Author: Julie Walker
Unfortunately... there wasn't any three legged races, or water balloon fights, but peaked your interest right? Today was my first day in the field as a UF grad student! Seeing as I am still getting my feet wet (quite literally) today we kept it pretty simple with a small scale restoration pilot that may eventually lead to a larger scale living shorelines project, depending on where my future research interests may take me. For today it was just fun getting outside, flexing some muscles, and getting a little dirty.... so it was basically a field day!
Author: Julie Walker
Hi there Reader! This is Julie Walker newly inducted ( there isn't really an ceremony or anything like that but inducted sounded cool ) STRI-UF Marine Conservation Fellow! I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself, but since we are all nerds here... here is what my bio would look like if it was in field guide form.
Name: Julietia Walkerus
Common Name: Julie Walker
Range: J. Walkerus is native to the Maryland, but has recently been introduced to Florida. J. Walker seems fairly well establish in its expanded range and eradication seems unlikely (fingers crossed)
Diet: J. Walkerus is a opportunist generalist feeder however, must forage for coffee daily for survival. J. Walkerus preferred diet includes mac and cheese, reese's, and Cheetos (not at the same time...)
Distinguishable markings: J. Walkerus can be identified by it's unusually short stature which is covered in a large number of small brown dots. Typical vocalizations included a low growling noise originating from the stomach/abdomen area that usually precedes a feeding episode. Similar to a rattlesnakes rattle this growl is a warning to stay back until the Walkerus is full.
Habitat: J. Walkerus is most likely swimming in large water bodies, hiding in the mangroves, or napping on a couch somewhere
Life History: J. Walkerus originated from a little town in Maryland where she spent most of her juvenile stage. During this time J. Walkerus enjoyed being in and around the water, spending much of its time by the Chesapeake Bay. During the metamorphosis phase Walkerus attended St. Mary's College of Maryland where she received a bachelor's in biology. Walkerus adult form migrated north to Annapolis where she spent 3 years working for the Chesapeake Bay Program, working on science and policy to protect the bay and it's waterways. After the end of her three year fellowship, Walkerus was invaded Gainesville, FL where she has taken up root at University of Florida. Walkerus current interests include studying the northern expansion of mangrove in Florida, and spending as much time at the beach as possible.
Author: Julie Walker
Hey there everybody! This is Julie here writing to wish you a happy first day of school! In preparation for the day, I cleaned 3 years worth of dust of the ole backpack, added my shiny new student id to my wallet (with a perfectly acceptable picture that only took three attempts to achieve I might add) and carefully studied my campus map (spoiler alert- I have a horrible sense of direction).
As I waited patiently at the bus stop, I was having flashbacks of first day's of school past filled with braces, bangs, and bad fashion choices (as a reward for actually reading this here is photographic evidence of one such first day of school).
You would think the novelty would wear off after 16 years of school but surprisingly the odd mixture of excitement for all the great possibilities and fear of the unknown that leaves you feeling somewhere between giddy and nauseated hasn't gotten old.
So here's to day one! Here's to not getting (too) lost! and here's to staying on the giddy side of giddy-nausea! Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings, although if you are reading this you are probably either related to me (Hi Mom!), or thought this was the blog of Julie Ann Walker, New York Times and USA Today best selling romantic suspense author (sorry to disappoint you but this isn't getting any saucier), either way I look forward to sharing some of the highs, lows, and somewhere in between's of grad school with you.
P.S. Extra credit for those who can name the rom-com reference in the title *HINT* it rhymes with "You've got Snails"
It has been three months since I started this journey towards my PhD. There are still two months remaining until I officially start at the university. These past few months have been some of the best of my life. One of the most incredible experiences I have had so far has been attending the Mangrove & Macrobenthos Meeting (MMM4). Why after traveling to so many beautiful locations and seeing incredible wildlife that I’ve been dreaming about seeing since a child would a meeting be a highlight? Glad you asked. The MMM4 was a portal to this new world I am becoming a part of. I have always loved and admired mangroves and found them to be extremely fascinating. I have even worked in mangrove systems before but then the focus was on the fish in the mangroves rather than the mangroves themselves. The MMM series are international conferences which occur only once every 4-6 years and focus on understanding and conserving or sustainably utilizing mangrove ecosystems across the globe. The first MMM to be held was in 2000 in Kenya, then it was six more years before MMM2 in Australia, and MMM3 took place in 2012 in Sri Lanka. For the first time this meeting was held in the U.S. and I got to attend. Not only that, but many of the people I had been reading papers by were at the meeting. This was the “who’s who” of mangroves. It was also a great opportunity to meet many of the people I will be working with over the next 5 years and form new connections to build my mangrove network. I was shocked by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. I would sit by someone at the beginning of the day and during the breaks we would start talking, by lunch they would be introducing me to people who could be vital to my research, and by dinner I was making arrangements to go into the field with some of these new connections and getting recommendations of field sites that meet the criteria I’m looking for. Then the following day it started all over. By the end of the week, an auditorium of strangers was transformed into a room of friends and family.
I was glad I brought my laptop to the meeting because each presentation sparked a new idea and I wouldn’t have been able to write fast enough to jot down the important discoveries and future directions without my computer. The presentations varied in topic from genetics, biodiversity, and biocomplexity to ecology, habitat distribution and connectivity, to macrobenthos and marine community interactions, and stable isotope analyses of mangrove forest food webs to microbiome dynamics, ecogeomorphology, ecophysiology, and biogeochemistry to climate change and carbon storage. Even the species of mangrove people were working with drastically differed. Despite the MMM series sounding like a very specific conference, you have to keep in mind that mangroves, as we know them today, occur worldwide in the tropics and subtropics and are found in over 118 countries. The total number of true mangrove species is debated and varies between 54-73 in 20 different genera then there are even more mangrove associates which adds another 86 species from 73 genera. Then this meeting includes every topic relating to any of these species. Even though we had a room full of experts, each had their own niche and language to translate to the rest of us. One of the most surprising presentations to me was by NASA. Yes, the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), you know those people who launch rockets into orbit and take satellite photographs of distant galaxies. Well those same people who brought us the Mars rover are using airborne LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and Radar data to create high-resolution 3-dimensional maps of mangrove forests. I was familiar with radar before because we used doppler radar when I studied bats but LIDAR was new to me. How LIDAR works is it sends light pulses from a laser (ooh science) to Earth from some airborne vessel like an airplane or helicopter. Then a sensor records the reflected light combined with position and orientation data obtained from a specialized GPS receiver so you end up with latitude, longitude, and height data. Point by point you start to develop a picture known as a point cloud. These data can be used to not only study the forest structure and aboveground biomass but also to estimate the amount of carbon mangrove forests can store. Carbon captured by the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems is known as blue carbon so carbon stored by mangroves is part of this blue carbon. It is important to understand the role mangroves play in carbon sequestration because mangroves are among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics and deforestation of mangroves generates 10% of the global emissions per year despite accounting for only 0.7% of the tropical forests.
As scientists, the organizers of MMM4 realized that there is a saturation point at which no more knowledge can be absorbed, regardless of how pertinent or fascinating the subject, when you have a week-long meeting. Their solution was to get us all outside and into the field together. In the middle of the week we were given an option of going on a mangrove and marsh restoration tour at North Peninsula State Park and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a kayak tour of the Whitney Marine Lab, or a boat tour of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Even though I was staying at the Whitney Marine Lab and knew the facility fairly well, I hadn’t gotten out on the kayak in the mangroves yet so I went with that option. It was a wonderful experience. We had professional guides who knew the local fauna meanwhile I’m kayaking with mangrove experts who kept paddling up to branches to get a good look at leaves, snails, propagules, etc. It wasn’t a day off from learning but the change of scenery renewed our energy and allowed us to return to the conference refreshed and eager to continue learning. The conference itself was held at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. It was a beautiful campus with stunning Spanish architecture and just outside Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by the Spanish and has maintained its historical feel. It is unlike any other city I have visited in the U.S.
As I leave Florida to continue my adventure, my mind swirls with ideas and happy memories made over the past couple weeks here. It was both a pleasure and an honor to have had the opportunity to meet so many great minds. I am thankful to everyone who helped make my visit possible. The future looks bright and I am excited to return after my first semester at McGill.
May and June, I was in Panama getting familiar with the mangroves and developing research ideas, now in July, I’ve found myself in Florida meeting my collaborators. After several emails back and forth and lots of chaos and confusion, I landed in Jacksonville, Florida to be greeted by one of Christine Angelini’s graduate students, Ada Bersoza. Although we had been planning this visit to Florida so I could meet Christine and Todd Osborne as well as get to know the University of Florida campus in Gainesville and the UF Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine, I was meant to visit Florida so that I could meet Christine and Todd Osborne, get to know the University of Florida campus, and the UF Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine. Despite all of this, the final logistics were still fluid by the time I landed so until my layover, I didn’t know whether I was renting a car, getting picked up, or where in Florida I was going first. Ada ended up coming to the rescue and drove three hours to pick me up and bring me back to Gainesville with her. Not having housing in place yet, she then opened her home to me as well. Ada wasn’t expecting the extra body but quickly filled me in on her research that we would be collecting data on in the morning. After getting settled in, Ada started prepping for the field making sandwiches, creating data sheets, packing supplies, and writing out a to-do list for on campus that evening. Kimberly Prince, another one of Christine’s graduate students, came over to introduce herself and organize an evening for Christine’s lab to get together for dinner. On campus, Ada gave me a tour of the Engineering School before we went to Christine’s lab to pick up some supplies.
Ada stayed up late into the night working on her computer, entering data, checking her lists and making sure she wasn’t forgetting anything. I was impressed with Ada's dedication to her research and tenacity. Not being able to contribute to this part, I ended up going to bed knowing that we had to be up by 4 am to drive out to the Guana Tolomato Matanza National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR), which is 2 hours away, to be there by sunrise. At the GTMNERR, we met up with Mathew Monroe, a Florida state biologist, to go over the plan for the day. Both Matt and Ada had their own experiments to check on, but the tides dictated when we would work on the various projects. Matt captained the boat, and we started the day checking some barriers Ada had set up in hopes to recruit oyster spat (i.e., baby oysters) along the banks of the Matanza river. Ada had a quadrat made of PVC that she used to quantify recruitment over the barrier. The soil was extremely soft, so we had to use caution when jumping off the boat into the water and approaching the experiments. Our legs sunk in the muck up to our knees at most places and sometimes up to our waists. We are used to getting dirty, but you have to keep moving in areas like this or the water rushes in trapping your legs. It is difficult enough to move but even harder to get out with all your clothing. My muck boots were put to the limits as I played tug-of-war with the mud. Each step of determination ended with a splosh and was quickly followed by another.
The second half of the day, Ada and I joined Matt on the oyster reefs. Again, PVC quadrats were used but this time they were much larger and marked with string every 10 cm creating a grid. The PVC quadrats were placed on top of the oysters and the number of live oysters, dead oysters, and sediment were recorded per square. This was repeated several times in different areas across the reef. The idea of these surveys is to characterize the population structure of the oysters in northeast Florida. This particular project has several different agencies and universities working together to map oyster recruitment. Results from these surveys help managers decide what areas need more projection and which can be opened to harvesting. While we worked, dolphins circled around us, cocking their heads as if to ask us what we were doing. One of them came within a foot from us and stayed until we moved to the next site.
Covered in mud, we returned to the car to drive back to Gainesville only to return to GTMNERR the following day. Ada said she wished we had just stayed in St. Augustine but housing wasn’t available at the time. Our cheese sandwiches had been left in the truck and melted in the hot Florida sun, so we got to end the field day with grilled cheese sandwiches. Back at the lab, we gathered supplies. This time, it was wooden stakes that Ada is using for her shipworm study. Ada has four wood treatments that she is testing: pressure-treated wooden stakes, copper paint treated wooden stakes, wooden stakes covered in weather resistant tape, and wooden stakes covered in silicone. She is comparing the damage caused by shipworms on these treatments to that of untreated wooden stakes. The next morning was another early one. This time, we brought wooden planks to navigate across the mud in the saltmarsh. Ada had ladders set up in tidal creeks of the Matanzas River constructed of branches from different trees. With these ladders, she is trying to determine how different tree species (i.e., laurel oak, sweetgum, crepe myrtle, and black mangrove) respond to shipworm infestations and how the prevalence of shipworms differs with distance from the sediment. Ada is placing her wooden stakes between the ladders since the shipworms will already be attracted to the ladders, so she can see which treatments work the best to extend the life of the wood. I really enjoyed seeing the variety of work going on in the saltmarsh, but I was most excited when we found the mangroves encroaching on the saltmarsh. In northern Florida, mangroves are typically viewed more negatively than they are further south. The reason for this is that the mangroves are expanding towards the poles with the changing climate. This, in itself, is not a bad thing but saltmarshes are vital ecosystems in Florida, and now, the mangroves are competing for the same area. Mangroves completely alter the habitat and food webs in these systems.
Knowing that part of my PhD research will be conducted in Florida, seeing the mangrove-saltmarsh interactions got the ideas flowing. The connection of the research I could conduct in north Florida to that in Bocas del Toro, Panama was not so clear. Bocas del Toro is primarily red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) meanwhile in north Florida, the dominate mangrove species is black mangrove (Avicennia germinans). In Bocas del Toro, the red mangroves are so numerous that they form entire islands large enough that people live on them. In north Florida, the red mangroves are isolated and the size of small shrubs. Galeta, Panama was primarily black mangrove so I could potentially use it as a comparison site to north Florida, but Galeta doesn’t have saltmarsh. Both north Florida and Galeta have muddy water with no visibility underwater compared to Bocas del Toro’s crystal clear water. I have a lot to contemplate but thankful to have these experiences to learn the systems better instead of trying to formulate experiments in Canada with only literature to inform my ideas.
Before heading to St. Augustine to live at the Whitney Marine Lab, Christine met up with Ada, myself, and Kimberly over dinner to discuss the future of the lab, research, and collaboration. I really enjoyed how Christine’s lab acts like a family and all of the lab members are extremely supportive of each other. Each graduate student in Christine’s lab has a very different project that equally demonstrate ingenuity and a deep understanding of the system they are working in. I found all the personalities of the lab members to be positive and compatible with my own which is extremely important when working together in the field under stressful conditions. I left Gainesville looking forward to the next time I return.
After starting my journey to St. Augustine to meet Todd and spend some time at the Whitney Marine Lab, I was surprised to find out that the Whitney is not actually in St. Augustine. It is actually in Marineland, Florida, a town in Flagler and St. Johns counties. The town is only 0.27 square miles and had a population of 16 people in 2010 across three households. I thought Todd was joking when he told me my neighbor in the research dorm was the mayor. Sure enough, the mayor was a young scientist that lived at the station. She told me of the history of Marineland and the Whitney while we got groceries for the next couple weeks.
The Whitney is a beautiful marine lab. I was impressed by the versatility of the facilities. A wet lab was transformed before my eyes to meet the needs of an incoming researcher. A large new building filled with classrooms and an auditorium provides the marine lab with a wonderful venue for their public lecture series, summer camps, and science education programs. The Whitney also has a sea turtle hospital where they rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtle as well as research some of the issues facing these turtles. One of the largest ongoing investigations at the sea turtle hospital is understanding the etiology of the Fibropapilloma virus (FP) which has been spreading around the world. FP presents in turtles as lesions, but it is much more than cosmetic. The virus alters the turtle’s feeding and breeding, leading to reduction in the already declining turtle populations. The sea turtle hospital has a major focus of educating and involving the community. By teaching the community about sea turtles and why they need our help, we can reduce sea turtle losses. Many sea turtles get lost heading to the ocean because they follow the moon but many beach establishments have lights that confuse the turtles, and they go the wrong way. Hatchlings (i.e., baby sea turtles) only have three days from when they emerge from the sand to make it to the sargassum (i.e., seaweed) floating in the ocean. They need the sargassum to hide in and feed. If they don’t make it in three days, they will starve. When people know this, they tend to be more careful about bright lights near the nesting beaches. Even just knowing the sea turtle hospital exists can save turtles because more people report injured turtles. I spent hours watching the recovering turtle feed. The laboratories at the Whitney were fully stocked with equipment I had never used before and shelves filled with books I had never read. As I waited for Todd to finish a meeting with a graduate student so he could introduce me to his team and explain what I would be doing the next couple weeks, I started furiously jotting down names of books and authors to look up in my notepad. Todd found me doing this and told me I was welcome to borrow any book during my visit. Since it was the end of the work day and everyone was getting ready to go home, after meeting Trent Dye, Todd’s lab manager, and Tracey Schafer, one of Todd’s graduate students, I grabbed a stack of books and headed back to my room. The words from these books came to life and led me on a journey from microbial black boxes to biogeochemical cycles such as soil oxidation-reduction of wetlands and alterations of nutrient cycles. Before I knew it, the sun was setting. I grabbed a fresh mango, walked to the dock, and sat down beneath a mangrove tree to watch the sunset in the estuary. The juice dripped down my hand and small crabs began to emerge from their burrows. Ideas swirled in my head as the horizon glowed bright amber before the sun ducked behind the mangroves.
Today, I went out with Trent and Tracy to collect water samples from the saltmarsh. Todd’s lab had deployed pore water sippers which is basically a tray of water membranes that are inserted into the sediment at the desired depth and then removed. They work through osmosis to collect data on the water in the soil without contamination from the sediment itself. We used a syringe to extract the pore water from the sipper. Pore water can provide data on pH, salinity, alkalinity, sulfides, sulfate, chloride, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, ferrous and ferric iron, ammonium, and nitrate concentrations. The ones that we collected were in traditional saltmarsh surrounded by grasses, in transition zones where mangroves were growing in the grass, and in areas with only mangroves. We came from the land instead of the water so there wasn’t as much sinking in the mud as there was with Ada’s research. I really enjoyed learning about wetland biogeochemistry from Todd and was excited that my skills using a syringe to collect blood from animals could go to good use working with soil and plants in wetlands. Later this week, I will be joining Tracy and Trent in surveying more oysters and seeing what other projects they are working on. I am happy to spend so much time in the field and then relax in the evenings with my stack of books. I am looking forward to this collaboration and what will come from it.
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:
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.
After packing up my life on the west coast and driving across the country to leave my pets in the care of my family I set forth on a new adventure. One of my advisors lives in Panama, Andrew Altieri, and the other in Canada, Lauren Chapman, meanwhile I have been living in the U.S. We have been Skyping with one another but have yet to meet in person. In accepting this position, I knew I would be moving between Canada, the U.S., and Panama but have no idea how much time I will be spending in any of the locations over the next 5+ years. I came to the conclusion that it made the most sense to keep the majority of my belongings in storage while I live this nomadic life. While in the U.S. and Canada I will keep my pets with me but when I’m in Panama they will stay with my family. My first semester at McGill does not start until September but Andrew wanted to meet me, introduce me to some of the people in Panama, and have me start thinking about project ideas so we decided a trip to Panama May-June would be a good first step.
Several friends of mine had worked with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and told me all about it but I was still surprised by the presence STRI has in Panama. The history of STRI dates back to the early 1900s when the Panama Canal was first being built. Biologists and entomologists were invited to come to Panama to survey the flora and fauna of the area in hopes to control diseases like yellow fever and malaria. Over the construction of the canal, the biological surveys expanded to cover all of Panama. During the construction of the canal, large areas were flooded. One particular mountain became a 1,500 hectare island known as Barro Colorado Island (BCI) and in 1923 BCI was declared a biological reserve, one of the first in the New World. At first BCI became an experimental outdoor laboratory for the Smithsonian and several U.S. universities but by 1946 control of the island was given to STRI. To this day, STRI continues to work with different universities to allow researchers to work on the island. There are eight primary STRI facilities in Panama: Gamboa, Barro Colorado Island, Naos, Tupper, Galeta, Fortuna, Coibita/Ranchería Island, and Bocas del Toro. BCI is the oldest and most extensively studied station but I will be working at the marine laboratories. STRI has marine stations on both the Atlantic/Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Panama. The Atlantic/Caribbean stations are Galeta Point Marine Laboratory and Bocas del Toro Research Station. The Pacific stations are Naos Island Laboratories and Coibita/Ranchería Island.
When I first arrived in Panama I was surprised by the skyline of Panama City. The city is expansive and the skyscrapers remind me of Miami. If it wasn’t for the patches of rainforest in the city I might have thought our plane had turned around and returned to Florida. In Panama City I met with Andrew at the Earl S. Tupper Research Library and Conference Center where I received my STRI access card and ID. After a tour of Tupper we headed to the Naos Island Laboratories where Andrew’s office and lab is located. 24 hours later, I was on a plane to the Bocas del Toro Research Station where I will be spending the majority of my time this trip. Flying in I was mesmerized by the lush green, twisting mangrove islands against the crystal blue and teal ocean. I didn’t know what to expect of Bocas Town, the metropolis of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago on Colón Island, but I pictured something similar to San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos archipelago. From what information I could find prior to my visit, the listed populations of the two were fairly similar but in recent years it seemed that the number of residents in Bocas Town dramatically fluctuated. Indeed, there were many similarities between the two archipelagos: a focus on tourism, lack of basic infrastructure, limited health care, but there were large differences as well. Where the majority of San Cristóbal Island residents were employed by the government, tourism, and artisanal fishing, the primary occupation of Colón Island residents seems to be solely based on tourism as the fishery crashed and has yet to rebound.
Waiting for me at the airport were Viktoria Frühling (Viky) and Carl Nellbring, STRI fellow and intern respectively. Viky has been working with Andrew over the years on drivers of biodiversity in rocky intertidal areas and more recently has been focusing on mangroves, continuing some of the research started by Ilka (Candy) Feller. Carl just finished his MSc at the University of Stockholm and wanted to gain some field experience before starting his career. Viky and Carl gave me a tour of the Bocas station and our laboratory where I met Mike Hynes, the third member of the mangrove crew I would be joining. Although Mike is currently helping on this mangrove project, his research interest is paleontology and he worked with staff scientist Aaron O’dea on coral reefs before interning in the Altieri lab. The Bocas station is one of the most impressive field stations I have seen in the tropics. It was founded in 1998 and in 2003 the laboratory with state of the art equipment was completed. Classrooms equipped with microscopes, an optics lab, wet labs, a conference room, machine shop, library of pertinent texts, dive locker, eight motor boats and two kayaks as well as WiFi throughout the station enables scientists from around the world to the station to conduct their research. Dormitories, houses, kitchens, and laundry facilities, the most recent completed 10 years ago, with drinking water and air conditioning (only in the houses) makes living on station a luxury. I am staying in the older dormitory now known as the student dorms, compared to the new dormitory known as the research dorms. The student dorms have four rooms which each fit eight people. If the room is filled there might be a fight for the sole bathroom but I only have one roommate. Our dorm has two fans which again works when there are only two people but I’m not sure what happens if there are eight sweaty and tired researchers. Our room has a screened in porch which I’ve seen people hanging their hammocks from. Everything, from the walls and floor to ceiling are made of wood in the old dorms. It reminds me of summer camp. Viky and Carl live in the new dorms which have tile floors and plastered walls as well as two ceiling fans and one floor fan. There are eight rooms in the new dorms but they only fit two beds because they also have a desk and drawers in addition to the closet. The corner rooms have a screened-in porch (first floor) or balcony (second floor). These rooms remind me more of what you would see in a hotel.
To drive a boat in Panama you must have a Panamanian boat driver’s license. Even though Carl is a sailor and has an international boat driver’s license, he cannot drive a boat here. Viky has the Panamanian license so she captains the boat each day we go into the field and Carl is her first mate. I am amazed how Viky navigates the islands. The boats have no depth finders, some don’t even have a working gas gauge, but Viky knows the area well enough she can find any island with natural markers or by using the compass when visibility is too low to see anything. We have a Garmin GPSMap 78SC that we take on the boat but when the clouds roll in we lose our satellites. On clear days in the morning you can spot coral reef and shallow areas by the change in the color of the water. Dark blue means deep water and you are clear to go forward, light blue indicates shallow water and edge of reef, green means caution shallow water, pale green and yellow you should avoid because it is too shallow and brown is to be avoided because it indicates reef. Polarized sun glasses are a must to see through the glare of the water and tell what lies below. Some boaters here ignore the colors and go as fast as possible so the boat partially lifts out of the water and they can skim over the reef but this can damage the reef and possibly sink your boat if you aren’t high enough. I don’t know how she did it but Viky traversed the winding mangrove channels to small mangrove ponds.
At this time I am joining the mangrove crew (i.e. Viky, Carl, and Mike) in collecting measurements of channels cutting through mangrove islands and leading into ponds in the middle of these mangrove islands. We are also collecting measurements on the ponds themselves so we can calculate flow into these areas and volume. We break up into pairs for efficiency, two in the channel and two in the ponds. It is amazing how different the two areas are. The channels are deep with cold, clear water and have high biodiversity. The ponds are shallow and hot with low diversity. Our first day in the ponds I saw shocked to count 100-200 Cassiopea (upside-down jellyfish). I actually lost count while writing down data and had to restart. Then the following day we probably saw 1000+. The jellies are so dense that in some places they are laying on top of each other. I even saw one riding a sea cucumber. I am really learning a lot about mangroves here in Bocas del Toro and starting a list of research project ideas based on questions that come to me while I’m in the field.
The world is filled with mystery, questions waiting to be asked and answers to be found. As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with the natural world. With a jar and a magnifying glass, I would scour the prairie across from my house, examining every insect I could find before letting it go. I would collect plants and study their uses. My exploration taught me what native plants could be used to heal, which could be eaten, and which were dangerous. My parents have always supported my curiosity. In elementary school, they bought me my first chemistry set, microscope, and countless science textbooks. In the summers, they would send me to science camps where I could build rockets, dissect fetal pigs, put together skeletons of small birds and mammals from owl pellets, and learn how important science is to everything we do.
Growing up in a university town provided incredible opportunities like fieldtrips to the poisonous plant garden, courses on building robots, computer graphic engineering and virtual reality at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, sticking your arm inside a fistulated cow to feel the warm food being digested by the rumen, attending the engineering open house to watch demonstrations, and the insect fear film festival put together by the entomology department. In middle school, I joined GEMS club (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science) where I started to get more interested in medicine after a trip to the morgue and learning how organs are harvested to save lives. My local Explorer scout troop specialized in veterinary medicine so while some of my peers were learning how to sew on a missing button I was practicing suturing techniques on skin models. Having difficulty deciding between human medicine and veterinary medicine I volunteered at the ambulance service and interned at the veterinary teaching hospital outside of school hours. By the time, I went to college I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. After studying abroad in the Galapagos Islands, I fell in love with the oceans and switched my career path towards marine biology. Everything about marine biology fascinated me. Despite oceans making up the majority of our planet, our knowledge about the oceans is extremely limited. It is more difficult to send a person to the bottom of the ocean than it is into space and it is more dangerous.
I thought after I graduated that I would become a marine biologist but I listened when people in my field continued to tell me how difficult it is and that there was no place for me in marine biology. One of the nicer things my advisor told me was that I had better chances of becoming a veterinarian than a professional marine biologist. Having been supported most of my life to follow my aspirations this was the first time I encountered such negativity and thought maybe everyone was right and they were trying to point me in the right direction. After a few years of trying out different paths and coming against hurdle after hurdle I found my passion again working with fish and studying physiology. I went to graduate school where I earned my Master’s degree in wildlife, fisheries, and aquaculture before working a couple more years as a faculty research assistant. In all the scientific fields, I worked in there was someone telling me that I was wrong or that I would fail. In each field, I encountered varying degrees of sexism, ageism, racism and other forms of discrimination. Throughout it all I pursued and overcame. Seeing that there would be barriers anywhere I go but I would also still have the support of my family and friends, I decided to go back to marine biology.
In April 2016, I accepted a PhD position at McGill University with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This blog is my account of what it is like to be a PhD student and an aspiring marine biologist. My hope is that this blog will inspire and educate. I will not sugar coat my experiences because it is important for others to know what hurdles there are if you choose this field. Then you can make your own decision about your future instead of listening to what others believe your abilities are.