See our planning for 2020–21.


Living on the Edge: Microbes in Extreme Environments

Location: Region east of the Sierra Mountains, California, U.S.A.
Faculty: Jason Tor, professor of microbiology (NS)
Course Number: NS-227S
Departure Date: May 19, 2020 Return Date: June 2, 2020
Course Fee (tentative): $1,275 + airfare and personal expenses

Course Summary

In this field-based research course students will study life in extreme environments in the region east of the Sierra Mountain range in California, which is one of the most geologically and biologically dynamic parts of the continent. While the primary focus is on the geomicrobiology of hot springs, alkaline lakes, and hyperarid environments, we will also consider some of the natural history, human history, and contemporary environmental issues facing this unique and environmentally vital area. For a portion of the trip students will have an opportunity to lead an in-depth analysis of the microbiology in Deep Springs Lake, an alkaline playa lake where microorganisms might be directly contributing to carbonate mineral formation. The over-arching goals of this trip are for students to learn how successfully to conduct a field-based scientific investigation within a broader context of environmental, historical, and social dynamics.


The course is open to all students; however, previous completion of courses in microbiology, ecology, or geology would be beneficial.  

A brief questionnaire and interview will be required as part of the application process. 


Short-term field course eligibility requirements (for Hampshire and non-Hampshire students)

Financial Information

Short-term Field Course Finances and FundingImportant information about fees, payments, and financial aid.

Course Fee

Approximately $1,275 includes all on-site expenses for the 2 weeks of the program: speakers/guides, equipment and facilities, accommodations, transportation, meals, course-related activities, and orientation costs.

Additional Expenses

(costs not included in the course fee)
Approximately $700 to include airfare to and from Las Vegas McCarran Airport ($500), meals during transit, transportation to and from U.S. airport, and personal expenses. 

How to Apply

Short-term field course application deadlines and instructions

Full Course Description

This course is a two-week long field-based research course that will directly introduce a group of 6 undergraduate students to microbial life in extreme environments. The course will take place in the region east of the Sierra Mountains in California, where unique ecosystems (hydrothermal springs, high deserts, alkaline lakes, alpine meadows, and forests), cultural history (indigenous people, early mining and exploration, internment), and environmental issues (development issues, water use, and environmental contamination) offer a rich mixture of possible learning experiences. The variety of destinations will include the Bristlecone Pine Forest, Death Valley National Park, Deep Springs Lake, Eastern California Museum, a geothermal energy producer, Hot Creek Gorge, Lake Crowley, Lee Flat (Joshua Trees), Manzanar National Historic Site, Mono Lake, Owens Lake bed (dry), and the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center.

The readings for the course will come from a variety of sources, including the primary research literature, textbooks, field guides, technical articles, and materials from the popular press. Through active research, readings, and discussions, students should be able to do the following:

  • Explain how scientists make sense of the complexity in real-world habitats that are home to diverse microorganisms.
  • Critique the investigative approaches that can be used to yield information that enhances our understanding of the role microorganisms play in maintaining Earth’s habitability.
  • Explain microorganisms survive in soils, sediments, and water under extreme conditions.
  • Gather the kinds of observational information that can be used to understand the role of microorganisms in the environment.
  • Assess how geologic processes contribute to the diversity of life found across the landscape.
  • Explain the interaction between abiotic processes and the evolution of ecosystems.
  • Evaluates contemporary environmental issues (land use, energy policy, environmental remediation) specific to the region related to biogeochemical processes.

Cumulative Skills

  • Quantitative skills

Distribution Areas (Div I):

  • Physical and Biological Sciences (PBS)

Academic Expectations

All students will be expected to keep a comprehensive field notebook throughout the duration of the course. This journal can, in the first instance, be a simple account of their activities and scientific observations, but more importantly this should be a reflective journal; students will be asked to think and write about their experiences and relationships with their environment and activities. The students' journals will be collected at the completion of the course and be used in their final evaluations. The best journals will go beyond description, and will show evidence of deep and thoughtful engagement with the ideas of the course, research methods, and the act of conducting scientific investigation within the context of the region. There will be readings and discussion about a wide range of issues from diverse fields, including agriculture, environmental science, microbiology, geology, biochemistry, natural resources, and social and cultural history. Attendance and participation in all pre-trip meetings and participation in discussions of all assigned material is expected.

Environment and Level of Physical Activity

This course will require students to be outside for most of the day throughout the trip. This could mean prolonged exposure to sun, heat, cold, wind, etc. Weather conditions are highly variable in this region and can change quickly. We will be at elevations of -282 feet (below sea level) to as high as 7900 feet above sea level. In addition, students will be required to walk over rough conditions to reach some destinations while carrying their own food, water, and sometimes equipment in a day pack. As parts of this trip will be physically strenuous, students should be capable of walking as much as 10 miles over moderate elevation changes

On this trip a willingness to be adaptable and capable of functioning in a group outside of one's comfort zone is required. Students will be sleeping indoors on beds every night; sometimes in hostel-style dorm rooms with bunk beds and sometimes in shared motel rooms. Camping equipment is not required for this trip. At times, food options will be limited and accommodating dietary restrictions may not be possible. In addition, parts of the trip will require traveling in an SUV for several hours at a time.

If you have physical or dietary restrictions, please discuss them with the faculty director before applying so that accommodation options can be assessed.

Program Itinerary (subject to change)

Day 1: Arrival. Arrive in Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport by 6 p.m. Evening discussion of the trip will focus on getting to know each other, as well as a review of expectations and safety. Sleep in a hotel/hostel in Las Vegas.
Day 2: Death Valley National Park. Introduction to the national park, basin and range geology, and a discussion of the science of borax mineralization, the history of the mining industry, desert geomorphology, and desert ecosystems. Visits to Dante's View, Badwater Salt Pan, Devil's Golf Course, and Furnace Creek.
Day 3: Death Valley National Park, Part 2. Further exploration of Death Valley region, including Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, the Panamint Range; discussion of rock varnish geomicrobiology in Panamint Valley; Joshua Trees in Lee Flat. 
Day 4: Owens Lake. Water Rights and the Effects of Diversion (desiccation, environmental quality, biogeochemistry). Observe earthquake-related structures in Alabama Hills as well as Mt. Whitney. Sampling Dirty Socks Springs, Owen's Lake.
Day 5: History of the Owens River Valley. Whitney Portal, Manzanar National Historic Site, Alabama Hills and the Eastern Sierra Museum. 
Day 6: Research at Deep Springs Lake. Assessing the site and surveying springs; visit to Owen's River in Big Pine. 
Day 7: Geochemistry and microbiology of Lake Crowley, a human-constructed reservoir lake; petroglyphs; strange ant mounds.
Day 8: Mammoth Lakes.
Day 9: Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park.
Day 10: Hot springs and travertine in Bridgeport, CA; study and tour of the south tufa area of Mono Lake. Discussion of lake chemistry, microbiology, and limnology. Guided exploration of Bodie, CA, an abandoned mining village.
Day 11: Hot Creek Hydrothermal System. Study of hydrothermal systems, including spring-water chemistry and hyperthermophilic microorganisms; sampling methods. Discussion of water quality and environmental impact on water quality. 
Day 12: Rainbow Falls and columnar basalts at Devil's Postpile.
Day 13: Owen's Valley Gorge and Happy Boulders.
Day 14: Visit Bristlecone Pine Forest to study the effects of geologic parent material on soil chemistry and plant ecology. Visit ghost towns in Goldfield and Rhyolite.
Day 15: Departure. Prepare research samples for travel and pack up gear. Return to Las Vegas in the afternoon; students are free to depart after 3 p.m.

Travel Plans

Students are expected to make their own travel arrangements to and from Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport (LAS). Students will need to arrive on May 19, 2020 by 6 p.m. Students should schedule departure no earlier than 3 p.m. on June 2; early departure is not acceptable. Transportation to/from the airport on the previously-stated dates will be provided. Due to course itinerary constraints, failure to arrive on time may preclude a student's opportunity to participate. Please plan accordingly.

Housing Arrangements and Meals

NOTE: Housing arrangements are subject to change in 2020, and may include camping.

The majority of the trip will be spent at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory near Mammoth Lakes, CA. The research station supports college-level research and teaching throughout the region and is a convenient location in the center of most of our activities. The group will have dorm-style accommodations and we will collectively prepare most of our own meals. 

Additional accommodations in Las Vegas, Death Valley and Lone Pine will be at a hotel or hostel. 

Pre-departure Preparation

There will be at least two group meetings with the faculty directors prior to departure to go over academic expectations, living and research conditions, and safety protocols. Students are also required to participate in a session with GEO on culture and identity, health and safety, study abroad policies, and important travel information.


Questions about the application and selection process or financial aid should be directed to the global education office:

Katie Irwin

Questions regarding the academic content or itinerary should be directed to the faculty director:

Jason Tor

Stay In Touch
With The Global Education Office (GEO)
Snail Mail
Global Education Office
Hampshire College
893 West Street
Amherst, MA 01002