WB 2015 – MSU Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

Costa Rica – MSU / UCR – December 26, 2015 – January 9, 2016




Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

I am in my second year at Michigan State University, double-majoring in Biosystems Engineering and Statistics.

I am from the northern suburbs of Chicago and I love food, bicycling, playing board games, down-hill skiing, reading, kite flying, kayaking, and playing the flute and piano. In fact, I almost majored in music, but my passion for the environment and problem solving lead me to the Biosystems Engineering department at MSU.  Although I was originally Environmental Engineering, I switched to Biosystems with an ecosystem concentration after being exposed to the field in Dr. Reinhold’s lab.

One of my other passions is traveling. In the Midwest, my favorite places are Starved Rock State Park, the Porcupine Mountains, and my grandfather’s farm in Michigan’s Western Upper Peninsula. I have also been fortunate enough to have traveled internationally. In 2010, my family and I visited friends in Finland, Sweden, and Russia. We spent most of our time in Finland where I was finally able to immerse myself in the food, music, and culture with which I had been raised. Last summer, I flew solo to stay with my best friend and her family in Singapore. There, I was inspired by the ultra-modern architecture, tremendous amount of green design, and, of course, the amazing food.


Post Program

While in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to make some of my own observations and learn about the basics of wetlands and their potential for application. By taking copious notes and paying careful attention during ecosystems presentations, I was able to retain pertinent information. In addition, I asked many questions of our guides, especially at Palo Verde National Park. In order to better understand the wetland there, I also had the opportunity to wade into the water and collect floating plants like water hyacinth and duckweed. Furthermore, I was able to learn first-hand how aggressively vegetation can grow in tropical climates, when I worked with a team of other students to design a system to harvest floating plants.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned about ecosystems in Costa Rica was that they, and especially wetlands, are always evolving and changing. These systems are very dynamic and actually migrate. As part of the life cycle of a wetland, it is natural for the plants to dominate, causing the water to stagnate and terrain to be formed there over time. As this happens, the water simply moves further downstream and the process continues to shape the landscape. Although this implies that monoculture is a natural part of a wetland’s life, it causes problems from a conservation standpoint. It is not exactly feasible to allow a wetland to migrate when there are towns and farms further down its path. In this way, even natural systems require maintenance in order to preserve biodiversity and prevent destruction of property.


Located in southern Central America, Costa Rica is home to a wealth of culture and biodiversity. This small country abolished its army in the late 1940s and has since focused many of its resources on educating university students and developing its cutting-edge energy systems. In fact, in 2015, Costa Rica boasted an impressive 285 days run on exclusively renewable energy, making it one of the most sustainable countries in the world [1]. One of its most important sources of income is the thriving ecotourism industry. With a quarter of its land set aside as protected area, Costa Rica has been able to preserve its incredibly diverse landscape, from the endangered tropical dry forest, to the mountainous cloud forest. Costa Rica, however, is still, in many ways, a developing country. Although it is a world leader in the development and implementation of sustainable energy, the choice to put a primary focus on energy is unconventional, given the country’s underdeveloped municipal wastewater treatment system. Almost all citizens have access to potable drinking water, but the supplies are not always consistent and only three percent of sewage is treated before being discharged, resulting in high levels of contamination in rivers and streams [2]. Because ecotourism is one of Costa Rica’s main sources of income, new water quality regulations have been placed on water released into rivers and streams in an attempt to prevent destruction of coastal and inland water quality [3]. These stricter sanctions, however, have increased costs for small farms and businesses in a way that may be problematic for the industry. To solve this problem, a potential solution would need to respect the Costa Rican pride for sustainable development and its strong connections to native ecosystems. Tropical treatment wetlands may be the answer.


Wind Farm

These systems are engineered to mimic the functions of natural wetlands and are capable of creating environments that remove and retain nutrients from contaminated water, as well as provide ideal conditions to foster microbial growth to further filter influent [4]. Treatment wetlands utilizing surface flow systems can also provide habitats for wildlife, harvestable fish, and vegetation for animal feed that can help generate extra income for farmers while meeting new water quality standards [3]. Of course, designing wetlands in tropical environments also has its obstacles. The high levels of precipitation and warm climate provide ideal conditions for overgrowth of vegetation, significantly diminishing the efficiency of the wetland. Additionally, standing, stagnant water propagates mosquito growth in a region where malaria and other viruses are common, so great care must be taken in designing systems that do not put nearby residents at risk. Although there are challenges associated with engineering constructed wetlands in tropical environments like Costa Rica, as population and demand for food continue to rise, more stress is put on the country’s municipal and agricultural systems. As a result, there is growing need for alternate or additional designs to handle the large amounts of polluted water, increasing the potential for success in the form of constructed wetlands.


  1. Mellino, C., 2015. Costa Rica Powers 285 Days of 2015 With 100% Renewable Energy. Ecowatch.


  1. Bower, K., 2013. Water supply and sanitation of Costa Rica. Environ Earth Sci. 71:107-123.


  1. Nahlik, A., Mitsch, W., 2006. Tropical treatment wetlands dominated by free-floating macrophytes for water quality improvement in Costa Rica. Ecological Engineering. 26, 246-257.


  1. Sim, C. H., 2003. The use of constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment. Wetlands International.



5 thoughts on “Emily

  1. Good job Em! Be safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very proud of you Emily… stay safe!

    Love – Aunt San

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Happy New Year’s Eve!!!! Go Green!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Happy New Year Emily! Go white.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Happy new year Em. Go green and white and green and gold!

    Aunt San…

    Liked by 1 person

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