This is officially my last Panama Perspectives. And, as promised, this post will be about the non-Bocas contingent of the experience: Boquete and Coiba. So without further ado…
We left STRI on the morning of February 27th in the largest boat I’ve ever seen in Bocas. Like seriously, this boat was big enough to fit all of the students, all of the staff, and all of everyone’s luggage. Trust me, that’s A LOT of crap. Upon reaching Almirente, we somehow loaded said crap into 1.5 buses and promptly took off for the mountains and Boquete.
During the 4-ish hour drive – on the windiest mountain road ever paved – we crossed the continental divide. Aside from experiencing less than 100% humidity for the first time in 2 months, this was the most interesting part of the trek for me. The continental divide is a fancy name for the mountain range that divides the Americas. In Panama, the Caribbean side gets way more rainfall than the Pacific side due to the mountain barrier. Obviously, this makes the Pacific side a whole lot drier. The change in landscape is literally immediate; it’s pretty incredible. One minute you are driving through a lush rainforest and the next minute looks like the backdrop for an old western movie.
After breaking for a super classy parking lot lunch of PB&J, pretzels, and diet coke, we finally arrived at Casa Pedro.
The big draw of Boquete is the mountains, specifically Volcan Baru, a dormant volcano that scrapes the clouds at 3,475 meters. It is the tallest peak in Panama. This was the crowning moment of TTE, the trek to the top.
I won’t go into the gory details of the 20-mile hike, the experience may or may not have given me mild PTSD. Suffice it to say that many, many curses and prayers were uttered and their content is for the mountain’s ears alone. We did, however, eventually reach the top in time for…
After a much-needed recovery day, we left the quaint mountain paradise of Boquete for our last locale at sea-level. Armed with only a backpack and our SCUBA gear we left the mainland and several hours later arrived at Coiba.
Located in the Gulf of Chiriqui, Coiba is the largest island in Central America. Up until 2004, it was home to a rather brutal penal colony with a reputation for torture and execution. The prison’s nasty reputation for wanton beheadings meant that pretty much everyone stayed away from Coiba, and as such, the island is in pristine condition. In 1992, Coiba was declared a national park and marine protected area. Today the island is almost completely uninhabited save a few rangers.
The first thing you notice about Coiba is the Pocillopora. What the eastern Pacific lacks in coral biodiversity it makes up for in sheer coral volume. The seabed is covered in Pocillopora, almost 100% on some reefs.
The other thing you notice about Coiba is the ENORMOUS number of fish compared to Bocas. It’s like night and day.
This is because, unlike Bocas, Coiba is home to relatively healthy reefs. It is an example of a hugely successful marine protected area. And why is that you might ask? Isolation. No people = no fishing and no pollution.
On one hand it is amazingly heartening to see a thriving marine ecosystem. On the other hand, it is amazingly depressing because I know that Bocas and the rest of the Caribbean once looked like Coiba. It hurts my soul to say so but I’ve never seen a truly healthy reef in all my years of diving in the Atlantic. I’m not even sure if there are any left.
Despite what you might think from all the photos, we also had this little thing called class while in Coiba. And one of our most interesting trips was to Uva island where we snorkeled the coral reef/field site of Peter Glynn, the father of eastern Pacific coral studies.
We also dove on a number of interesting reefs that are characteristic of the area. Coiba is the way that it is because of something called upwelling, for which Wikipedia has a great definition: an oceanographic phenomenon that involves wind-driven motion of dense, cooler, and nutrient-rich water towards the ocean surface, replacing the warmer, usually nutrient-depleted surface water. There is great debate regarding whether or not the eastern Pacific is a true upwelling zone but after experiencing the crazy thermocline in Coiba I am convinced. The class did a number of activities involving characterization of reef species composition as well as measuring the currents. After so much time in Bocas, it was really interesting to experience a tropical marine ecosystem that is different in almost every way.
The ultimate pinnacle of Coiba (and potentially the entire trip) was the whale shark. We set off for Wahoo Rock at around 4pm to try our luck with the cryptic beasts. Honestly, I was expecting to return defeated. After all, these animals are pretty rare and we know so little about them. However, I shouldn’t have worried since apparently the ocean gods have blessed Three Seas XXX. Not only did the entire class see a whale shark, some of us saw TWO (or perhaps the same one twice).
It is an understatement to say that the entire class was ecstatic. Even freaking out doesn’t even begin to describe the mood. It’s impossible to explain what it feels like to see these creatures in the wild, the biggest and arguably the most mysterious fish on the planet. We ended on the best possible high note imaginable.
Now, we are back in Gamboa where I sit writing this post. We have come full circle, this being the spot where the students spent their first night in Panama. After 70 days, 40+ dives, 22 new friends, 5 classes, and 1 whale shark, we are returning to the US. Without a doubt, this experience has been one of the most challenging and rewarding of my life. I feel so incredibly privileged to be a part of the Three Seas family, especially Three Seas XXX. I can’t imagine spending 10 weeks in a perpetual state of hygienic dereliction with any other group. I wouldn’t change a thing.
It’s been quite a while since my tropical update and now we are really getting down to the end of this incredible, albeit soggy, adventure. In my defense, the past 20 days or so have been some of the busiest of my life, what with beginning my official Panamanian TA-ship and leap-frogging around this amazing country.
So, in celebration of our blessed return to electricity and flushing toilets, I’ll make my last Perspectives post a double-header: bye-bye Bocas, bienvenido Boquete/Coiba.
Leaving Bocas… somehow, without my noticing, this weird little waterlogged town snuck up and stolen a piece of my heart. I never thought saying goodbye to STRI – and the eccentric community that surrounds it – would be so bittersweet but it really feels like we are leaving home. Anyway, our last two weeks in the Caribbean were mostly spent on two classes: Ocean & Coastal Processes and Coral Reef Ecology.
Ocean & Coastal Processes (OCP), led by Northeastern’s own intrepid Mark Patterson, was all about the fluid mechanics and mass transfer of small-scale processes in and around coral reefs. We did a few labs in this class that had the students fully immersed in the field (aka diving). You know what they say: a bad day diving is better than a good day doing anything else.
We also measured sponge pumping. By injecting dye into the base of a sponge you can measure flow within the basin as the dye emerges from the sponge’s many pores.
We used the dye for a few other activities as well… We clearly don’t have any fun here.
Other OCP labs included sediment tracking where we unceremoniously dumped sand on top of some corals to see what they would do. Turns out they are pretty efficient at ridding themselves of external crap, which is good news in case a storm or a 3 Seas group rolls through.
The last OCP lab looked at little cuties known as zooplankton, itty-bitty drifter animals that inhabit almost every marine ecosystem.
We collected samples from different spots on the reef and measured the species composition back in the lab.
Coral Reef Ecology (CRE) with Bill Precht followed right on the heels of OCP. This class was all about looking at the reef as a whole. Up until this class we focused on specific parts of a reef community: coral, fishes, etc. CRE was a great class to end with because it tied all of these players together into a bigger picture of tropical ecosystems.
We also went fossil hunting. The only things better than live coral are 8000 year-old coral skeletons.
The very last class in Bocas took us out of the ocean (*gasp*) and put us into closed-toed shoes. For a few days we explored the terrestrial side of tropical ecosystems. If the organism lives above the tidal zone, our professor, Dan Bisaccio, knows about it. Even though I love diving, it was a fun change to go traipsing through the forest.
And no terrestrial class would be complete without frogs and snakes aplenty.
But even though we love our land-dwelling brothers and sisters we will always find a way back to the water.
Tropical Terrestrial Ecology spans two locations: Bocas del Toro and Boquete. So, with heavy hearts we packed away our wetsuits for a few days in the mountains.
Hasta luego Bocas. Until next year…
If you like taking classes, without paying money or even putting on pants, this one’s for you.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the latest fad sweeping higher education. Basically, universities are offering courses online for free to anyone and everyone with an internet connection who wants to sign up. The typical MOOC has about 20,000 students, although some have over 200,000. The format of the classes varies, but most involve video lectures, multiple choice quizzes, discussion boards, and peer-reviewed exercises.
The number of MOOCs has grown rapidly from about 100 courses at the start of 2012 to over 1,000 courses today. MOOCs have been lauded as a way to “level the playing field” by providing the same educational opportunities to everyone despite geographic location, financial means, or academic background. Proponents also claim that MOOCs could help students avoid crushing educational debt and facilitate communication among diverse participants throughout the world.
However, despite these lofty goals, MOOCs have also been the target of a variety of criticisms. One recurring critique is that MOOCs are simply too large and too impersonal to allow any real interaction with the instructor, which prevents MOOCs from being a viable substitute for a traditional classroom. Another issue is that most universities don’t offer credit for MOOCs and very few enrolled students actually complete all the lectures and assignments (typically ~10%). Furthermore, the students who successfully complete courses are generally already well-educated, while the students MOOCs were designed to reach often do not have the necessary academic skills and struggle to finish classes.
I’ve dabbled around a little bit with MOOCs – I took one on environmental policy and law and I’m in the middle of a microeconomics course. Although I don’t see MOOCs as a replacement for traditional classrooms or degree programs, I think MOOCs can still play an interesting role in the future of education. The classes I’ve experimented with weren’t as rigorous as a regular college class, but the structure of the course helped keep me focused and I was constantly impressed by the diversity and caliber of my classmates. Personally, I just like being able to take free classes on anything that sparks my interest, from operations management to Andy Warhol or horse care. Also, while browsing through the available courses, I was struck by how many classes dealt with the topic of climate change. With their growing popularity, MOOCs could be a valuable tool for science communication, allowing thousands of people to connect with real scientists.
If you’re interested in trying out a MOOC yourself (it’s super easy to register), here are a few upcoming classes I though looked interesting:
- Tropical Coastal Ecosystems (University of Queensland, Australia — with Ove Hoegh-Guldberg!)
- A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior (Duke University)
- Global Warming: the science of climate change (University of Chicago)
- The Meat We Eat (University of Florida)
Or, you can look up many, many more courses here.
Photo by Ian Sane // cc
One of the best and worst things about the tropics is the incredible explosion of biodiversity that exists on every trophic level. Overall this is great news for the ecosystem, which thrives on a healthy assemblage of different species. It only becomes a problem when civilization interferes. After all, it stands to reason that the number of critters in your vicinity is in a direct relationship with the likelihood that you will find something unpleasant in your shoe. Blame the math.
Most people probably think that researching for 70+ days in Panama is an easy gig, what with getting paid to dive in a tropical paradise everyday. However, I am here to inform you that us grad students are way tougher than we look in our science pants. Unlike Boston, which admittedly boasts some pretty aggressive squirrels, Panama is home to a plethora of many-legged things that have the ability to maim you.
Since I’m not a phylogeneticist – and thank goodness for that – I will recount these many creatures of Panama by splitting them into just four simple groups* for your convenience.
* Warning: some crossover exists between groups
1. Things that are cool
Panama is bursting with really cute animals, the majority of which are harmless to grad students. More or less. Aside from corals, which are obviously my favorite, here are a few of my favorite neighbors at STRI. I’ll start with the amphibians/reptiles.
Moving onto those that can fly…
And finally the cuddliest critter in all of Central America!
2.Things that are cool but that I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley
In my opinion, a successful field scientist has a healthy fear of nature. I appreciate potentially dangerous creatures but I’m not going to chase and/or try to touch them (you know who you are). The following species are better enjoyed at a distance, preferably with powerful zoom lens. One of my absolute favorites is a close relative.
If that isn’t proof of evolution I don’t know what is. Now, moving a bit further down on the tree of life…
3. Things that have bitten/stung/pinched me
This category is pretty self-explanatory. Also, in my defense, I’d like to preface this next section by assuring you that the vast majority of these attacks were completely unprovoked. In any case, living in Panama will teach you that we humans are woefully inept at defending against even the smallest aggressors. I’ll start with the marine menaces.
And moving onto the terrestrial terrors, all of which happen to be insects.
4. Things that have scared the bejesus out of me
This section is slightly more complicated because it can include critters from the previous three lists. Basically any animal that tends to make sudden movements can be looped into this category. Anything is frightening when it runs across your feet on a dark path. Also, waking up to the nocturnal howls of our monkey brethren can be rather unsettling.
But I digress. The epitome of this group is the unspecified shark that got curious about my field research. There are few things more thrilling for a diver than a shark encounter. Thrilling yet also terrifying. Logically, this is unfounded. For example, you are literally more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark. It’s true, look it up. Still, when you come face to face with one of these evolutionary marvels, these perfectly streamlined hunters, you become very much aware of the fact that you are in their house. In fact, the only reason that you live to dive another day is because they allow you to. It’s humbling.
Last week on a research dive I was just swimming along ahead of my buddy when that unmistakable shark shadow materialized about 15 feet in front of me in the murky water. It was big, way bigger than me, and it was moving fast. Based on the depth and location of the reef as well as the size of the shadow I have determined that it was either a nurse or a bull shark. For those of you who know your sharks, these are two very different fish.
The identity remains a mystery. Though it is a comfort to know that I probably scared it as much as it scared me. The only difference being I shrieked into my regulator. Screaming underwater is just about as awkward as it sounds.
My other close encounter was with an odd little creature that I thought was a raccoon. A few nights ago, I was carrying a very heavy bucket near the dock when two decently-sized furry beasts streaked across my path inches from my exposed feet. Naturally, I cursed and dropped my bucket. Curiosity got the better of me and I violated my “don’t chase after animals that could potentially bite” rule. After following them around the corner I saw four glowing eyes frozen in the beam of my headlamp. A few steps closer revealed a pair of bizarre, dog-sized furballs with the face of a badger and a striped tail. Even though they were pretty cute, the glowing eyes eventually became ominous so I left, walking perhaps a bit more quickly than before.
A quick google search of “Panamanian badger raccoon” eventually returned this adorable little guy: the Coati. It’s really rather lovable if you can get past those teeth…
One of the great things about 3 Seas is the unique hands-on, real-world experience that is built into the curriculum. For better or for worse – though I like to think for better – this includes test taking. While the students have certainly had their share of traditional written exams, we have also conducted two field tests, both entirely underwater.
While the students were last minute cramming, the staff popped out to some obliging seagrass beds to set up the exam. This involved moving nervous fish from tanks to a cooler to buckets.
Once the specimens were all in place along a transect, the students entered the water armed with their dive slates and snorkel gear. Each submerged bucket corresponded to a question on their slate about the species it contained and said animal’s lifestyle.
Stay tuned for more Bocas-style academic adventures.
If you live in the northeast, you’re probably enjoying a snow day today. So go ahead and get comfy on that couch, make some hot cocoa, and enjoy all the sciency videos the internet has to offer. Here are a few to get you started:
- Watch Bill Nye debate evolution with the president of the Creation Museum, Ken Ham. The debate occurred last night (Feb. 4) at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Parts are frustrating to watch – how are we even still having this debate in 2014?!? – but the Science Guy makes an articulate and impassioned argument on behalf of evolution.
- Prepare for the Sochi 2014 Olympics (starting this weekend!) by learning about the science of winter sporting events. The National Science Foundation and NBC learn partnered to produce a series of videos about the science of the winter Olympics before the 2010 games and just released a second series focused on the science and engineering of the games. Learn how polymer scientists help develop speed skating competition suits, how curling uses physics, and many more facts sure to impress your friends.
- Do you know about the Brain Scoop with Emily Graslie? Emily is the Chief Curiosity Correspondent at the Field Museum in Chicago, which is basically the most awesome-sounding job title ever. Emily investigates and shares all the cool/interesting/gross things happening behind the scenes at the Field Museum on the Brain Scoop Tumblr and YouTube channel. Ever wonder what a double coconut is? Or what it’s like to skin a dead wolf? Emily has the answers.
Photo by blmiers2 / CC
If you follow the science-y blog o’ sphere – or at least the same blogs I follow – you’ve probably noticed the increased chatter about inequality in science (academia in particular). How do we increase representation of under-represented groups (women, minorities, etc.) and (in very colloquial terms) make them feel as though ‘they belong’ (i.e., that they are an equal in all regards)? The answer is complicated and the solution will require participation from all.
In my mind, an important step in this process is killing the stereotype of what a scientist looks like.
No, we are not all white upper-class males. No, we did not all go to ivy league schools. No, we do not all wear white lab coats and safety goggles to work everyday. No, we are not all math geniuses.
We, at least most of us, are passionate and excited about our science. We dance, sing, juggle, and rock climb. We have pets, friends, and families. We have hang-ups, self-esteem issues, and egos. We are human.
Scroll through the ‘This is What a Scientist Looks Like” tumblr and the human side of scientists will become obvious in an instant.
Freelance writer Allie Wilkinson, started the tumblr in 2012 to do exactly what I said above – kill the scientist stereotype. I love this tumblr and its goal so much. I hope it never fizzles out. I’ve submitted my picture and I challenge all you scientists to do the same!