The Most Valuable Thing I Learned at STRI

Arriving in Panama I wasn’t sure what to expect from STRI (the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) or the NEO (Neotropical Environment Option) program. Here in Gamboa, you step outside of your day-to-day life and become immersed in an environment with individuals from all over the world who are united in a passion for scientific exploration. When spending time with other students and researchers our differences are evident, but our ability to look past these differences and turn them into advantages in the face of a common goal is arguably the most valuable resource STRI has to offer. Just within our small class of eight people we had tree ecologists, ichthyologists, an ornithologist, a mammalogist, evolutionary ecologists, a philosopher, a barber, musicians, photographers and the list continues. Thus, the diversity within our group was constantly sparking engaging conversations about science and the issues surrounding it. I distinctly remember one conversation held on the bus ride back from the Bayano region where a discussion about Indigenous land rights transitioned into a heated philosophical debate regarding the definition of ‘ownership’. By accepting and listening to one other, we are always able to grow as scientists. I have learned many things during my time spent in Panama, but this is perhaps the most exceptional.

During the first few days in Panama our group ventured out to Barro Colorado Island (BCI), a world renowned research center owned by STRI. While on BCI we participated in small research projects under the supervision of Brian Sedio and Jordan Kueneman. Raina, Francis, Gabriel and myself worked to understand more about the composition and function of microbiomes on BCI. The topic of microbiomes was relatively new to us, but Jordan led us in understanding the complex field of microbiomes by having us participate in each step of an actual microbiome analysis. These individual experiences were undeniably cool, but for me the most interesting part of our project was not the night hike or the katydid dissection, it was seeing the different ways each of us understood and approached our topic. My background in environmental science has coached me to always focus on the bigger picture. However, within our group everyone asked very different questions and we were all drawn to different parts of our project. For example, Raina was very quick to understand specifics about the methodologies behind microbe sampling, characteristic of her background in more focused areas of biology (i.e. neuro-science). I found that Francis was very good at explaining concepts to the rest of us and constantly asked questions that helped clarify parts of the project that we were struggling with as a group. I suspect (though I have not asked him) that this may stem from his experiences teaching. During this project on BCI was when I originally decided I wanted to write this blog post. This was the first time I saw the degree to which our individual backgrounds and interests could play a role in shaping a scientific product.


Photo by: Francis Van Oordt 

For our last class trip we travelled to Galeta, STRI’s main marine research station in Panama. We had been excited to go snorkeling since our arrival in Panama, so we were extremely disappointed to be met in Galeta by strong winds and mud-brown waters. The feeling of disappointment only deepened when our group consisting of Francis, Marko, Raina, and myself went out to test the water visibility and determined that our original project idea would not be possible. However, we brainstormed and came up with an alternative project which was quickly set in motion. To test our hypothesis we needed to plant squid pops around and within the mangroves outside of the research station. Due to an unforeseen injury and an extremely rational fear of crocodiles (I’ll let you infer who each pertains to), Marko and I were not able to be much help in the water. Raina and Francis (with some help from Felipe and Matt), were able to plant most of our squid sticks. We had a tight deadline so in the morning we went out and quickly obtained all of our data. Marco’s interest in statistics and ability to use statistical tools meant that he was able to complete the analysis quickly while I worked on our presentation. At the end of the day we finished with plenty of time to practice. Without our different strengths we probably wouldn’t have completed any project let alone one as extensive as ours, however, because of them we were able to pull off what I believe was one of the best group projects/presentations of the course.


Photo by: Marc-Olivier Beausoleil

The individual differences we had within our small NEO group are a reflection of the multi-dimensional STRI community. Over the course of our studies we were able to meet with many STRI researchers who all have various talents and research goals. What stood out to me most when meeting these people was the opportunity for collaboration presented by STRI. We met with people like Brian Sedio and Jordan Kueneman who are interested in questions related to molecular biology. We heard about projects by Michael Logan and Martijn Slot that are focused on climate ecology. We even met with people like Catherine Potvin who, along with her biological research, works on social issues related to her field. While the specific topics studied by these researchers seem very different, here at STRI there is a continuous emphasis on the interconnectedness of science. Many researchers on BCI who conduct their own projects are collaborating with Jordan Kueneman to provide microbiome samples from their own study species for his project. People like Jose Loisa who work on the One Health Initiative collaborate with people from all facets of biology (e.g. medical, ecological, evolutionary) to tackle issues related to disease transmission. These collaborations bring together different fields but they also bring together different people. These people bring with them different knowledge and experiences that give them the ability approach issues from different angles. It is my opinion that no project can be completed effectively from a singular perspective. STRI facilitates conversation and collaboration among people that contributes to betterment of our individual fields.

So often in the world we see people being torn apart as a result of their differences. Governments collapse, religions clash and professional sectors attack one another because ultimately we all see the world in different ways. However, it is hard to imagine a successful society in which everyone shares the same affinities and the same world views. STRI provides an example of how monopolizing each other’s differences can be vastly more productive than allowing them to drive us apart. Doing this lets us see the bigger picture associated with a single issue and leads us to consider factors we may have otherwise overlooked. Above all else my time here in Panama has taught me the value of individual differences. As wisely stated to us by Gordon Hickey back in Montreal “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”, making collaboration with people different from yourself a vital part of practicing sound science. So whether I am asking Marco for help running linear models or having Chris and Francis teach me Spanish vocabulary, as a scientist I will now always see others’ differences as an opportunity to better myself and my own scientific practice. In my opinion, this is greatest lesson one can learn here at STRI.

Featured photo by: Felipe Pérez Jvostov


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