Galápagos Islands Program Engages Students in History and Evolution

By Daniel Flener

LEXINGTON, Ky (July 26, 2022) — This summer, Jim Krupa, UK biology professor, led a course on the evolutionary ecology of the Galápagos archipelago.

“The life on the islands is almost otherworldly,” Krupa said. “The students are absolutely shocked and amazed when they arrive. It’s incredible to see their reactions.”

The Galápagos Islands host some of the rarest life forms on Earth and hold a deep historical connection to the study of evolution. In 1835, Charles Darwin visited Galápagos, and his findings eventually led him to write “On the Origin of Species,” a key text in the founding of evolutionary theory. 

Krupa has been fascinated by the Galápagos Islands since completing his doctoral work. His adviser, Charles Carpenter of the University of Oklahoma, was a trailblazing researcher on animal behavior of Galápagos creatures and encouraged Krupa to pursue research on the islands. 

Many of the world’s most unusual plants and animals call the Galápagos Islands home. Students observed the Galápagos giant tortoise, which can weigh more than 500 pounds, and the Galápagos marine iguana, which can grow to almost 6 feet in length.

In the Galápagos Islands, students spent their time island-hopping and studying the plants and animals, keeping hand-written field notebooks along the way, much like Darwin. Krupa has been keeping field notebooks on his research for 45 years.

“It encourages the students, and me, to always be engaged, always be thinking,” Krupa said.

For UK senior Elie Tierney, the program was the perfect education abroad opportunity. A biology major and Spanish minor, she used the skills she learned in both of her majors.

“What I didn’t expect was the language component,” Tierney said. “I’ve been studying Spanish in the classroom but going abroad and having to hear and speak Spanish every day with native speakers took my abilities to the next level, and I felt so much more confident in myself.”

While education abroad programs give students the ability to use skills learned in the classroom in a real-world environment, they can also help students narrow down their career aspirations.

“Before the program, I was constantly switching between what exactly I wanted to do,” Tierney said. “I was stuck between a few options. But Galápagos solidified it for me. I know now that ecology is my calling.”

Tierney now plans to apply to graduate schools to study ecology.

Many participants in the program also had the opportunity to stay with a host family while on Galápagos. 

“They welcomed me as one of their own,” Tierney said. “They were so kind and giving of their time. It helped fully immerse me in the culture of the place. I still talk with my host family, even as I’ve returned to the U.S.”

After returning, Krupa was amazed at the change he saw in the students.

“They fully engaged with the place, and I saw that throughout the trip,” he said. “When they returned, I could sense a shift in how they thought about not only the subject matter covered in the course but many other topics they considered while traveling through a different country.”

Krupa looks forward to taking future groups of students to the Galápagos Islands and introducing them to evolution firsthand.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.