For my STEP signature project, I participated in a two week study abroad program for Tropical Field Ecology in Gamboa, Panama. The course was structured around seeing the research being done in the area, conducting our own, and taking any opportunity to cross sightseeing with learning.
Much of the group’s time was spent on Barro Colorado Island– a world-renowned center of biodiversity. During our last tour of the deeper rainforest, we stopped to rest and we were passed overhead by a troop of golden-mantled howler monkeys; hearing the howls in the distance every night built up a lot of anticipation prior to this. The troop consisted of 4-5 adults– it’s hard to tell when they’re not all in view simultaneously– and one baby a fraction of the others’ size swinging in their wake. At least one of the adults was male, and the baby was estimated at 9-12 months old by the TA, citing maturation into black fur and behavioral cues (hovering near the mother but swinging playfully on his prehensile tail). All of them were foraging and lazily popping leaves into their mouths, but two of the larger adults descended a few feet further to the ground, laid stomach-down on thick branches, and stared intensely back at us. Given that we weren’t howled at and they took their sweet time leaving, we were seen as more of a curiosity than a threat, but years of researcher activity have definitely familiarized them to the conspicuously colored ground apes.
Coordinators in OIA kept emphasizing culture shock pre-departure, but the main thing that felt surreal was the local perception of “common” animals compared to those back home. Prior to this, I had only seen leaf-cutter ants in the Cincinnati Zoo, marching along a tube in the insect house just east of the gorilla enclosure. But in Panama they were marching everywhere from the deep jungle to paved roads, analogous to the boring black ants that scheme over picnic food in the US. Another night, I was wading through a pond to collect data on red-eyed tree frog eggs, reflecting on how it’s a far leap (pun intended) from reading about the species in Magic Tree House in preschool. At one point I felt a small pressure on my knee, too abrupt to be a leaf brushing past. I swung over the flashlight beam to an actual red-eyed tree frog just clinging to my pants and bobbing his vocal sac up and down. After a few moments of hesitation, he hopped down to my boot and away into the brush. Across the country, agoutis were akin to squirrels, and the Panama City Zoo had a single white tailed deer grazing in a cage. My point is that exoticism is fascinating by definition, but also entirely subjective, and small day to day moments reinforced the idea.
At another point we visited a village of Embera— one of the few indigenous peoples whose culture survived Spanish conquest. A translator walked with the village healer to show us the plants in the area used for food, medicines, and dyes. The leaves of one plant functioned as a chemical exfoliant, and locals would rub it on their babies so that they wouldn’t grow up with body hair. Immediately I was intrigued that preference for hair removal isn’t an exclusively First World standard of beauty… but the thought soon turned to “where can I get some of these leaves??” Natives would also decorate themselves with jagua fruit— it stains the skin in a manner similar to henna, and when mixed with a cocktail of herbs allegedly acts as an insect repellant. Our group had an opportunity to be painted in the same manner, and given that I had no professional aspirations in the coming weeks, they hit me up with a geometric design all across my collar bones and arms.
Other notable activities included kayaking around Lake Gatun, touring the Panama Canal, visiting the Museum of Biological Diversity, exploring Fort Sherman (a favorite base of pirate Henry Morgan), and playing in a saltwater tide pool on the Caribbean side. The tide pool was off the official itinerary, but way up there in terms of my favorite adventure spots. Every square inch was covered in chitons and tiny hermit crabs that made the landscape painful to navigate- a plateau of legos, if you can imagine. In small groups we’d stop every few feet and crouch with our backs to the sun, trying to pry up the chitons from the rock bed. It was high tide by the time we got to the cliff face, and waves would crash over at least four feet high. At least half of us ended up with cuts and small injuries from being knocked around by waves and crustaceans, but overall it was incredibly therapeutic.
Most of the experiences didn’t change my long-term perspectives so much as short-term adrenaline levels. But the more relevant takeaways relate to my intended career of research in the biological sciences. While I still intend to go to grad school for genetics, a big part of my decision to embark on this project was to brainstorm plans C through F, in case things don’t go as planned. And as expected, a lot of the discussions we had with researchers either reinforced or challenged my understanding of higher academia. For instance, I’d long been under the impression that a doctoral degree is necessary to make a noticeable impact on scientific knowledge, but most of the people we talked to were in post-baccalaureate internships, and making incredible strides with their work. Local projects like Agua Salud gave some hope that the scientific community can work in harmony with government to restore fractured habitats, to test wood viability for reforestation and commercial use, etc. ICBG also gave me a little more interest in bioprospecting, after learning about relationships like bufotoxins in treating arrhythmia. However, both institutions also reinforced the idea that funding is everything– unless you can secure and renew it, it’s a very real possibility to be packed up and sent home.
If I had the opportunity to go back and pick a different study abroad program or STEP category, I wouldn’t change a thing. Studying in Gamboa was incredibly fun, I’ve made good friends from it, and learned way more about the ins and outs of field work and the biological sciences.