The end of the Panama Biology Fieldcourse, or the beginning of serious things.

Being now in Trinidad for my fieldwork, I can take some time to think about this last month in Panama. These past few days have been extremely rich in discoveries, great discussions, and science in general. We talked about various subjects as forest diversity and composition, primate movements and feeding behavior, but also vampire bats and social behavior, or cacao farms and sustainable development. I have to say that no topic was directly related to my field of study – that is freshwater fish and their ectoparasites – but I probably learned even more from such different perspectives.

The last week, we had an environmental policy course that raised a ton of interesting questions about biology and research in general. So even if this blog is about the biology course, I thought it was interesting to highlight some of the debates we had. They almost all come from the fact that for most of us, our work is coming from public funds. So because we have a certain responsibility to the public, we discussed on whether, and to what extent, scientists should communicate their research. Every one seemed to agree that we have to do it, but that we don’t take the time to really think about outreach at our level. Should we do everything by ourselves? Should we hire communication professionals? Should we try to be less competitive, i.e. spend less time on publication, but allocate more time to outreach? This last idea seduced a lot of us, but don’t seem realistic in a world where you have to publish or perish.

Another great question that was raised by Dr. Gordon Hickey, our professor during that course, was: “If the government has the choice between giving money to a hospital to save children from horrible diseases, and fund your research, what will be your argument? Why is it important to fund scientific research?” An easy answer would be: “Because it’s interesting and exciting!” but I’m not sure that it would convince the government. I am still searching what is the contribution to science of my thesis and what could be the applications of my work, and I don’t have a simple answer to that question, but this course definitively helped me to think about research in a more global perspective.


I would like to end that post, and my contribution to this blog, by a quote of William Beebee, a great explorer and researcher that gave his name to the research station I am staying right now:


“If one looks the jungle straight in the face and transcribed what is seen, there is evolved technical science, and until this can be done with accuracy and discretion, one can never feel worthy now and then, of stealing quietly up a side aisle of the great green wonderland […]. It is possible to enter a jungle and become acutely aware of poison fang and rending claw […] but it is infinitely more wonderful and altogether satisfying to slip quietly and receptively into the life of the jungle […], to sense the beauty, the joy, the majestic serenity of this age-old fraternity of nature into who’s sanctuary man’s entrance is unnoticed, his absence unregretted. The peace of the jungle is beyond all telling.”


And of course I’d like to thank many people that allowed us to benefit from the peace of the jungle: Owen, Carlos, Luis, Paola, and all the professors/postdoc/graduate students that gave incredible talks and tours about their research.


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