Scientists are weird

And they are not about to get more normal



Previous studies have suggested that scientists are weird. Drawing on the conclusions of a case study realized in Panama in January 2017, we hereby reinforce this statement. Furthermore, our study points towards a possible increase in weirdness in the next few years. However, more studies would be necessary to confirm this preoccupying hypothesis.


For the purpose of this study, 16 observers were brought together in Panama for a period of 3 weeks, during which they were exposed to a vast array of scientists (n>30) coming from various fields related to tropical biology. The group of observers was herded all around the country to study different scientists in various environments (said environments include: island of tropical forest providing strict isolation of scientists from the rest of the world, remote mountainous region, Caribbean resort)

The scientists studied were told to present their study field and research work to the group of observers who were presented as “the next generation of tropical scientists”. Most scientists filled this requirement in the form of a lecture, often complementing it with a visit to the field. Some also accompanied the group of observers in the realisation of group projects. Throughout these activities, the group of observers took notes, asked questions, participated assiduously to the activities prepared by the scientists and produced numerous related blog posts, thus playing convincingly their part as “future tropical scientists”. Observations about signs of weirdness would be denoted throughout these interactions between the scientists and observers. In order to increase reliability of the present study, triangulation was used to verify former observations. In this regard, scientists were also observed in more casual situations, such as sharing diner, cold beers and dance floor with the group of observers. Also, most of the scientists studied having provided some of their own publications, these were meticulously read as a third source of data collection. These different sources of data were then regrouped and analyzed thoroughly in order to attest if our sample attested for scientists’ weirdness or not. Observers bias was effectively neutralized by the diversity of observers in terms of provenance, training and personal characters.

Moreover, an opportunistic individual from the group of observers realized that the group of observers, indeed being composed of future tropical scientists, could in fact serve as an interesting data set in the present study. The generational difference with the scientists formerly studied was thus used to add a cross-sectional dimension to the study. However, due to the significantly shorter amount of experience this group has in the scientific world, the same methods could not be reproduced with the same intensity within this second group. This part of the study relies mostly on observations made in casual contexts, such as sharing meals, cold beers, mojitos, short and long bus/boat/plane rides, basket-volley ball games, etc. More controlled contexts are limited to participation to the scientists lead activities described above. Finally, the only publications emerging from this second group that were consulted are blog posts. We consider that there was no observer bias as the principal observer cited here is a confused French Canadian who doesn’t have a strong sense of what is going on in this world.


In the case of the first and older group observed, many signs of weirdness were noted during the experiment. Table 1.1 shows a few examples of strange behaviors noted during lectures and fieldwork.

Setting up love hotels for false crabs so they will mate in front of the camera 1
Walking in the forest with socks full of corn starch 2
Calling a shovelful of dirt, fungus and angry leaf-cutter ants “gold” 1
Swimming in the ocean with bundles of baits in the hope of attracting predators. 3
Checking ALL of the leaves in ALL of the trees in a 50 ha plot 1
Referring to leaf pathogens as “beautiful” 2
Creating mutant butterflies 3
Creating supersoldier ants 1
Continuing lectures after 10 PM. 10

The signs of weirdness observed with this method of data collection are strongly supported by publications read, which confirm in many cases the seriousness that the scientists put in their weird ideas (no publications will be cited here, in order to keep participants’ anonymity).

However, our other data collection method (casual context such as sharing dinner and beers with studied subjects) suggests contradictory results; in those casual contexts, observed scientists appeared as very normal human beings. However, we decided to reject these outliers, as data collected through lectures and fieldwork provide such strong evidence of weirdness. We can thus assert, with a confidence interval of 95%, that the scientists sampled are, indeed, weird. We consider that the diversity of observed scientists is sufficient to generalize this conclusion to the whole population of tropical scientists.

As for the second set of scientists studied, a worrisome amount of strange behaviors was noted throughout all of the data collection methods. These behaviors include, but are not limited to: eating peanut butter and relish sandwiches (and liking it); showing a profound distaste for pretty and colorful things; spending several hours debating preferred ways of accidently dying in the jungle; asking lecturers to go on with their lecture even past 10 pm; showing disproportionate hatred for plant genomics; imitating all kinds of different species like ants, vampire bats, butterflies and even Chihuahuas; enthusiastically looking for crocodiles.

On a larger scale, we noted that this group would also do pretty much anything they were told to do without questioning it (for instance, if an individual was told to “get the f*** in the water”, they would immediately jump in the water). Another recurring strange habit was the generalized identity crisis in which this whole group seemed to be: first, very few of them could actually put a name on their type of research. Most of them would mix up random subjects, like anthropology and genomics, when asked about their research subject. Second, even though they have already invested a lot of work in their own field, you would often hear them say random things like “I want to study bats!” when they studied forest management or “I’m going to be a marine biologist!” when they were actually studying soils.

All these observations enable us to confirm with complete certainty that weirdness is spread across all generations of scientists. Moreover, comparing the younger and older generations of scientists of this case study, we perceive a trend to increasing weirdness in the younger generation, as shown in figure 1.1, where group 1 represent the first group here examined and group 2 represents the group that also served as observers for group 1.


Figure 1.1 Increasing weirdness through generations

However, it is impossible for the moment to confirm this trend, as, like exposed earlier, data gathered for the second group is not entirely reliable, given the casual context of its collect and the limited number of participants. Also worthy of noting is the limited amount of time these individuals have spent in the scientific world. Thus, the correlation between their denomination as “scientists” and relative weirdness might not be strong. An interesting question emerging from this realization is: are people becoming scientists because they are weird, or are people becoming weird because of science?

Apart from these frightening results, we end this study with some more surprising insights; although, as the depiction made above suggests, the group of younger scientists can sound like a big mess, it seems that they might in fact be evolving into something completely new. Of this group we have also noted an incredible amount of cooperation; the diverging backgrounds of observed individuals was, in general, not a source of disruption, but rather an opportunity to build knowledge, enhance reflections and provide all sorts of solutions to problems faced. This collaborative spirit showed in all kinds of situations. For example, with this strange group, a mere visit in the forest could become a very extensive analysis; for every question, be it on ants, birds, bees, soils, human uses, plant genomics, monkeys, carbon-cycle, etc., there was a knowledgeable individual eager to share with their counterparts. Also, they totally kicked ass at accomplishing complicated tasks like preparing a group barbecue. Could weirdness actually be the key element to this supra-level of organization? We would certainly need some further testing (perhaps more field courses in the Caribbean?) to fuel this reflection.


Through this study, we have, with different methods, proven that, indeed, scientists are weird. Although the increasing trend we have found is disturbing and should be further explored, we conclude that, through innovative strategies, it seems that the younger generation might be able to make it alright despite their abnormal weirdness. Maybe that is actually how generations and generations of scientists before us have also survived?


The Awards

In honor of George’s thoughtful generosity and deep reflection on each of our eccentricities, I wanted to enhance the recognition of our individuality with the humorous impressions we formed of each other as a group. After spending much time together throughout the field course, these awards, often contrived from inside jokes, are amplified by the artwork that graced each certificate. Several of the meanings can be inferred from George’s post, however I think most of us will recall each explanation with ease and a reminiscent smile, along with a chuckle upon remembering the beer and pizza fueled final night at La Rana Dorada.

DANIEL: Most likely to reincarnate as a German Shepherd Dog

ANDREANNE: Most likely to get bruised peeling an orange

HEATHER: Most likely to take a picture of the poisonous frog before it kills her

LOTTE: Most likely to commit a violent crime after losing at cards

ANGEL: Most likely to trip and fall while coding in Python

STEPHEN: Most likely to reincarnate as a vampire bat

KARTHIK: Most likely to treat a night out as an anthropogenic (anthropological) experiment

CAITLIN: Most likely to get arrested for smuggling rocks

CAMILO: Most likely to find a good spot to chill

KIRA: Most likely to be seduced by a lance-tailed manakin

IVON: Most likely to destroy the dance floor without spilling her mojito

JAVIER: Most likely to somehow find an ant on the moon

CHLOE: Most SPFs per minute

CATHERINE: Least likely to get run over by a boat

GEORGIA: Most quotable. “Tranquilo”

SARAI: Queen bee (with a cold beer in hand)

CARLOS: World’s best dad…already!

OWEN: Captain Cold Beer (He has a PhD…in Science)


All photos provided by Heather Stewart

It’s a wasp…It’s a leaf…It’s a moth: Moth mimicry

The tropics are recognized as biodiversity hotspots (Gaston 2000) and this is particularly apparent in Lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes moths and butterflies. The warm temperatures of the tropics and constant food supply allow these insects to stay in one area and not have to migrate. The families have diversified so much that some, Hypeninae, solely live off of tears (Holloway et al. 2013) whereas others, Calpinae, have barbed proboscis to pierce the flesh of mammals and feed on blood (Zenker et al. 2011). Despite extensive speciation of Lepidoptera in the tropics, there are also predators always present, awaiting a tasty meal. To avoid being eaten and survive to another day these insects employ several different antipredator tactics. They use chemical defenses, mimic toxic species, camouflage, mimic other insects, and acoustic defenses. These defenses can be costly but are necessary to survival in the tropics, a beautiful yet dangerous place.


What better way to avoid being eaten than to taste awful? Several families of Lepidoptera use chemical defenses to be unpalatable and avoid predation. These substances can be sequestered as larva, procured from host plants, or due to de novo biosynthesis. The number of chemicals involved in these defenses are as diverse as the families which use them. Some of the chemicals which have presently been identified are: aristolochic acids, cardenolides, cyanogenic glycosides, glucosinolates, glycosidase inhibitors, iridoid glycosides, pyrrolizidine and tropane alkaloids, and pyrazines (Trigo 2000). Many of these butterflies and moths use aposematic coloration to advertise that they carry chemical defenses. Some also have urticating hairs which further irritate predators causing an intense burning sensation lasting hours. Other moths and butterflies will mimic these toxic families with similar colors and patterns but will not actually produce the chemical defense. Instead they rely upon predators learning from the toxic species to stay away.


Aposematic coloration warns predators of toxic chemicals and urticating hairs

Crypsis, the ability to avoid observation from predators, has been mastered by Lepidoptera. Where some animals may use colors and patterns to blend into their surroundings, some of these moths take camouflage a step further by disrupt the outline of their body to become inconspicuous. Some take form of a dead leaf or a twig while others mimic lichens. This mimicry of natural objects is called mimesis. Many species within the family Geometridea and subfamily Arctiinae (e.g. lichen moths) use this tactic.


The same subfamily Arctiinae also includes moths which mimic wasps. These moths completely change their morphology to create the illusion that they are stinging wasps. Even their movement patterns match those of the insects they are mimicking. At first glance one could easily be mistaken but by looking closely at their antenna, the moth’s true identity is revealed.

Arctiinae is an extremely diverse subfamily of moths which included 11,000 species worldwide. One of the most distinctive features of Arctiinae is their ability to use thoracic tympanal organs to detect ultrasonic calls from bats (Waters 2003) and to produce their own ultrasonic sounds with a specialized tymbal organ on their metathorax (Barber and Kawahara 2013). The males produce the sound as scales on their genital valve are moved dorsally and ventrally and grated against the inner margin of the last abdominal tergum. The females’ ultrasound production is also genitally based but has a different mechanism (Barber and Kawahara 2013). The function of these ultrasonic clicks are to jam bat sonar, startle naïve bats, and warn of unpalatability (Barber and Conner 2007).

Being a moth or butterfly in the tropics can be difficult but a number of tactics can be implemented to increase survival and fitness. Some insects use one of these strategies while others use a full arsenal. To begin to see the immense moth biodiversity that exists around you, you can hang a plain white sheet outside at night with a light shining on it. Soon the sheet will be crawling with life, mostly moths but some butterflies, beetles, and katydids as well. Each insect tells its own story of strife and success.


Barber JR, Conner WE. 2007. Acoustic mimicry in a predator-prey interaction. PNAS 104(22): 9331-9334.

Barber JR, Kawahara AY. 2013. Hawkmoths produce anti-bat ultrasound. Biology Letters 9(4): 20130161.

Gaston KJ. 2000. Global patterns in biodiversity. Nature 405: 220-227.

Holloway JD, Barlow HS, Loong HK, Khen CV. 2013. Sweet or savoury? Adult feeding preference of Lepidoptera attracted to banana and prawn baits in the oriental tropics. The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 29: 71-90.

Trigo JR. 2000. The chemistry of antipredator defense by secondary compounds in neotropical lepidoptera: facts, perspectives and caveats. Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society 11(6): 551-561.

Waters DA. 2003. Bats and moths: what is there left to learn? Physiological Entomology 28: 237-250.

Zenker MM, Penz C, De Paris M, Specht A. 2011. Proboscis morphology and its relationship to feeding habits in noctuid moths. Journal of Insect Science 11(1): 42

Picture Panama

One of the most obvious and fascinating components of the Neotropics is the rich biodiversity. It is apparent from the moment you step outside. In an effort to appreciate the beauty of the diversity in my short time in Panama, I have included some of my favorite photos over the last couple of weeks. Some are of personal interest, but most are for aesthetic pleasure. Enjoy, as I have.

troganBlack-throated trogon (Trogon rufus), Gamboa: I found this beautiful bird while walking along Pipeline Road looking for leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes). The intense coloration commanded my attention, and I immediately found the ornithologist in our group for identification.

schoolhouse-roadSTRI school building, Gamboa: This is the road that the STRI schoolhouse is on, home-base for the majority of this field course. I arrived in Panama late at night so this is a photo of the next morning. It was my first experience and appreciation for the breathtaking Panamanian environment where I would find myself for the next several months.

heliconius-eggHeliconius egg, Gamboa: A remarkable little butterfly reproductive package that would have gone completely unnoticed unless pointed out to me.

heliconiaLobster-claw (Heliconia rostrata), Gamboa: This fascinating plant is all around Panama. I awe at them every time I see one.

grasshopperGamboa, red-eyed grasshopper (Coscineuta coxalis): These guys seem to be active everywhere at all times. I initially observed their active mating during a night herpetology walk, and then I found this guy the next morning. I thought it was curious that they are, anecdotally, nocturnal and diurnal. I have since repeatedly found them many places.

bouquet-de-noviaGamboa: I found this adorable flower on a morning walk and thought it was beautiful with the morning dew. Someone suggested it is called a bouquet de novia, but I have yet to be able to identify it further.

ants-not-leaf-cutterTurtle ants (Cephalotes atratus), Gamboa: This a common neotropical ant often found in urban areas. I love the diversity of morphs that differentiate the minors from the majors from the queen.

gatun2Gatun Lake, Barro Colorado Island (BCI), : The view from the balcony at the visitor’s center. We were working on data analysis for our short projects on BCI, and I couldn’t help but appreciate my surroundings.

gatun-lakeGatun Lake

Neotropical rainforest, BCI: This series of photos attempts to capture the diversity of the forest on the island.

pompom-bciPseudobombax septenatum, BCI: This plant is very attractive to multiple species of pollinators, including the arriving stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula at the top right.

schizSchizolobium tree, San Lorenzo: Even as a non-plant biologist, I appreciated this beautiful pop of color in dominate greenery along the walk to the canopy crane.

San Lorenzo: They were practically posing for me.

frustrated-catchFort Sherman canopy crane, San Lorenzo: While we were waiting to take our turn in the crane (it could only accommodate batches of 5), we practiced our Heliconius butterfly netting skills. While sometimes rewarding, it could also be extraordinarily frustrating when you missed a real beauty.

Canopy crane, San Lorenzo: The view from the top was so breathtaking that it almost distracted me from the fact that scientist perform entire projects in the crane, such as monitoring and sampling insect herbivory in the canopy.

spotted-antbird-maleMale spotted antbird (Hylophylax naevioides), Gamboa Pipeline Road: This is a popular location in Panama for people to come birding. As such, we were shown the ropes by understory mist-netting experts Dr. Henry Pollack and Elise Nishikawa.

collard-aracariCollard aracaris (Pteroglossus torquatus), Gamboa Pipeline Road: We also spotted many non-understory birds during our excursion.

grey-headed-kiteGrey-headed kite (Leptodon cayanensis), Gamboa Pipeline Road

batsGamboa Pipeline Road: And because we are in the neotropical rainforest, we inevitably ran across other biologically minded travelers. They had a scope set up, and behold, bats.

Stingless bees (Tetragonisca angustula), Gamboa Pipeline Road: Stingless bees are commonly known to make their nests on the sides of buildings and other manmade structures. The bees form the wax tube as the only entrance into the colony. This particular nest is found in the structural support beam of a covered bench at the entrance to Pipeline Road.

Agua Salud Project, Panama Canal Watershed: “An integrated ecosystem services project [that] seeks to understand and quantify ecological, social, and economic services provided by tropical forests in the Panama Canal Watershed.” ( The bottom photo is a common companion species of balsa found on the plantations, Ochroma pyramidale.

teak-forestAgua Salud Project, Panama Canal Watershed: teak forest.

madPanama Canal Watershed, Represa Madden.

Panama Canal Watershed: Some super cool organisms.

panama-cityPanama City, Causeway to Naos Island Laboratories.

volcano-fortunaVolcan Baru, view from Fortuna: This is the tallest mountain in Panama, and it is an active volcano.

fortunaDusk in the “cloud forest”, Fortuna.

mothsMoths, moths, and moths, Fortuna field station: An incredible display of moth diversity. This sheet is a result of a white light left on over one night. There was everything from Sphingidae hawk moths to Saturniid luna moths to Sesiidae wasp mimics. So cool.

img_1915The amazing people I shared this adventure with, Panama Canal Watershed.

Hasta la proxima vez.



Under the sea

16491270_10210927770337723_1845705248_oYou look outside the water. Everything is just so calm. You see 1 or 2 persons chilling in the nearby boat. All around you, back of heads and tubas are poking out of the water. It’s the same feeling as entering a room full of people glued to their cellphone. You’re surrounded by people, but nobody is actually there. There is only one thing to be done in those moments: get into your own little universe. Even easier than turning on a phone, you dip your face in the water and there you are: gazing at a coral reef, aka a world that should only exist in the most far-fetched of fantasies. But here it is, so real that if you don’t watch out, a fire coral might scratch your belly.

In this wonderland, you have no bearings. The only things you know from this world come from fiction stories. You look at that water, showing off every best shade of blue that exists, from the surface down to the very bottom of the sea, and you think, look, that is the same water as in Finding Nemo! Ok, also, pretty much every fish you recognize comes from Finding Nemo. Thank you, Disney, for some solid intro to the marine world.

You then approach the mangroves, of which you can now only see the roots. They are covered in sponges and strange other things. Doesn’t that look like Will Turner’s dad’s face in Pirates of the Carribeans?

Slowly learning to manoeuver your fins you start speeding up, flying over various scenes of everyday marine life. Schools of tiny fishes swimming purposefully. Jelly fishes floating around. Fishes that go hide into their hole in the sand when you approach. Other ones that just don’t care and carry on nibbling on their corral. But isn’t that just exactly how Harry was swimming, while he was crossing mermaid land during the second task? You realize only now how much of a dork you are. Good thing nobody can read your mind. You just don’t know how ill-advised your future self might be.

You laugh to yourself, take a big breath and free-dive just to swim next to a silly looking fish. That, you think, is most definitely not borrowed from another story. It’s just you, the fish and the sea. And then the song that goes by this name starts playing in your head, because, you like your Quebec singers, don’t you?

In this giddy mood you reflect on how lucky you are to be in this place. Trying to understand what brought you here, you can only be more bewildered than you already were from this moment. In the last few weeks you have: caught pretty butterflies to never release them, smashed snails with a hammer, gleefully set up false-crabs fights, destroyed ants’ nests to then drown ants in alcohol, destroyed spiders’ nets, carelessly dug with a hammer in million years old mounds of fossils. How is it that Nature still wants to treat you with one of its finest piece of art? But really, are you going to question the whole functioning of karma when it’s actually treating you so well?

You decide to stop for a moment. Now, you are floating just an arm’s length away from corals. A single square meter of this environment is so filled with wonders that you know you could spend the whole day just gazing at that square meter. All of the colors of the world seem to be in this spot, in all possible shapes and textures. You think Nature must have messed up somewhere when it moved life outside of the water, for it forgot to bring out most of these flashy colours out of the sea. I mean, look at that, some fishes are even neon colored!! Why aren’t there neon colored moose running around in Canada already?

Then on your already pretty festive square-meter of sea-land, enters the king of all sea-creature, the octopus (of course it’s the king!). The sea-floor is its dance floor and it’s doing some pretty wicked moves with its funky tentacles. Then its floppy head turns in a way that makes its sort-of-empty eyes look at you. Uh-oh. Are octopus dangerous for humans? It depends. Could Ursula be considered as an octopus? Maybe this is how karma is finally getting back at you. Then you remember. In Finding Dory, there is an octopus and, apart from being grumpy and driving a truck into the ocean (spoiler alert), it was quite inoffensive.

Oh hello, octopus!

And instantly your mind cranks up the volume on “In an octopus’s garden”.

Good lord, it seems that main-stream culture has already trained me to become an awesome marine biologist. I’ll be waiting for the offers!

George gets nostalgic/reflective (miss y’all…its pouring in Fortuna)

Dear IGERT-BESS kiddos,

Que pasa Mates…hopefully all is Tranquilo and beautiful for all of you…now that I have “vamos-ed”, this is kind of sad to write, but your presence was too distracting so I could never get this done before! I began writing this post right after our toooooooo good trip to Bocas. I was so inspired by the weirdness of all the sea creatures and wanted to write something to honor them. This feeling coincided with our course coming to an end and a nostalgia towards all the crazies (yes, I am talking to all of you and definitely including myself in this descriptor!)  I grew to greatly respect throughout our course. So, with these two emotions brewing in my head, it became obvious: the amazing beauty and diversity of the coral reef is a perfect metaphor for our short-lived but wonderful crew. So I’ve picked 15 equally essential and beautiful members of the coral reef community and made an attempt to connect each of those sea creatures to an IGERT-BESS creature. Some of the analogies are stronger than others…sorry about that. But, for me this was not about making perfect metaphors. It was an important exercise in working to appreciate the people around me and attempting to learn from what they excel at. I find friends come and go a lot in this adventurous time of life. This is an amazing opportunity to take note of all sorts of people/ways of living/ways of thinking, but all too often I use the fleeting nature of friendships as an excuse to not dig too deep. So, this is a way of making notes for myself about what I learned from each of you, while also thanking you for being the great people you are and making me so happy for that one month…and giving props to some SUPER SICK sea creatures!

  • Phytoplankton – The base of the coral reef ecosystem which quietly supports all functionality of this system. Timing of phytoplankton blooms can be correlated with many other reef functions as they provide crucial nutrition. Understanding phytoplankton phenology is an extremely valuable tool for uncovering drivers behind trends and patterns seen in reefs.
    1. CAMILO- much like the phytoplankton of the reefs, Camilo provides a steady presence that flashy reef fish have evolved to depend on. Examples: Carrying Heather’s bag up the mountain, flushing my pee at the gas station when I couldn’t figure it out. Most importantly, in the last days of our course, at a time when we were all overcome with exhaustion but also feeling the need to rage, he provided a pulse of energy, like a phytoplankton bloom, delivered to us in the form of consistently fabulous dance moves. Not to mention, Camilo is working to help native people of Columbia find a voice in this crazy world and he sees all that we can learn from their deep respect for the natural world. Phytoplankton sustain all sorts of diversity within the reef ecosystem. Camilo emanates warmth and a sense of calm through his warm smile and excellent ability to fin spots to chill, which envelope everyone around. Its really nice, and it reminds me of phytoplankton…a quiet but vital part of the environment!
      1. I took the credit for ‘tranquilo’ this course by repeating the word toooo many times, but Camilo is the true embodiment. I will remember his quiet confidence, something that is challenging to find but is always so refreshing to be around.

El Hombre! Only Camilo gets a badass picture because I made him phytoplankton…

  • Cleaner Shrimp – These little guys patrol the reef eating parasites off fish, simultaneously ridding the fish of potentially harmful parasites while feeding themselves…another example of a beautifully mutualistic relationship. In reefs, the cleaner shrimp often group up and create cleaning stations along with other small cleaning fish making a convenient stop for large organisms. Cleaning shrimp have been noted to rock back and forth to attract larger fish to their cleaning service. The hungrier the shrimp gets, the more vigorous this dance becomes.
    1. CAITLIN – Undoubtedly, the adorable little cleaner shrimps are an essential organizational force and voice of cleanliness in the reef. I have witnessed a similar force in Caitlin through her attempts to organize a hopelessly messy lab full of rather hopelessly disorganized lab mates. Her corner is immaculate; its amazing! Every time I look at Catilin’s notes or chat with her about her life, I’m so unbelievably impressed by how much order she is able to achieve. She is determined and strong; if something needs to be done, she will do it; no worries. Speaking as one of the many fish that have been helped immensely by her “cleaning”, Id say it’s a really amazing skill! She thinks of everything, but not only for herself. Just as the little shrimps are cleaning up parasites off big fish around them, Caitlin really considers how her ideas will be helping everyone around her. And best of all, just like with all the reef organisms, when you look up close, the cleaning shrimp is just another weird, amazing creation. Caitlin has a dry sense of humor that catches you when you aren’t expecting it. She has great stories, a great smile and an amazing go-getter attitude!
      1. I have tons to learn from Caitin and many years to do it…Ill continue to be inspired by her amazing organization and thorough thought processes, but also her great ability to be engaged and asking questions. Her determination and hard work will keep me on my toes!
  • Christmas tree worm – This amazingly extravagant worm is aptly named for the beautifully colored spiral structures that form a Christmas tree-like shape. These beautiful structures are used for feeding and respiration. Each of these intricate feeding structures is composed of many feathery tentacles which are each ciliated. Prey is trapped within these “mouth appendages” and then transferred the worm’s mouth. These worms create tube enclosures around their body attached to corals which they can retract into whenever they are threatened. They are seen in all sorts of different colors, decorating the coral reef environment brilliantly.
    1. LOTTE – I took many snorkel trips before truly believing that these amazingly beautiful structures belong to a worm…something that is very “unspectacular” to land-dwellers. But in the coral reef, even worms are extraordinary. These worms make swimming through the reef exceptionally fun… watching them retract into their homes as you swim by never gets old. Similarly, Lotte has a smile that penetrated all of the activities of the course and her competitive nature created games where they wouldn’t have existed without her presence, making for a much more exciting time! I like the idea that these beautiful worms have a distinctly beautiful, fun, feathery side as well as a more thoughtful persona. As much fun as Lotte’s competitive, possibly slightly gullible, excited side is, she compliments this with a different kind of awesomeness which allows her to be insightful and a warm presence for everyone to enjoy!
      1. I will be inspired by Lotte’s enthusiasm…for everything! Science/life in general is amazing when you can find excitement all around you…a wonderful trait for yourself and everyone who gets the great chance to be your friend/aquaintance!!
  • Seahorses– Such an unbelievably interesting, unique creature! Seahorses have a suite of attributes that you find no where else in the reef environment: camouflage, what you may classify as a prehensile tail (?!), males are impregnated and give birth to offspring, they suck prey into their mouths via a pressure release valve on top of their head. They have a neck! They have courtship dances in which potential couples dance in synchrony! One great turn on to the female seahorse is the “potbelly capacity” of the male. No scales. Unreasonable amounts of babies (over 1000)! There is sooo much amazing to the seahorse, a very unique gem of the reef environment.
    1. HEATHER – Maybe I can replicate my description of the sea horse with my description of the Heather. Such an unbelievably interesting, unique creature to which an unbelievable amount of crazy shit happens to. Heather has: epically failed while cooking eggs, watched a friend fall down an icy glacier, spent a rainy night in a tree, taught herself to sleep on her back etc etc. The specifics of all of Heathers crazy stories aren’t the most important part, but rather that in the end, she always seems to end up in an amazing place doing amazing things. The seahorse has compiled this outrageously random suite of traits to make an organism that is one of the great awes of the reef system. Heather seems to do the same, taking these crazy experiences on with a big smile, a little giggle and an ablity to turn things into a positive outcome. Seahorses have obviously questioned the normal bounds of sea life evolution in which fish have scales, and no necks and no tales. Heather questions everything through a genuine interest in her surroundings. These questions and intrigues seem to take her to all sorts of interesting places. Its amazing to hear about!
      1. From Heather I have of course been inspired to: Ask questions! Be interested! Open my mind to paths that are creative, non-linear and adventurous…and to take every opportunity to go snorkeling and diving!
  • Sponges – A primitive animal which are both structurally and functionally important to the coral reef ecosystem. As corals are decreasing in reef environments, sponges are becoming more and more essential. Sponges are important for their energy and nutrient conversion. They filter waste found in the water column and recycle compounds which are important for other reef species. Aesthetically speaking, sponges are weird and beautiful and bring the reef system diversity, structure and color.
    1. ANDREANNE –Through an amazingly contagious smile and laugh, Andrianne has spread beauty through our 3 weeks just as sponges do in the reef. There wasn’t a time when her presence didn’t make our experience happier. I hope to remember the sense of flexibility and positivity Adrienne emitted allllll the time…she was never perturbed by a change in plans or a little discomfort. Just as sponges filter reef water to keep a clean, healthy environment for all the other reef organisms, Andreanne replaced replace any negativity with a laugh, a great big smile and a colorful outlook on any situation. She has a relaxed, open-minded outlook on life that makes you feel like everything is going to be fine; she is a presence that makes you at ease. Sponges come in all sorts of diverse shapes and sizes. Andrenne too seems to have a unique ability to adapt and enjoy all sorts of different people and places…so cool!
      1. I will most definitely remember Andreanne’s consistent positivity. She doesn’t seem to get caught up in silly little things and instead spends her time enjoying the moment. She is intelligent and driven but willing to let life be a joke…a nice balance!
  • Nudibranchs – Strange, beautiful creatures that come with a huge variety of different colors and fancy adornments. These wild colors and patterns are warning against the toxins they secrete when disturbed. Some sea slugs are even able to store the stinging cells of prey they consume to help with defense. Interestingly enough, despite their slow-moving nature, they are carnivorous, eating things which will not flee such as coral, sponges and anemones.
    1. DANIEL – If we could compile a collection of Daniel faces, dance moves and comments, it would rival the strange, interesting diversity seen throughout the entire reef ecosystem. But if one class of organism were to exemplify Daniel’s uniqueness the best, it would be the nudibranch. They are fascinatingly diverse in a uniquely nudibranch way. Daniel managed to bring the flash and silliness of the nudibranch aesthetic while also providing very insightful questions/world views and badass R analyses. Daniel’s distaste for silly powerpoint backgrounds and the use of comic sans seems incongruent with his fabulous dance moves…but afterall, beneath the flash of the nudibranch is a slug, the least flashy of the body forms; not so cute, but certainly functional and straight-forward (this is in reference to his powerpoint background taste, not his actual body form, which is super cute…keep killin those yoga pants dude)
      1. Ill remember Daniel’s great awareness of the world and strong sense of right and wrong. I always valued hearing Daniel’s questions and analyses; always thoughtful, informed and communicated very well.
  • Parrot Fish– Beautifully colorful fish that are well known as essential member of the coral reef environment. Their importance comes in two forms. First, Tthey nibble all day long on algae and dead coral, constantly cleaning the reef and keeping algae from taking over the system. More impressively is the utility of their poop. They poop up to 700 pounds of white sand each year, continuously replenishing reef substrate (I promise I wrote this even before learning about your “shituation”…now I feel even better about this comparison!). They have beautiful color schemes that change through development, greatly adding to the aesthetics of the reef environment.
    1. STEPHEN – The brightly colored parrot fish brings some “pizzaz” to the reef ecosystem much like Steve and his special talent with the english language, which consistently brings lots of giggles to mealtime reminiscing/storytime. As far as I am aware, Steve doesn’t poop a substance with any special utility but through other means he carries out the ever so important task of keeping our crew stable and awesome. Parrot fish poop is background which allows beautiful reef fish to thrive. By finding quirks in every person and situation, and tactfully pointing those quirks out Steve fills this niche. It is clear that Parrot fish fill many important roles in the reef ecosystem. During our time in Bocas, I was lucky enough to witness Steve discovering that he, much like the parrot fish, has been blessed with many pivotal roles in our crew: 1.) Squid pop untangler 2.) Urchin dumper 3.) field DJ (and I think there may have even been a few more!!). There was a time that I accused Steve of being a “cheater”. This list is undisputable evidence against that terrible accusation.
      1. Beyond the laughs which I have for sure enjoyed, Steve reminds me of the importance of communication. He seems to stay informed about the world and through a reflective part of his personality is able to digest that information so that it can be communicated to others in an accessible manner. This skill is so cool and so necessary in linking science and people. Keep those rocking writing skills alive!
  • Reef Manta Ray – Manta rays are one of the most beautiful gentle giants of the reef community. They feed on zooplankton by filtering sea water and therefore must stay in motion throughout the day. It has retractable cephalic lobes which can be unwound to channel water into the mouth. Manta rays aren’t territorial or aggressive when choosing mates. They rely on small fish to clear dead skin and parasites from their bodies. In fact, there can be lines of mantarays waiting for their turn at “cleaning stations”, collections of reef dwelling fish who clean these large, docile rays.
    1. CHLOE – Chloe is absolutely the member of our crew that I thought best embodied the Manta Ray. She has a confident, strong, yet peaceful presence. I find it hard to believe that anyone could feel anything but comfortable around Chloe; I suppose the beautiful reef fishies feel the same way about the manta ray when they stop by for a cleaning. Manta rays epitomize a special kind of confident wisdom. Chloe brought so much interesting knowledge and understanding about the world and I was always impressed by how well she was able to articulate her thoughts and questions. But although I hold the manta ray on a pedestal of “tranquilo” wisdom, it is certainly not above the silliness of the reef fish; it adds to the interesting beauty of the reef system just as Chloe did for our course through great insights and a great laugh!
      1. I would like to remember Chloe’s ability to strike a nice balance between being totally flexible to life’s uncertainty while also being informed, knowledgeable and prepared. Sometimes I feel like these are separate…you are either “tranquilo” or “on top of your shit”…Chloe seems to do both impressively well!
  • Caribbean Reef Octopus– These octopI are known for their beautiful green and blue coloration which they are able to change easily allowing for amazing camouflage capabilities. Although this octopus is slower than others, it compensates through an ability to flatten its body onto the sea floor in order to look like just another object in the reef. This species is thought to be the smartest of the octopi, which is impressive given the great intelligence of all octopi. And get this…octopi have BEAKS.. which are used to break crustaceans…so weird and awesome!
    1. ANGEL – The octopus is one of the most fascinating, intelligent reef animals. Through his impressive computer wizzing and awesome array of interests, Angel embodies this beautiful, strange reef creature. This octopus has chosen a highly alternative method of escaping predators…possibly this was due to evolutionary pressure derived from an inability to make hasty, graceful escapes…maybe Angel can relate?! But these octopi more than make up for their lack of speed and grace with amazing colors and flexibility as did Angel’s excitement and enthusiasm throughout all different parts of this course (ranging from the video blog posts to genome-ing, to smashing plantains, to metal tunes to sharing about Puerto Rican politics). Most clearly Angel shares his intelligence and kind, smiley nature with the Caribbean reef octopus…his knowledge and of data analyses and genomics was certainly impressive and these skills are in the right hands with Angel who is very willing to share and communicate his unique skill set…such an important one in science today!
      1. Angel is going to take me to my first metal concert which will be cool. But also, I will remember Angel’s great enthusiasm for all sorts of unique things and his unbelievable knowledge. It is inspiring to hear someone talk with so much understanding!
  • Angelfish – These beautiful fish always seem to me to be the iconic tropical reef fish…something an inland child dreams to see one day! They have beautiful, bright coloration and elegant, interesting body forms. Color patterns change a great deal as angelfish mature seeming to indicate a change in the social hierarchy of the fish. Angel fish eat mostly sponges. Due to the indigestibility of sponge framework, angelfish have developed special adaptations including specialized teeth, a protracted jaw and the ability to secrete mucous to cover the bits of sponge.
    1. IVON For Ivon I instantly thought of an especially beautiful reef fish. Beyond her outward beauty (great hair, cute outfits and the coolest luggage), her smile and laugh which were shared with everyone brought so much happiness to our time together. Her beautiful smile and warm presence are just the beginning; Ivon is also a loyal friend, amazing dance partner, and a thoughtful presence. She had great ideas and a thorough, linear thought process which is an immense help in the group project setting. The beauty of the reef is certainly a team effort but the angelfish really brings it…and really, where would our dance parties have been without Ivon…not as fun, that’s for sure!
      1. I will remember Ivon’s caring nature because being aware of those around you and taking care to be sensitive to their needs is such a special gift! And I will remember to have a smile and laugh for everyone!
  • Cuddle Fish – Actually a mollusk, these amazing creatures have an internal shell called the cuddlebone. The cuddlebone is porous which provides buoyancy that can be regulated by alteration of the gas: liquid ratio. They have very sophisticated eyes which cannot see color but can detect the polarization of light which allows for enhanced contrast detection. Crazily enough, it is thought that cuddlefish have fully developed eyes before birth and can therefore watch their surroundings while still in their eggs. Cuddlefish are able to communicate through 34 different color combinations, 6 different textures, 8 postures and 6 locomotion elements. Different combinations of these elements lead to quite a complex cuddlefish language. Cuddlefish have an amazing ability to change color through muscles which control the exposure of their pigments. Additionally, they have a variety of color pigment layers which can each be exposed/contracted…basically Cuddlefish are constantly putting on an amazing color/light show.
    1. KIRA- A girl with a personality as colorful as the outrageously beautiful cuddlefish…and one of a kind! I remember the first time I met Kira…when we realized we were going to Panama together and she told me all about her birds. I was like…sweet, this will be such a fun girl to be around..and I was super right about that!!! Much like the cuddlefish mode of communication, Kira thinks a mile a minute on many levels at once. With the upcoming semester in charge of her research, herself and her techs, this amazing ability to think about something from all directions will definitely be an asset. I could read about cuddlefish forever…they seriously have a ridiculous amount of sweet traits. Kira too exposed all sorts of interesting facts throughout the last few weeks which made her even more amazing. She has a love for pirate metal, crazy youtube videos, pasta, her stellar new field belt, her beloved old keens, BIRDS, “meow-ing” Christmas tunes, adorable PJ’s, “GET WRECKED”…and all sorts of other amazing-ness. And clad in her adorable PJ’s, she is learning to be a badass Spanish-speaking coder…Awesome!!
      1. I will keep Kira’s fascination in all sorts of interesting things with me…remembering that there is always more out there to learn about! I will remember her enthusiasm. And when I forget that details exist, I will remember her ability to think of everything!!
  • Arrow Crabs– One of the most unique, fascinating crabs of the coral reef ecosystem. It has long spidery legs and sports a super pointy head. It is slow moving due to its oddly disproportionate appendages. Unable to rely on speed as a defense against predators, arrow crabs are often found living in or around other animals/structures that can provide them protection. They forage at night, finding feather duster worms and other tiny reef animals to feed on. Arrow crabs are highly territorial and in keeping with the behavioral observations made throughout “crab day”, the arrow crab is aggressive and generally angry.
    1. KARTHIK – This comparison seems fitting not because Karthik is actually an territorial grouch, but if I am accurately likening our crew to a marine ecosystem, it must be noted that Karthik would be highly dissatisfied with his life submerged under water and may therefore resort to a crabby existence (hehe). Beyond that, the odd direction evolution took in arrow crab evolution reminded me of the fascinating suite of facts we have learned about Karthik and his life in the past few weeks. Most importantly, throughout our snorkeling sessions arrow crabs were one of my favorite little dudes to find; different and interesting. This is partially what draws the crew to Karthik as well as his amazing scope of knowledge and overall sense of respect and care for others. Also: Karthik is a true crab about puns.
      1. I think I’ve learned from Karthik and the odd arrow crab that its best to own yourself with confidence. Its seriously impressive and such an important thing to remember going into a field with so much room for both collaboration and competition.
  • Hawksbill turtles– These are a small, agile species of turtle that navigates the reef environment well feeding on all sorts of things: sea grasses, sea urchins, barnacles. Favorite meal: sponges…mmmmmm…made accessible by its beak-like mouth. Most of their life is spent solitary but they meet to mate and lay eggs on uninhabited beaches. Amazingly, females are able to return to the same beach they were born on every two or three years to lay their own eggs. They are known for their beautiful shells which are unfortunately harvested for jewelry.
    1. JAVIER- Sea turtles are one thing that everyone is unanimously stoked about…every snorkeler hopes of finding one of these gems to hang out with! Javier too has been a presence of consistent happiness, kindness and laughter… always positive and welcoming. Just like the beautiful little hawksbill, no one wouldn’t want to hang out with Javier because he’s able to find humor in everyone’s quirky jokes, an attribute which makes everyone around him feel great! The same instincts that lead a mama turtle back to the beach she was born on after hundreds/thousands of miles of migration, lead Javier to find ants anywhere and everywhere. This instinctual sense of direction and navigation Javier also used to keep the crew organized which meant that things we talked about doing together actually happened…and they happened smoothly!. He has an impressive ability to organize and plan even with a crew full of all personalities…some of whom have a completely unplannable, “tranquilo” attitude.
      1. I will definitely learn from Javier’s organizational skills. I have been super impressed by his ability to think through things extremely thoroughly and follow through on ideas. He makes an amazing leader!
  • Clownfish– Clownfish are best known for their mutualistic relationship with anemones which has led to highly specific coevolution between species of these two organisms. Clownfish receive leftover scraps from anemone meals, sometimes including dead anemone tentacles, and more importantly are sheltered and protected by the toxic anemone tentacles. The clownfish returns these favors by protecting the anemones from predators and parasites and by supplying the anemone with nutrients from their poop. Additionally, clownfish movement within the anemone alters water flow and increases oxygen levels aiding both organisms. It should also be noted that the clownfish reproduction situation is quite a strange one. All clownfish begin life as males and later become females. A dominant female is the top of the hierarchy who mates externally with one male of the group. If she were to die, the mating male would change sexes and become the breeding female of the clownfish colony.
    1. CATHERINE – It is of course impossible to think about clownfish without the adorable story of Nemo taking hold of your feelings toward this species. As I describe Catherine as the clownfish of our crew, I will be focusing on the anthropomorphized friends we all know from Finding Nemo rather than the strange gender conversion hierarchy I just described above. These beautiful little orange dudes undoubtedly bring beauty to the reef environment, not in the form of overly flashy adornments, but a more simple, agreeable, fun. Catherine has been a steady presence of adventure, happiness and laughter…8/10 times we make eye contact, I crumple in laughter and its amazing. But, also important to note is the 2/10 times when Catherine’s presence doesn’t overwhelm me with a desire to embark on a giggly adventure. Catherine has an optimistic and kind outlook on the world which is rare and an unbelievable treasure. Although clownfish, among the reef society, mostly receive praise for their silliness (which is awesome), nemo showed us the deeper suite of character traits they posses. Catherine strikes that balance so well…fun, adventurous, open-minded and insightful!
      1. I will for sure remember the optimism and absolute openness of Catherine. Especially in light of all the hatred being stirred up in the world today, this outlook is refreshing and important. I will remember to go running/swimming/laughing with any spare minutes…and that “just because someone wrote it doesn’t mean its true”!!! I will also never chose a powerpoint background without laughing again!
  • Nurse shark– Although they look like the aggressive creatures we have been taught to fear, nurse sharks don’t ravage but rather “slurp” their prey. Nurse sharks are bottom dwellers with small mouths and are thus unable to chow down on large reef fish. They associate with large groups during the day but these group seem to be simply for the sake of protection. Displays of hierarchy or dominance aren’t seen; they are docile, beautiful reef treasures.
    1. SARAI- As the nurse shark of our crew, Sarai gets to simultaneously appear to be the biggest badass while actually being right in the food chain with the silly looking reef fish (although not quite…no one eats the nurse shark and no one messes with Sarai…we all know about the knife). I imagine nurse sharks face challenges ingesting enough food through their tiny mouths to sustain their large body size. Although Sarai’s body size is particularly not-large, it can hold a shocking amount of rice, beans and beer…so cool. Beyond the silliness, the best way to see Sarai’s happy beauty is to watch her face while she is talking about the evolution of eusociality in her tiny bee’s or enjoying a view out the window or off the side of a boat. In these moments, her face will show a deeply seeded, pure smile. She is passionate and loyal for the things she cares about and finds peace and reflection in alone time, a special attribute that leads her to unique insights. I love learning new tidbits about Sarai’s unique life and view on the world because its always something new and thought provocative. She is so intelligent and has so much to offer her friends and colleagues!
      1. Sarai has inspired me to think about how I can improve the way I present myself and my research to fellow scientists…gotta get that elevator speech down! More importantly she reminds me of the amazing diversity of life history and personality that make amazing grad students and great people…and most importantly, she inspires me to sing and have fun!


Lots of love,


P.S. Ill be in Panama and Champaign IL (wha whaaa) for many years to come…never hesitate to give me a ring if you are anywhere near these places!!


If this doesn’t make you want to come visit me in Fortuna, I really don’t know what will!!


Sea-urchin for the answers

Completely fascinating and unlike life on land, the underwater world is an oasis waiting to be discovered. Throughout our time in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago we had the incredible opportunity to figuratively and literally immerse ourselves in an ecosystem many of us had previously not known much about. During our incredible three days there, we snorkeled around reefs, mangroves and seagrass, discovered million-year-old fossils and admired the world around us.

To get a better understanding of the ecosystem dynamics, we completed two short projects, one on predation intensity in three costal habitats and my group’s project on intra- and interspecies differences in thermos-tolerance limits of sea urchins. We subjected six different species of urchins to five different temperatures (30, 32, 34, 35, and 36 degrees) to see what kind of effect an increasing temperature will have on the different species and on same species from different locations and different sizes.


In the Caribbean Sea, the yearly temperature fluctuations are small and water is fairly warm, so most organisms live close to their thermal maximum. In addition, different habitat types also have an effect on the temperature species experience. The idea behind the project was to get a better understanding of how tropical sea urchins will respond to warmer oceans with global temperature changes. In order to understand how the biodiversity of oceans would change with climate change, it is important to evaluate the ability of different species to cope with increased temperatures.

I think it’s safe to say that diving for the urchins was the most enjoyable part of the whole experience. For several hours we snorkelled around two locations, collecting urchins of various sizes off the bottom of the ocean floor. The small urchins like the Echinometra lucunter and Echinometra viridis were easily collected by hand, while the larger, pricklier Diadema antillarum had to be picked up with tweezers to avoid having your fingers pierced by their long, sharp spines. Although long and laborious, the experiments were very fun (minus the sand flies) and the results a little surprising. Most species seemed to adapt very well to the increasing temperatures, with very low levels of death, even at the highest temperatures. The most important determinants of survival seemed to be location and species.

However, I think the most defining moment of our trip was on our dive with Aaron O’dea, when we went to see what he had referred to as ‘one of the best reefs in Bocas’. We arrived and jumped in the water, full of excitement, only to find a barren ocean floor full of dead, bleached corals. The look on Aaron’s face said it all. A reef that was beaming with life only 6 months ago, was now completely devastated by death.

Healthy corals have symbiotic algae living on their surface, which undergo photosynthesis and supply the corals with the nutrients it needs to survive. These algae are what gives the corals their vibrant colours. With increasing water temperature and pH, these algae get stripped off the coral, leaving it with a bleached appearance. Although corals do not necessarily die without their algae, they are under a lot of stress which can cause mortality. Coral systems support a very large diversity of animal life, from multitudes of fish to mollusks, crustaceans and echinoderms. As corals die off, these organisms must either move to a new location or they too risk death. It was very sad to see the lack of colourful fish, especially in contrast with some of the other reefs we got to see.


Healthy coral full of fish

I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I definitely re-considered my choice of study system, but I think I will stick to life on land for now. Although I do miss the warm waters and beautiful corals of the Caribbean, I am definitely happy to be far away from all the sandflies and mosquitoes to whom I unwillingly donated so much of my blood.

The details overlooked: a genome biologist’s tale of the jungle

As my time in Panama ends, I travel back to the frigid (although surprisingly humid, for some reason) Illinois winter to continue my studies. Even though is good to be back home, I still think about my time there. There’s something about the trees, the corals, the sun, and the people, that somehow draws you back. So, in this cold and wet morning, I’ll think back about my experiences there.


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s main quad. 

As a genomicist (well, technically a genomicist in the making), our view of the natural world if often defined by our view of genomes. Everything can be analyzed as a series of four letters that, arranged in a certain way, produce the different species the we observe in nature. Variation in nature is just differences in architecture, differences in population structure, differences in expression. Even when we look at other things like ecological factors and behaviors, for example, these are frequently looked within the context of their relation to the genome. Don’t get me wrong, this is very important. This specialization is fundamental when becoming a scientist, as you need to have detailed knowledge of whatever system you are studying at the time. And I like it. I don’t mind spending my time in a computer writing Python code (without falling, thanks for asking) trying to find new ways to analyze genomes. This is what I “signed” in for, and I hope I can do it for years to come.

However, the genome is not everything. And this idea was prevalent throughout the course, at least for me. Hiking through the forest helped me to see biology with a different set of eyes, without having to think about nucleotides and SNPs. Yes, you obviously think about “wouldn’t it be fun to sequence x and y and see of the can find the genetic basis of z phenotype?”. And you think about it multiple times. For the birds, and the fungi, and the corals, and the spiders (oh spiders, who knew cornstarch could be so handy). But in that moment, as you’re standing in a trail in the middle of the forest with mud up to your knees, it ­doesn’t matter. Nature is not present as a series of letters in a terminal screen, nature is right there with you, probably producing a smell, a sound, colored in every shade of green imaginable, or trying to bite you.

And curiously, this makes me like what I do even more. I see where my work matters. And it doesn’t matter because of x or y SNP, or because of an inversion in chromosome four, or because this gene has a twofold change in expression. It matters because in the end, the importance of that SNP, that inversion, or that gene is that it creates that millionth shade of green in that plant, or the pretty shade of metallic blue in that bird. In the end, it is all about that. And I shouldn’t lose sight of it.




Digging deeper into the canal

For a few days now, I started delving into this book, The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal, by Maurer and Yu (2011) that sort of opened up my eyes to the history of the Panama Canal. Imperialism. Disease. Exploitation. Racism. That is the real story behind the canal. I thought I might share a summary of what I have learned so far about all of this.

Let’s start somewhere before the construction of the canal. Because of its location, Panama was already a hot spot for trading and crossing between the Americas. In 1519, the Spanish established Panama City, causing an economic boom and new trade across Panama. Ships of Peruvian silver passed through the Isthmus and other goods were traded back. Also, in the 1800s when California was contested by Americans, US diplomacy started a British and Columbian agreement to build a railroad across Panama. However, these economic growths came to an end after other commercial routes were established and won competition.

In 1877, French private companies behind the Suez Canal attempted at constructing a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. However, after spending 287 millions of dollars and years of misguided construction, the project became a disaster. Large swamps were formed from digging and caused serious outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever among the workers. In fact, over 82 percent of canal workers had suffered from malaria by 1906 when the construction was resumed by the United States. In 1888, the French companies went bankrupt and the project was abandoned.


Abandoned machinery after project fail in 1888 due to disease outbreaks, misconstruction, and financial corruption. Photo credit:

Meanwhile, the United States had attempted at building a canal across Nicaragua but failed. After acquiring Hawaii and the Philippines, the US government started planing routes through Panama. At the time, Panama was under control of Columbia, which refused to cooperate with President Roosevelt on the canal. To get around this, Roosevelt supported Panama’s secession from Columbia and sent US military to occupy the country. This was a rather sneaky move, as the agreement allowed the US to have Panamanians pay for a big portion of the construction and operation of the canal through their taxes.

As expected, Roosevelt’s opinion of Columbia was not a very favorable one. He even expressed that if Panama had not collaborated in the revolt against Columbia, he would “take possession of the Isthmus by force of arms.” Still, Roosevelt’s military intervention in Panama does not compare to that of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The reason for that are threefold. First, the political result of the 1898-1902 Philippine war caused opposition and uncertainty home in the States. Second, including Puerto Rico in American tariff wall was already becoming an issue and pressured congressional districts. Lastly, direct annexation by the United States would have violated the country’s treaty agreements with Great Britain. Still, it is interesting to imagine a world where the annexation of Panama by the United States would have happened.

Although the construction of the Panama Canal started in 1904, it was not until 1914 that its first ship sailed through. The canal was not open to commercial traffic for another six years after that. It was shut down frequently due to landslides and strikes and was almost completely closed throughout World War I. On July 12, 192o, it fully opened. STRI appeared just a few years later (1923, Barro Colorado Island).

The first few functional years of the canal were a failure. Shipments often arrived late to docks with no one to unload them. Also, because of the failing control of power and chaos, the US government created an elected civil government in the Canal Zone to promote settlement, courts, and American “values and order.”


Construction of locks in 1914. Photo credit:

The construction of the canal was devastating to the population of Panama. When building the Chagres River basin, which later became Lake Gatun, dozens of historic villages were flooded. These villages were home to 20,000 people, who were forced to move elsewhere. Also, from 1907 to 1914, over one hundred landslides caused the death of thousands of workers.

A mass hiring of workers from Barbados, Spain, and West Indies drove the construction. A hierarchical workforce was created in which two categories existed: the “Gold Roll” and “Silver Roll.” Workers under the Gold Roll were paid in gold dollars, while the Silver Roll received Columbian silver pesos. Initially, the Gold Roll included all skilled workers, regardless of color. However, President Roosevelt closed the Gold Roll for non-Americans in 1908. Also, most non-white workers were transferred to the Silver roll. Wages would rise steadily for the Gold Roll but barely change for the Silver Roll, resulting in multiple strikes and uproars. A Jim Crow society steadily grew from this system. Contractors of the higher roll received a good education and housing while lower roll workers had practically no benefits, extremely low pay, and experienced slavery-like living conditions.

A single barracks room for one “Gold Roll” while male worker (left) and a typical sleeping space with multiple cots for “Silver Roll” workers (right). Photo credit: Linda Hall Library

Almost a century later, the ownership of the canal was passed from the United States to Panama. However, the grim history behind the Canal still lingers and can be felt in Gamboa, on Lake Gatun, or when passing the locks.


“The land divided, the world united: Building the Panama Canal” (2014). Linda Hall Library Digital Collections.

Maurer, N. and Yu, C. (2011). The big ditch: how America took, built, ran, and ultimately gave away the Panama Canal. Princeton University Press.

The Ave Sombrilla

After a few peaceful days in Gamboa, our whole crew journeyed to La Fortuna. The ride was about ten-ish hours long but so beautiful, as the nature transitioned from lowland forest to highlands with dark, rainy clouds hovering over us. As the bus laboriously crawled up the mountains of Fortuna, we all admired a fiery red sunset in the distance. Then, the bus came to a halt at the entrance of the Jilguero Cabins. The girls unloaded the luggage and climbed up a steep hill with our hands full of suitcases and boots. At the top, we found several wood cabins. Kira, Sylvia, Caitlin, Ivon, Heather, and I selected a humble but cozy cabin, the Ave sombrilla, which overlooked the beautiful La Fortuna mountains.


View from the Jilguero Cabins entrance

After a short introduction at the main station, we returned to our cabin ready to recharge from a long day in the bus. While resting, we suddenly heard a series of beeps coming from somewhere in the walls of the cabin. At first, the beeps were consistent and slow, but then they quickly escalated to fast beeps of what sounded like doom. Next thing we knew, lights went out and the cabin stood in complete darkness. We all fumbled for our headlamps, walking into each other and tripping down the stairs and over beds. After some time of stumbling around, we found a large, mysterious generator with a switch by the wall. We gave up, accepted the darkness, and went to bed. I did quickly take an ice-cold shower, which was one of the most painful experiences I have ever had.

After a dark and cold night, we arrived at the main station early to learn about spiders in the Fortuna forest. William Eberhart gave us a short intro on different webs, which include a dome (Pholcidae), horizontal flat (Anapidae), cloud (Mysmenidae), and vertical flat (Chrysometidae). Each with a sock full of corn starch, we all split into teams and drove to the forest in search for logs and spiders. My partner, Javier, and I picked a few plots and began “powdering” the ground. Despite getting powder all over my face and whole body, the corn starch was quite useful for seeing the webs.

After a long day of corn starch and spider webs, it was time for a shower. One problem: the Ave Sombrilla and its ticking generator and ice-cold water. Kira and I decided to muster up against the cold water and darkness at our cabin. Caitlin and Ivon took the safe route and stayed to shower at the main station. Poor Heather was accidentally left on the station as well and had no choice in the matter.

When Kira and I arrived to the cabin, we couldn’t believe it. The lights were working and the shower had warm water. It was two hours of complete heaven, almost as if it was too good to be true. Long warm shower? Check! Time for napping? Check! Reading a book while admiring the mountains through the cabin window? CHECK! Kira and I drove back to the main station feeling refreshed, rested, and happy. We shared the news that electricity was back and the dark days were over.

It soon became 10 pm and we all returned to Ave Sombrilla, excited to enjoy the cabin in full light. But as soon as we switched on the lights, the dreadful beeping started. After only five minutes of electricity, we were once again fumbling in the darkness, falling over one another. Perhaps that afternoon was just a dream? Kira and I will never know…

On our second day, we went back to our plots to count any new spider webs. After then, we took a trip to collect different fungus. I quickly found that I do NOT have an eye for picking out fungus in the forest, but I did find a lot of cool lichen! Getting back to the station, we started the data analysis and discussed the results.

When we got to the Ave Sombrilla, we had accepted it for what it was and embraced the darkness. Instead of attempting to turn on the lights, we lit a few candles, giggled for an hour, and showered in candle light. I became really grateful for my time in Fortuna because that was when I bonded with these wonderful people. I hope to return one day to hear that beeping generator and light some candles with my friends again.


Candles in the cabin