Panama Perspectives – Day 22 (01/23/14)

Friends and family have been asking what exactly I’m doing here in the tropics while everyone else spends quality time with their ice scrapers. So without further ado, let me present a typical day in the life of a Vollmer Lab grad student in Panama…

Wake up abruptly to the caterwauling of STRI’s resident howler monkey troupe. Sustain a few seconds of mild panic as you remember that you are in Panama and such things are routine. Fall back to sleep amidst the territorial grunting.

First alarm goes off. Highly put-off by such a rude disruption to your post-monkey slumber, fumble for your phone and press the snooze button. Sleepily peek out the window. It’s probably raining.

Second alarm goes off. Begrudgingly drag yourself out of bed and perform your morning ablutions. Greet Diego, the tiny tree frog that has taken up residence in your shower, whom you don’t have the heart to remove. Walk out the door to meet the day. It’s definitely raining.

Morning in Bocas
Morning in Bocas

Enjoy an inexplicable breakfast of deli meat and mozzarella sticks. Sometimes there is wonderful fresh juice, always there is coffee. Note that the 3 Seas students have survived another night.

Get “dressed” in your Bocas finest: damp bathing suit, flip-flops, and a bandana. Stop by the lab to check emails and look at the day’s schedule. Maybe you read the news from home, maybe you don’t. It depends on how depressing the first headline is. It’s likely still raining.

Amble down to the dive locker. Check on your experiments in the wet lab on the way. Gingerly step into the wet lab feeling resigned to count at least twelve more gnat bites after five minutes. Briefly wonder if gnats, like mosquitos, carry nasty diseases. Make a mental note to google that later. Your experiment is probably not going as planned. Sigh.

Make your way through a maze of students to set up your dive gear. Pick through racks of moist wetsuits to find your particular brand grossness. Pull it on with difficultly. Rain has slowed to a light drizzle. Somehow corral everyone and all their stuff onto two boats. As you pull away from the dock, worry that you don’t have enough field equipment for all the students.

Boat ride to the dive site. Get a great view of Bocas del Toro as you weave in and out of mangrove patches. Try not to fall off the bench when the craft flies over swells in the water.

Arrive at the dive site. Before putting on your dive booties take a whiff to see if they smell as bad today as they did yesterday. They do. Regret that decision. Wait until all students have gotten themselves and their gear into the water without injury. Follow suit. Spit into your mask and furiously rub the lenses.

Reef research underway
Reef research underway

DIVE!! Help the students ID corals or carry out underwater experiments. Collect samples of coral for your own experiments. Take photos. Explore the reef. Enjoy the weightlessness. Revel in the fact that you actually get paid to do this.

Reef buddies
Reef buddies

Surface. Get yourself and the students safely ensconced on the boat for the return trip. Only wimps use a ladder. After three-four tries flop onto the boat floor with a fresh bruise.

Break down your dive gear making sure to rid all nooks and crannies of any lingering sea life. Fight 25 other peoples for a hanger so you can hang up your wetsuit even though you know it won’t dry. Take a half-assed rinse in the outdoor shower.

Lunch. Rice and beans. Without fail. Usually plantains. Take two of those bad boys.

Students have class. You perform various lab duties. Usually something needs to be autoclaved. Pipetting is a daily occurrence. So is homogenizing coral. Place coral fragment into a tube with glass beads and filtered seawater. Shake the crap out of it. Resulting coral slurry can be used in a number of ways. You could plate some to characterize microbial communities. You could try to induce disease in healthy corals with coral slurry made from diseased coral. The possibilities are endless.

left to right: White Band disease experiment, falcon tubes with coral fragments, the omniscient autoclave
left to right: White Band disease experiment, falcon tubes with coral fragments, the omniscient autoclave

Check email. Read some papers. You need to at least pretend to know what you are doing after all.

Dinner. Rice and beans. The cooks have also whipped up some other tasty dish. Eat way too much food. Sometimes there is cake. Know that you are too full to have dessert but eat it anyway. The howler monkeys have started up again.

Check on your experiments in the wet lab. Curse yourself for not remembering to do this earlier as the infernal bug situation in that place gets infinitely worse at dusk. Experiments are still not going as planned. #Science.

Prep for tomorrow’s experiments. Freak out that you are going to run out of plates and falcon tubes before your time here is done. The rain starts again.

Remind yourself that a shower is absolutely necessary if you plan to be around other humans. Check in with Diego. Discover fifteen new bug bites and two new bruises, it’s been a light day.

Congregate in the faculty house for some downtime. Someone usually makes nachos. Sometimes you run into town for some snacks because you haven’t eaten enough already. Sometimes you play Cards Against Humanity and all that entails. It can get pretty heated. It’s still raining.

Tony's Market: your local source of Pringles and cookies
Tony’s Market: your local source of Pringles and cookies

Disperse in order to get ready for bed. Enjoy some quiet reading time. Fall asleep on your kindle to the sound of chirping geckos. Tomorrow we start all over again.


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