Not always according to plan

As part of our curriculum for our trip to Panama, we were all asked to design and conduct a research project of our choice.  We split into groups of three and were provided some basic equipment to help us along the way.  To make thing even easier, we were literally in the jungle- where everything is fascinating and you can’t shake a stick without hitting a potential research proposal.  Easy, right?  Of course!  At least that’s what I thought when we were walking to the field to set our first pitfall traps.  Our group initially wanted to test the biodiversity of small reptiles in different types of ground cover.  We figured that after a few days of setting small pitfall traps and catching hundreds of lizards we’d be swimming in data and could rest easy for the second week.  Nope!  In three locations, we successfully caught a single beetle.  And it really wasn’t even that cool of a beetle.  So we tried again, modifying the traps to be deeper and setting our sights on insects, rather than lizards.  We had the same intentions- to test biodiversity of insects in different types of ground cover.  Insects are all over the ground and certainly wouldn’t be able to escape our precisely designed, new-and-improved traps.  I skipped to our test site with visions of correlating data and supported hypotheses dancing though my head.  I was sure that we’d have more than enough insects to develop a sophisticated project and contribute new groundbreaking knowledge to the scientific community.  So you can imagine my disappointment when we collected an ant, a dead daddylongleg, and another beetle.  Now I was starting to get nervous.  When it comes to assignments, I start to get a little frazzled if things don’t go according to the plan laid out in my head.  And things certainly weren’t going according to plan.

This non-linear, unpredictable and sometimes non-sensical process we call research is much more complex than I had realized.  And although I was initially bummed that our ideas just weren’t working out, I took away some good lessons from the experience.  You need to not take it too personally when your idea goes belly up before your eyes.  Some of the greatest discoveries, scientific and otherwise, have only been made after countless failed attempts and even years of struggling.  A failed experiment doesn’t mean you’re stupid or that you shouldn’t be doing research.  It means that what you tried simply didn’t work, and that you need to adjust and try again.  So that’s what we did.  We ended up examining whether or not there was any correlation between the height of red-eyed tree frog egg clutches (from clutch to water surface) and the number of eggs in the clutch.  We had access to 24 clutches near the place we were staying, so at least this time around we were able to collect some data.  I have loved red-eyed tree frogs since I was a kid (they’re still painted on my bedroom wall at home) so I was eager to do a project involving them.  We spent hours stomping around the pond, getting bombarded by mosquitos and taking measurements.  So after several failures, revisions, tick bites, and overhauls, would we finally get the results we were hoping for?  Eh, kindof.  Our hypothesis was not supported, and there was really no discernible correlation in our data.  But a week and a half later, my group and I had completed a project.  A small project that was put together by a bunch of science rookies, but a project nonetheless.

As my love of science grows, I look forward to conducting research of my own in the future.  And when I do, I will look back to my maiden voyage of research here in Panama and remember what I learned.  In addition to a proposal, coffee, and equipment, you need a lot of patience to conduct research.  You need motivation, and you should be excited (or at least interested!) to be learning more about your subject of interest.  You need to be able to roll with the changes as they arise, and from what others have told me, they most likely will.  This week I have seen incredible research projects by some of the brightest minds in science, with topics ranging from ants to bats to trees and everything in between.  They asked a question, pursued it, and after years of hard work, got an answer.  Maybe it wasn’t the answer they were expecting or wanted.  Maybe it was.  Either way, a contribution to science was made because these individuals didn’t give up when things got hard.  Wherever my career in science takes me, I will look back fondly on my first attempt in at research and what I learned from it.

Lessons from the Embera

Standing at the bow of a long dugout canoe, our guide skillfully guides us through the stony fords of the San Juan River. He moves with confidence and seems familiar with the river’s curves and currents, using a long wooden pole to keep us from touching the bank. As we move upstream, kingfishers dive from steep rock embankments and glide over the water, disappearing into the forest on the other side. Long vines and leafy tendrils hang from the towering canopy sway over the bank. We approach a cluster of palm huts that overlook the river, and the sounds of flutes and drums dance across the water to greet us. We have arrived at the Embera village.IMG_4193

Prior to making this incredible journey, I had no idea what to expect from our Embera village visit. In the past, I’ve had the opportunity to see the tropics and even interact with local people living in rural communities. But I knew that this experience would be different. The Embera are a group of indigenous people who live along the rivers of Panama and Columbia. More than 30,000 Embera live in Panama, and while some have chosen to live in towns and urban areas, many still cling to the cultures and traditions of their ancestors. The riverbanks that they call home provide them with so many of their necessities- food, transport, and even aspects of their spiritual life. They are skilled artisans with a rich culture that refuses to be erased by increasing urbanization and mounting economic pressure. In addition to giving our group a delicious traditional meal and intrinsic tribal body tattoos (temporary, of course), they also imparted us with something that will surely last a bIMG_4122it longer- a new perspective.

Nature is at the center of the Embera lifestyle. Today the village shaman led our group through winding forest trails, explaining the importance of multiple native plants. Medicinal herbs are used to heal ailments ranging from impotency to hemophilia. Multi-generational homes are constructed out of sturdy palm beams and bark, and vibrantly colored crafts are dyed with the pigments of roots and leaves. Fruits and vegetables, including the best tasting pineapple I’ve ever had, are grown along the fertile riverbanks. And in all of this utilization of the natural resources that surround them, the Embera people maintain a deep-rooted respect for the natural world. So many people (including myself at times) seem to become detached fromIMG_4137 nature. When our food comes to us from refrigerated Kroger aisles and our clothes are made an ocean away, it becomes so easy to distance ourselves and the commodities we use daily from the natural world. The word ‘nature’ becomes associated with trips to state parks and National Geographic covers. Today my experience with the Embera people gave me a reminder that I desperately needed. As humans, we are not separate from nature; we are a part of nature.  And as a part of nature, it is our responsibility to maintain the natural world to the best of our ability, to accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions, and to actively seek solutions to the problems that exist today.  Perhaps if more people could take a lesson from the Embera and adopt this mindset, we could move forward in creating a healthier, more sustainable world.