When Laura White was a little girl, her parents sometimes would find her outside playing with bugs, getting dirty and loving it.
The Ellicott City couple would shake their heads and wonder: What is our little girl going to do with herself when she grows up?
"She was 3, and I would catch her digging up frogs that were hibernating," said Deb White, still a little incredulous. "And then she would show them to me."
White's 17 now, and it's becoming clearer to the Whites what their little girl's going to do. If the way she spent her summer vacation is any indication, she'll be playing with bugs and frogs and plants and other animals, getting dirty and sweaty - and loving it.
For three weeks this summer, White, who will be a senior at Centennial High School, studied tropical ecology in the rain forests of Costa Rica through a program offered by the Duke University talent identification program (TIP). White, who wants to study biology in college, was selected from hundreds of applicants for the program. She sloshed through mud, came face to face with venomous snakes, hiked hilly miles and dodged stinging ants.
Between such adventures, White and 14 other students researched graduate-level projects, studied alongside experienced scientists and explored the Central American country's vanishing rain forests. They had no computers to message friends, no television shows to watch.
"We were living `Survivor' instead," White said, and the experience was invaluable.
"It was my first time in [an impoverished] country, and it was very different," White said, sitting on a couch at home, sunburned but recovered from mosquito bites. "It's been a culture shock coming back and having e-mail and telephones and people to call."
The researchers started their work in Cacao, a rustic, muddy town in the mountains near the Nicaraguan border. To get to their bunker home required 3 1/2 hours of hiking, loaded with backpacks full of equipment and supplies. The bunker was made of cracked wooden walls and a tin roof. The building had no hot water, and scorpions occasionally showed up in the shower, she said.
In Cacao, the students sifted through soil samples for invertebrates to categorize. They also became acquainted with spider monkeys, which were more pleasant than their cousins, howler monkeys, that they encountered at other stops.
The next stop was Palo Verde, much drier and hotter than Cacao, and one of the few remaining tropical dry rain forests left, White said. There, the students launched a four-day project working with acacia trees - tropical trees that have developed a symbiotic relationship with ants living inside their trunks.
White has a sense of humor, but she was very serious about her experiments, said Sean Fenton, coordinator of educational programs for Duke University's TIP.
In addition to being an excellent student - with stellar grades, 1200 or better on the SAT and an above-average aptitude for all things scientific - White stood out for her thought-provoking questions and her earnestness, Fenton said.
"Her instructors said she was deeply intent on doing her work well," Fenton said. "And that's what it takes for a brilliant scientist to excel in these types of studies."
From Palo Verde, the students traveled to La Selva, a much bigger, more populated tropical lowland forest, where they worked with poison dart frogs.
"We got to wash clothes at La Selva and Palo Verde, and that was nice because they were all caked in mud," White said. "I don't think any of us ever appreciated clean clothes like that before."
Back in Ellicott City, White said she is taken aback by how complicated Western life is, how much "stuff" Americans have and how commercial and spoiled they are.
"We had conversations about how we felt guilty about having $100 backpacks," she said.
Though she hasn't decided what kind of biology she would like to pursue, White said she is determined to study abroad.
"There's no way I would miss out on doing something like this again," she said.