Worlds shaped by knowledge

Walking in the rainforest is like something of another world. You step out of society’s bubble and find yourself lost under the pillars of tropical trees and buzzing critters. I feel that one’s experience of the rainforest is sort of like interpreting a painting. It can be different depending on who is looking. For a long time, my interpretation of the rainforest was all about the animals: the marching leaf-cutter ants on the forest floor, the howler monkeys feeding on leaves, and the toucans croaking in the canopy. However, these past few days have taught me a new perspective of the rainforest.

Recently, we heard a lecture by STRI chemical ecologist Brian Sedio on plant secondary chemistry and its relationship to insect herbivory. He described his application of tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) to analyze and compare the various structures of secondary compounds found in tropical plant species. Using mass spectrometry allows one to determine the molecular background of plant species that produce a multitude of different chemical defenses. As an undergraduate taking organic chemistry, I learned how to read and use NMR, but never did I think about applying it to tropical biology. It was exciting and sort of eye-opening for me to see these techniques being used to define chemical niches in the environment.

After the lecture, I participated in small project with other students looking at variation in herbivory between differing chemical metabolites and phylogeny in host plants. We focused on Piper species, which are smaller plants found at the bottom of the rainforest canopy. While at first it was hard for me to recognize Piper out of the many sorts of lush greenery in the forest, the trick is to spot the small details in the leaves and stems of the plant.

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Piper spp. 

Isn’t it amazing how once you learn about something, then you just see it everywhere? That is exactly what happened to me. After the project, all I could see was the many varieties of Piper species found in the rainforest and the chemicals produced by them. An anthropologist by the name of Benjamin Whorf once argued that our worlds of reality are shaped by the words that we learn. I also find that our worlds of reality are being shaped by new knowledge that we gain. From now on, I view the rainforest as an entity of multiple complex layers. I not only see the diversity of animal species but also the underlying web of chemical metabolites behind every plant-animal interaction. This shows how important it is for us as students to welcome different ideas in research, whether that be in chemistry, ecology, environmental policy, or a different field. These connections introduce a new perspective that we might not have realized otherwise and makes us greater as the next generation of scientists.

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