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.