The most valuable lesson I learned (or, should I say, remembered) on my OTS course

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I have a personality type that tends to succumb to an unfortunate condition: stress. Throughout my schooling I excelled in nearly everything that I did. Not to say that I didn’t work hard, but I always seemed to have a natural knack for what I was doing. This lack of failure I experienced and my tendency towards perfectionism (eek!) led to an unrealistic perspective of myself as a professional.

Graduate school is hard. At the end of my first year, right before I came on the OTS course, I was feeling a little desperate. Despite having worked hard in my classes and on an “on-the-side” research project, I still hadn’t accomplished this looming goal: coming up with a solid dissertation project. Needless to say, it was a considerable source of stress. Enough so that I lost sight of the main reason that I wanted to be in graduate school.

Then came a two month whirlwind of colors, shapes, smells, textures, sounds, questions, curiosity and creativity. The OTS course is a mix between biology boot-camp and summer-camp. Boot-camp because we were busy learning from 0700 to 2200 hours everyday. Summer-camp because we were like giddy children, frolicking in our favorite jungle-gym, fascinated by every big tree and little insect. I learned a lot of valuable skills from the boot-camp side of the course that I will take with me as I continue in my studies: how to analyze data, give a good presentation, design experiments, and implement those experiments in challenging field conditions.

However, the most valuable lesson I take from this course is something that I always knew, something that I remembered while on the course. It is something that I felt while walking through the forests in total awe, something that I felt while setting up an experiment that involved 40 m pole cutters and 60 empty beer cans, and something that I even felt as I learned how to run statistics in R. It is something that was given as words-of-wisdom by the majority of our outstanding visiting faculty. It is simply this: science is FUN! We are biologists because, despite the long hours and low pay, nature is amazing and figuring out how it works is FUN. And most importantly, if it is not fun, don’t do it.

The first time I heard one of our visiting faculty say this, it really hit a bell. I DO think nature is amazing and I DO love the process of figuring out why and how nature works. I realize that I really need to work on my tendency to feel stressed and this notion of being a perfectionist – both are unnecessary and unrealistic. I leave this course feeling rejuvenated and more empowered than I did when I started the course. I know that there will be times ahead with lots of work, but I also know that as long as I remember to laugh and have fun with it, my time spent doing science will be well worth it.

PURA VIDA!

Barro Colorado: More Than Just An Island

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When the USA built the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914, the army engineers created a humongous dam and the world’s largest artificial lake (at the time– Lake Mead, held back by the Hoover Dam in Nevada, is now larger). Lake Gatun, as it is known, submerged thousands of miles of tropical rainforests, flooded hundreds of farms, and required the relocation of several indigenous communities.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? I won’t argue the fact that creating this lake had several negative environmental and social aspects, but it does have some positive aspects for understanding how the natural world functions. Once the water stopped rising, the peaks of several mountains in the area became islands. We call the largest of these man-made islands Barro Colorado.

Barro Colorado Island wasn’t always an island

After the graduate course ended, six of us continued our journey at Barro Colorado Island, which is now a tropical research station run by the Smithsonian. As the huge container ships sail by on their way to the Atlantic or Pacific, hundreds of scientists work year-round on all kinds of interesting questions. We heard talks about ants in the forest canopy, chemicals in leaves that protect them from herbivores, and bats that eat fish (obligatory awesome photos here)!

You may have heard of habitat fragmentation– which is what happens when humans build farms or cities around forests or prairies. Well that’s exactly what happened when we “built” a lake around all these mountain tops and created a bunch of islands. Since Barro Colorado is an artificial island, it allows the scientists there to see what happens when humans isolate natural areas.

Sadly, the number of animals species has decreased on all the islands, ever since the lake formed. Birds that don’t like to fly in open areas (aka over lakes) died off, even on the largest islands, as their populations became small and inbred. The number of big cats seen on the islands decreased, too.

But, the big cats haven’t disappeared. Ocelots still live on Barro Colorado, the biggest island, and a jaguar will even swim over once and while! Also interesting, those freakin’ awesome fishing bats I told you about? They’re doing great on the large and small islands. For them, this type of habitat fragmentation wasn’t so much about isolation as it was about exciting new hunting grounds!

Now, most habitat fragmentation isn’t caused by lakes or water. So understanding how farms or cities impact natural processes and communities is important, too. The team of scientists at the Smithsonian and Barro Colorado is working on this, right on the Panamanian mainland. The Agua Salud project promises a lot of interesting advances– ones that I’ll be happy to follow, and maybe even participate in, in the future.