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


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.



My week as a Neotropical neophyte


Panama has captured my heart. It is only the first week. We have capitalized on our short time since arrival and have experienced a snapshot of the rich and biologically diverse systems under active study on BCI and in Gamboa. Galvanized by each of our experiences, I couldn’t choose just one. It’s been delightfully crazy and full of exciting science.

The first day was populated with several talks beginning with Dr. Anthony Coates who commenced my immersive learning with an overview on the history of Panama from a geologically focused perspective. Quickly following Dr. Coates’ presentation, we headed to Barro Colorado Island (BCI) for a multiple day excursion where several projects were presented on tropical forest ecology and plant-pathogen/herbivore interactions by Drs. Erin Spear, Scott Managan, Camilo Zalamea, and Scott Sedio. In previous years, the field course has been about exploring the biodiversity of Panama with walk and talks. However, this year the course has been structured so that students spear-head small-scale projects during each segment to gain and understanding of project and experimental design in the Neotropics. I chose to work with community chemical ecologist Brian Sedio on BCI because of his previous work and interest in plant-herbivore ecology. His recent work compared phylogenetic relatedness of piper and psychotria plants to their chemical composition. For the next 27 hours, my group of like-minded students (for the purpose of this project) sequestered ourselves in a world of piper plants, insect specimens, and treacherous tropical forests. We decided to test if Piperaceae herbivore presence correlated with secondary chemical compounds or the phylogenetic similarity of individual species, and we predicted that chemical compounds would better explain herbivore species presence than phylogeny. We identified all the piper species in 20 plots of 6 meters, inspected the leaves for large insects, and then aggressively shook the plants onto beating sheets to collect the remaining herbivores (predominantly weevils and beetles). While I sorted and identified insects (due to a preexisting interest in entomology), others were entering data and using the R package Picante to integrate Dr. Sedio’s previous phylogenetic and chemical data with our own. Our results suggested that herbivory is not directly affected by chemical niche, however much of that could be due our sample size, the methods we used, and the season we collected i.e. dry vs. wet.

We returned to Gamboa on Friday morning, and I promptly caught a cold (lame). Dr. Ehab Abouheif from McGill University directed us in a collective project to identify the (morhphological) subcaste distribution of Atta cephalotes leaf cutter ants who have 8 morph subtypes. We collected 4 chambers from 3 colonies in ethanol and sorted them by head size back at he STRI field house. Ultimately our distribution was heavily biased towards the larger end of the spectrum due as a result eaof easier specimen collection by tweezers. Dr. Abouheif later presented his work on the highly conserved genes that control development and the epigenetic role in the field of eco-evo-devo. He showed how the development and evolution of quantitative variation within any colonies and how genes that control development are often highly conserved in expression and function, such as DNA methylation which suppresses the expression at specific times to regulate caste differentiation. Dr. Abouheif presented his work on EGFR’s role in growth and size and how it results in variation in behavior and morphology (Alvarado et al. 2015). He also discussed his work on inducting super soldiers as a model for genetic accommodation (Rajakumar et al. 2012). Despite my cold, it was a fantastic day filled with hymenopteran genomics.

Saturday we went to San Lorenzo to go up in the canopy crane and practice catching Heliconius butterflies, a process that is much less glamorous than the study organism itself. It was a windy day so both endeavors were not terribly successful, though we had a lovely sack lunch together on a patch of grass. In the evening, Dr. Paul Frandsen, STRI research data scientist, discussed his work on “big data” insect phylogenetics and how different models are used to resolve the phylogenies of species’ with convoluted taxonomy. He is a contributor to the 1KITE project and discussed the genomic resource importance of such large scale, highly computational, and collaborative sequencing projects.

Incorporating more policy geared concepts into the course curriculum, Dr. Brian Leung from McGill University discussed how he applies mathematical models to invasion biology with limited knowledge of the invasive species that negatively impact the native ecology. He used a lot of numbers and symbols that I didn’t really understand. On the same evening we went to Gamboa Bat Night, where there were different stations set up to discuss mist netting, species diversity, echolocation, and vampire bat social dynamics. There is a team here who studies that motivating factors of food sharing between vampire bats: kinship, bet-hedging (in the event that the donor falls on hard times), previous feeding, etc.

It’s already been an amazing experience, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to meet such a diverse group of scientist. I had the nice surprise of finding two stingless bee nests that I hope to use in my short project. More to come on that later…