“It’s not ‘goodbye’, it’s ‘see you later'”

Location: Gamboa

Date: 1/30/17

I’m sad to say that the course has come to an end. As I sit in the schoolhouse with everyone writing their blog posts, making final notes in their journals, and preparing to travel to our home institutions or to our research sites, it gives me time to reflect on how far we’ve come in such a short time. Over the past 21 days, I’ve learned so much more than I would have learned in a classroom. I had hands-on experiences and I have learned valuable information about different organisms, community structures, and environments. I have been free to be curious, ask questions, and take the time to explore and learn freely. But more importantly, I have learned valuable skills that I can carry with me throughout my scientific career. Collaborating with individuals from a wide array of demographics and constructing and completing research projects under time constraints and learning about feasibility are just a few examples.

This course has provided me with the opportunity to interact with the Smithsonian scientific community and network with a plethora of scientists from a wide range of disciplines and who are all at different points in their career – some just starting out, and some at the end. Additionally, it introduced me to the abundant diversity and various research opportunities throughout Panama. As Owen mentioned, roughly 95% of the top universities in the world are located in the temperate zone, yet 80% of estimated plant and animal biodiversity is located in the tropics. There is so much to learn, and the tropics have been sincerely underappreciated thus far as research locations. I am so grateful to have been exposed to some of the research that is going on here, and yet I have only scratched the surface of what is to come!

The four major themes of the course were:

  1. Interconnectedness – how each individual organism is connected to and plays an important role in its ecosystem and the trophic levels
  2. Adaptation, plasticity, and resilience – diversity in the tropics, how organisms react to their environment and introduced stressors, as well as the dynamics and relationships within and across species
  3. Scale – both spatial (site, community, ecosystem, global) and temporal (minutes, hours, days, years, decades, etc. to provide a historical perspective)
  4. Intersection of genome technology and organismal biology, in a general sense

However, the most significant theme that I have discovered over the course of this program is how unbelievably important it is to following a curiosity that fuels you from deep within. Everyone has shown how their desire to learn more about the world around them has motivated them to get to where they are today, and continues to push them to ask new questions. The world is a dynamic system and ecosystems are ever-changing. As such, it is important to grow with our study subject(s) and view our organism/ecosystem/environment from a new perspective. For example, we have seen how different the two sides (Pacific and Caribbean) of Panama can be, and how these different forms of separation cause evolutionary changes. We have learned how different ecosystems have been altered in a huge way through time.

Additional lessons that I will take away from the program are:

  • Determining feasibility and how to construct an experiment – need to consider monetary, spatial, and time constraints
  • Scale can be different depending on what question(s) you’re asking and what you’re trying to study
  • Plant chemistry – chemical defense, various adaptations
  • Getting creative with the methods of how to conduct different types of experiments – there isn’t really a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about things
  • Imbalance of research on a global scale – so much more research has been done in the temperate zone, and there hasn’t been much in the tropics or the arctic
  • It’s important to consider how different organisms are tied together, how they indirectly or directly interact, how they might help or hurt each other – looking at community structure in addition to an individual organism to put your research into the ‘big picture’ context of the question

At the end of the day, it seems like we know a lot about life, but we still have so much to learn a lot about the mechanics of it all – what is happening? Why are things the way they are? What effect will our actions have on the world around us? This course is just a small glimpse in the world of science, and I am so happy to be a part of such a wonderful community. I cannot wait to see where my passions and curiosity will take me, stay tuned!