In my project, I travelled to Panama for two weeks with a group of undergraduates enrolled in EEOB 4420: Tropical Field Studies. Our day-to-day activities included hiking through nature, observing the biodiversity, attending research seminars with Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute affiliates, as well as learning about the culture, subcultures, and history of Panama.
Until completing this project, I had never travelled anywhere outside the United States, let alone to a developing country. Even though parts of Panama are heavily Americanized due to the construction of the canal, my experience in Panama was my first time in an environment where my native language, skin color, and mannerisms made me a minority. In addition, Panama is home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the world due to its geographic location. Thus, the truly transformative aspect of this experience for me was being immersed in this environment where everything surrounding me was unfamiliar.
One notable aspect of this experience was having to adjust to English not being the primary language spoken in Panama. Often we take for granted the luxury of residing in a country where our native language is the normal, accepted language. However, when non-English speakers travel to America, they have the extra step of translating what they want to say before they speak, rather than being able to just speak the language fluently. For the first time, I was able to understand what that was like. While most of the STRI staff and researchers spoke English as well as Spanish, whenever we were not interacting with researchers, we had to call upon our basic knowledge of Spanish, and have the extra step of mentally translating our sentences before we spoke. Thus, this experience was transformative in that I knew for the first time what it is like to be in a country where the primary language spoken is not my native language.
Another key aspect of this experience was being able to conduct field-based scientific research. I currently work in lab with the department of EEOB, and my experience working there has been very valuable. However, my day-to-day activities in the lab cover only one side of the biological research coin: bench work, with the other side being field work. As a requirement of Tropical Field Studies, we had to divide ourselves into groups, choose a study species easily found in Panama, and form a hypothesis that we could easily test in our time at Panama. My group studied the behavior of leaf-cutter ants, which, as the name suggests, cut leaves for farming purposes. We were interested in the relationship between the toughness of leaves cut by the ants and the sizes of the cuts, and while our results were inconclusive, we still had the experience of going through the scientific process in the field
As mentioned before, Panama is home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the continent. The reason for that is not only due to the fairly constant year-round temperatures, but also the formation of the isthmus of Panama which joined North and South America. The two continents already had a fair amount of biodiversity, but when you combine the species richness of both continents, the potential for migration, coevolution, and divergence skyrockets, with Panama being the literal hotspot for it. The point is, being in Panama exposed me to a wide array of biodiversity that I would not have been exposed to if I had not traveled there, from the aforementioned leaf-cutter ants, to the many species of toucans and humming birds, as well as howler monkeys. Therefore, my experience in Panama was transformative in that I was able to see with my own eyes the results of evolution in the tropics.
Overall, my STEP experience has helped me grow as a scientist and a citizen of the world. I got to be immersed in another nation’s culture for the first time in my life, as well as examine unfamiliar biodiversity. I also was given the opportunity to conduct field research, which will help me in my life, as I intend to continue doing research throughout my life. All in all, being in Panama for two weeks is an experience I will hold onto throughout my life, as I have never had a comparable experience. Needless to say, I can’t wait to go back.