I get paid to do this?! Working as a teaching assistant in Panama.

There are three main ways that you get paid as a graduate student, and they can vary semester to semester: 1. You can have your own funding source via a scholarship. 2. You can work as a research assistant on one of your advisor’s funded projects. 3. You can work as a teaching assistant (TA) for a class.

I’m currently getting paid by option number three, but I lucked out and get to TA in Bocas del Toro Panama from January to March*. I’m TA-ing Ocean and Coastal Processes for the Three Seas Master’s Program while they are in their 2nd sea, the Caribbean, stationed at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). The class focuses on how organisms interact with the physical forces on coral reefs. This is by far my favorite class to teach, as a lot of the material covers what got me interested in doing marine science. We dive every morning with the students and do an underwater lab, lecture after lunch, and then the students analyze their data the rest of the day. Sleep and repeat.

We did a lab on sediment removal on the first day of class. The students set up Go Pros on time-lapse to record a specific coral species and then dumped a known amount of sand on the coral. Back in the lab, the students analyzed the video to see how long it took their coral to remove sand from its surface and watched for any species-specific behaviors. Some corals, like the staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis, have their shape working in their favor, so that the sand just slides right off or water movement washes it off quickly. Other corals produce extra mucus to cling to the sand so that it is more easily carried away by water movement. Another behavior, that we didn’t see, involves the coral polyps expanding and contracting to push the sediment off. Below is a video of sediment removal by a great star coral, Montastraea cavernosa; this coral uses ciliary movement to move sand down and off the colony.

On the second day, the students used fluorescent dye to measure turbulence at different heights above the reef.


The third lab involved capturing zooplankton on a reef and comparing diversity at different depths and times. The class set up demersal zooplankton traps and left them out over night to catch the plankton as they swam up off the bottom at night.

My favorite lab was the sponge pumping dive on the last day. Healthy sponges on a typical coral reef and pump and filter all the water overlying the reef every 1-2 days! An amazing feat for an animal that lacks true tissues and a brain! Sponges filter water in through many smaller pores called ostia and out through one or a few large holes called oscula. The students divided up sponge shapes and species before the dive, and then each buddy pair filmed dye being pumped through a couple different sizes of their specific sponge on the reef. This way, the students could determine if there was a relationship between size and pumping rate.

I had a very fun week TA-ing for Ocean and Coastal Processes. I was extremely busy running around getting materials ready for dives and labs and constantly answering questions, but I genuinely enjoyed my time teaching. Graduate students like to complain about working as teaching assistants and a lot of the time the job takes grueling preparation and mindless grading. However, sometimes you luck out and get to teach a class that truly interests you and reminds you that you actually do like teaching. This was one of those classes for me. This week of labs was the first week of the class and the second week will take place on the Pacific side of Panama on Coiba**. I now have 40 lab reports and 20 exams to grade, but at least I’m doing it in a tropical paradise!


Best Fishes, Sara W.

*Not all TA positions are this glamourous.

**I don’t only work for two weeks this semester. As a program TA, I help out with the other classes, go on most of the class dives, and am available to students for questions and class help 24/7.


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