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.
Learn about a day in the life of our Fellows, from the field to the classroom as they compete their journey through graduate school.