should care.” 

The importance of replenishing the rainforest of Madre de Dios is an urgent ecological call to action – and one that Wake Forest has answered in more ways than one. The Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica (CINCIA), established through CEES in 2016, has funded research in the Madre de Dios region to find solutions that will ultimately re-forest the areas of the Amazon depleted as a result of illegal gold mining. 

“There is this sense of optimism,” Catanoso said. “And Wake Forest is a part of that solution.” 

Access the course blog here to read students’ stories: https://cloud.lib.wfu.edu/blog/wakeamazon/2017/08/02/scenes-from-tropical-ecology-and-science-writing-peru-july-6-31-2017/