Lessons from Panama
Visiting Panama not only got me thinking about research ideas, familiarized me with the area I will be working in, and connected me to some amazing researchers, it also taught me some important everyday lessons. Going into the field before the start of your first semester is unusual but I am thankful for this experience because now when I return to Panama I can be better prepared. Now for my lessons from Panama:
Mangroves on the Mind
When I first joined this fellowship, I knew I would be working with mangroves but no one ever mentioned to what degree or whether there would be any restrictions. For the past eight years, I’ve been working in academia, there has always been some limitations we had to work within. Whether it be meeting goals of funding sources, making sure our research would be interesting enough to be picked up by journals, following up on a previous study, etc. I have learned to find the box and then push its limits. Over the years there have been countless experiments and studies I’ve worked on as side projects that have yet to be released to the public because the impact is not great enough for big journals to pick up. As a scientist and an inquisitive person, I find it frustrating that science is being filtered this way. With current technology, we can find answers to our questions in seconds with a quick Google search but take a closer look at those answers. Frequently, depending on your question, those answers are presented as fact without any proof or peer review. Where we fall short is when we accept answers at face value instead of taking the time to verify references and validity of the source. Many of these questions that might randomly pop into your head or arise in a conversation among friends are questions researchers have asked and tested but you might never see the results because journals that researcher want to publish in will not accept these papers. Scientific journals, like most academic journals, work on a system of impact factor. The impact factor ranks journals on statistics like the average number of citations of published articles per year. This ranking system of importance of a journal within its field is supposed to help researchers to know what impact their research could have if accepted into that journal. It gives an idea of readership as well as caliber of the journal. Repercussions of this system have been journals during down more papers in search for papers that “are most influential in their fields or across fields and that will significantly advance scientific understanding” as well as “present novel and broadly important data, syntheses, or concepts”, quoted from the information for authors section for the journal Science. Messages like this are now seen with most journals. Other repercussions are journals encouraging researchers to extrapolate beyond the scope of the data, which we as scientists have been taught not to do, and to make it look like the review process takes less time journals will now ask you to resubmit articles as a new submission if the process is taking too long so not to negatively impact their stats. The concept of impact factor has been around since 1975 and, in my opinion and that of many other frustrated researchers, has drastically changed the types of papers you see. So what papers are you not seeing? Well the most common would be a) papers about species not considered important to humans, b) papers that reveal findings that would be fascinating to the general public and probably used in trivia games but do not have a direct impact on humans, c) papers that have negative results. Even once research has been published in an academic journal, which the researchers must pay the journal to publish, many journals also charge people to read them so unless you have a subscription or work with an institution that has a subscription, you can’t read the published article. On top of that, publishing agreements make it so researchers no longer have rights to their own work so they can’t share it for free either. Why then do researchers still publish in journals instead of just posting things online for the general public? The answer is two-fold, first, by publishing in a journal there is a review process where other researchers read the manuscript and filter out bad science or point out flaws in the research. Second, if you are in academia there is a sort of point system towards becoming a tenured professor. You need so many points over a short period of time to secure your position or you could suddenly lose your job. One of the most important categories is publications. Under that category there is number of publications, frequency of publishing, and impact of publications (based on the impact factor of the journal). Publications you co-author have a different point value than the ones you first author and publications you were the advisor for (typically last author) have another point value. This was that game I was coming from. I wasn’t a fan of it, especially since I don’t like to shape my scientific questions to “how do humans benefit from this,” but it was what I had known.
Present day, I’m in Panama working in the field everyday picking up any techniques or skills I can and thinking. I started writing down questions that popped into my head while swimming in the mangrove ponds and through the channels separating the mangrove islands. During one phone call with Andrew, I told him about my questions and how I wasn’t finding many answers to them in the literature. I asked whether there were any guidelines or restrictions to my PhD research on mangroves since the description just said mangrove conservation which can mean anything. He told me no restrictions and to send him my list of research topic ideas. This newfound freedom was invigorating as well as terrifying. I don’t have to worry about staying within the framework of a concept or stunting my creativity but at the same time, my mind never shuts off so I knew soon I would be overwhelmed with ideas and want to do them all. Before my conversation with Andrew I thought I might be limited to the mangrove ponds I had been working in so all my ideas were focused on that. After our conversation, ideas starting flooding in. A week went by and my list quickly grew from five PhD topics to one single spaced typed page of bullet pointed topics. I contacted Andrew again and shared my ideas, he told me not to hold back and keep the ideas flowing. Our sampling came to an end so I spoke to Viky about doing some mangrove exploration outside of the ponds. After just one day of traversing the archipelago to experience the variety of mangrove systems we have here in Bocas del Toro, I was up to three single spaced typed pages of project ideas. Knowing that my ideas would only continue to grow and evolve until I selected what I would do for my PhD, the mangrove crew and I spent the rest of our time together surveying potential sites that I could use the following summer. I took thousands of photographs and videos to review while I am in Canada working on my proposal. I believe the photographs and videos will be useful in explaining the system and the questions I hope to address with my research to my committee and collaborators who have not seen my sites yet.
Viky and Carl left for Panama City a week before I did but now we are reunited and I have gone into the field with them here at Punta Culebra. Viky is working in the rocky intertidal area looking at predation. Despite having an accident in Bocas del Toro which led to a torn ligament in my ankle, I was hobbling over slippery, algae covered rocks and checking experimental cages that have been placed to see how the communities are impacted if predators are removed or excluded from the system. After attempting walking, I resolved to complete most of this field work scooting to avoid aggravating my very swollen and discolored ankle. The plus side with this method was getting to admire the tidal pools up close and seeing lots of sea hares. While here in Panama City I got to meet with Andrew in person to discuss some of my research ideas and tomorrow we are going to Galeta to see if it would serve as a good comparison site to Bocas del Toro. I am excited to see another one of the Smithsonian research stations and I have heard that Galeta has a lot of crocodiles so hopefully we will see some in the mangroves.
Learn about a day in the life of our Fellows, from the field to the classroom as they compete their journey through graduate school.