From Jungle to Jungle

VCU grad student on ecology research and the science of BMXing

Costa doing a feeble grind down a rail in Seattle. Photo by Sean Ryan.
Costa doing a feeble grind down a rail in Seattle. Photo by Sean Ryan.

Zac Costa is not your average scientist.

When he’s not in the lab or in the jungles of Panama studying amphibian species unique to the area, you’ll find him in another sort of jungle – the urban kind – on his BMX bike.

The 26-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University grad student has a sharp mind for biology research and a talent for street riding that has earned him big props in the BMX world.

And Costa has been fortunate to be able to strike a balance between the things he enjoys most in life – riding, science, traveling and the great outdoors – and to do them well as he works toward completing his master’s degree.

As a child he was always curious and adventurous. Costa recalls being perpetually drawn to the natural world. He credits his parents as being his greatest influences and for always encouraging his thirst for knowledge and appreciation of nature.

“I was the kid catching bugs and bringing snakes home – I guess I just never really lost it,” Costa said. “I’ve always loved being outside and working with animals. So a career in ecology just seemed like the right move.”

It was that same curiosity and adventure-seeking nature that drew him to action sports. He picked up his first BMX bike at age 10 and started pushing himself to do tricks by age 13. It wasn’t long before he became a regular on the West Coast BMX scene – street riding being his specialty. He’s been featured in several well-circulated BMX videos such as “Cuttin It Deep,” which filmed Costa in 2006-2007, and Web releases from BMX company Franchise 2 that filmed in 2008. He has also appeared in Primo’s “Nice Try” and Animal’s “Cuts” – both of which were released in 2010.

Costa, a native of Santa Rosa, Calif., graduated with a bachelor’s degree in evolution and ecology from the University of California-Davis, in 2007. As an undergraduate student there, he worked in a plant ecology research lab where he learned what it is that scientists do on a day-to-day basis. He became especially interested in developing research questions, which sparked his pursuit in research, so he stuck with it and applied to graduate school.

Jungle research
In 2009, after taking some time to ride, travel and visit some research stations in Central America, Costa came to VCU where he joined the lab of James Vonesh, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology who specializes in the study of amphibian life.

It was through Vonesh he was given the opportunity to travel to a field site in Gamboa, Panama, along the Panama Canal. There, for six months, the lush, wildlife-filled jungles became home as he worked on his thesis and a larger research project headed by Vonesh.

For a young scientist like Costa, there was a lot to learn from the living laboratory around him, plus the benefit of networking and collaborating with fellow researchers who had come from other parts of the world to study at a nearby research facility operated by the renowned Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

While his research kept him occupied around the clock, on occasion – a weekend here or there – Costa would zip from the isolated jungle into Panama City and take to the streets on his bike.

Making the scientist
Costa’s research and thesis currently underway focus on the tadpoles of two tropical tree frog species and their community interactions. These species live in trees and/or vegetation above tropical ponds. Not much is known as to how they interact with the community around them, including what they eat. Costa is looking into the interactions these tadpoles have with their resources, their predators, and other aquatic herbivores. He is interested in predator-induced plasticity, indirect effects and their role in food webs.

Costa enjoys the scientific process, particularly formulating research questions and developing experiments to properly address those questions.

“That’s the creative part. It may not necessarily work out the way you might expect, but that’s the fun of it,” he said.

And he’s no stranger to unexpected results – having recently made some observations in his work that has him full of new questions. He’ll be heading back to Panama later this month to address these recent findings, and refine his exploration.

When he’s not working on his thesis, Costa can be found teaching an introductory biology lab course helping students learn their way around a lab.

“I was nervous coming into this not knowing what to expect. Trying to balance your class work with research and teaching was intimidating, but getting through those initial jitters, moving past it and working hard has paid off,” he said.

Helping him refine his approach to discovery, and offer guidance and support is Vonesh. Costa is currently working on his first research manuscript, which he will ultimately submit for publication, and once again, credits his mentor, adviser and friend for direction and advice.

“James is very enthusiastic, supportive and friendly. He’s not afraid to make you the best scientist he can – he really pushes his students and challenges them,” said Costa.

“He has told me, and he got this from a colleague, that to be a good scientist, you have to be a warrior in the field and a wizard in the lab – I’m working on the wizard in the lab part,” he said.

In August, Costa will head to Austin, Texas, for the 96th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America where he’ll present his poster on his research for the first time. While Costa has attended the national meeting in the past as a student, he is looking forward to sharing his work with the scientific community.

The BMXer
Somewhere between the teaching, thesis writing and research, Costa can be found zipping around on his bike.

BMX stands for bicycle motocross, which in a general sense refers to extreme riding in an urban setting on a 20-inch bike. Freestyle riding basically involves doing tricks, grinding rails, jumping off ramps, riding around skate parks and on the streets.
 
But for Costa, it means going to different cities and using the urban environment to be creative and master new tricks. As a teen, Costa recalls watching the X-Games on TV, but it was a stunt show he saw in person that really sealed it for him.

“Every kid rides bikes and tries out jumps and I just never stopped,” Costa said. “I was amazed by the tricks I saw people doing – I have a bike, but never imagined doing things like that with it. With that I was hooked. I couldn’t stop. Street riding is what I do best.”

“Experiencing any city on a bike is much different than doing it other ways. Regardless of the tricks, it’s fun to ride around,” he added.

Costa said that riding is a lot about mind over matter and envisioning your next move, but understanding the very basic laws of physics to some degree doesn’t hurt either. Trick-wise, he admits to having done some stuff that has scared him, but really, it’s the appeal of riding around different cities. He said in some of the cities he has visited around the globe there are minimal traffic laws and some have gutters that are three-feet deep – making for a more intense ride on two wheels.

When Costa initially started to ride, he stayed close to home riding in BMX circles in California, but it did not take long before he was touring the West Coast scene - meeting people, forging friendships with other riders and folks in the business. Since then, Costa has had the opportunity to ride in places all over the world including Thailand and Central America – Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama. When he made the move to Richmond in 2009 to study at VCU, he was happy to learn the Richmond BMX scene here was alive and well.

Recently, Costa got some exciting news. His sponsor, Solid Bikes in Sacramento, Calif., released his signature frame called the “King Cobra.” Costa and fellow BMXer Kurtis Elwell helped refine the former model with some suggestions.

According to Costa, once he wraps up his master’s program he’d like to take a year off to get some more traveling and riding in, but plans to enter a doctoral program in ecology so he can continue his research.

“I’m proud I’ve lived the life that I’ve wanted and haven’t compromised myself in dramatic ways – I still ride bikes, I live a lifestyle a little different than most people do, and I’ve had the chance to see the world and live as a scientist,” he said, smiling.

Costa flexing his BMX muscle with a 180 barspin off of the rail at the Bicycle Film Festival in San Francisco. Photo by Kyle Emery-Peck.
Costa flexing his BMX muscle with a 180 barspin off of the rail at the Bicycle Film Festival in San Francisco. Photo by Kyle Emery-Peck.
Left: Costa with a caiman in Panama. Photo by Tobias Landberg. Right: Costa in the field with a boa constrictor in Panama. Photo by Justin Touchon.
Left: Costa with a caiman in Panama. Photo by Tobias Landberg. Right: Costa in the field with a boa constrictor in Panama. Photo by Justin Touchon.
Costa doing a feeble grind down a rail in Seattle. Photo by Sean Ryan.
Costa doing a feeble grind down a rail in Seattle. Photo by Sean Ryan.
Costa doing a tabletop at a skate park in Sacramento, Calif. Photo by Andy Fitzgerald.
Costa doing a tabletop at a skate park in Sacramento, Calif. Photo by Andy Fitzgerald.