Out of the jungle and into the city…

It’s nice to get out of Gamboa and go to Panama City every once in awhile to spice things up. Even thought it feels like we’re so removed from civilization here, it’s only a 45 minute ride into the city. There are old school buses (called Saca buses) that have been painted different colors and that are usually blasting latin music (my favorite one has hot pink feather boas strung up all around the windshield), which show up about every two hours and go all the way into the city for only $1.

I’ve taken the Saca bus a couple times with some friends for the afternoon to check out Panama’s only art museum, which featured an exhibit of Panamanian photographers’ images, and to walk around Casco Viejo, the old section of the city. Historically, there was a lot of gang activity in this area and the buildings were deteriorating, but it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site and there has been a movement to revitalize the neighborhood. The architecture is really beautiful, and there are lots of neat restaurants, rooftop bars, and little shops.

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The view from a rooftop in Casco Viejo of the water and the skyline of the downtown area. Panama City has a surprisingly modern feel, and people often compare it to Miami. Here are some more photos of Casco Viejo… 

 

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BEWARE: post loaded with NEU pride

You’ll never guess who came to Panama this past weekend… None other than our dear President Aoun! He visited Panama City for the weekend to speak to the Northeastern Panama Community. A group of young global leaders, recent graduates who are active in the community, was established in Panama several years ago, and President Aoun spoke about his vision to expand this network and Northeastern’s presence in Latin America over brunch at a snazzy hotel.

I registered to attend the event with my friend Sophia, the only other Northeastern student currently on co-op in Panama. She is also working for STRI in their Panama City location, researching snails! Once we had registered, someone from the office of alumni relations contacted us to see if we would be interested in saying a few words about our experience in Panama at the event and going out to dinner with him and one of his colleagues the night before.

It was such a crazy experience – I still can’t believe President Aoun was in Panama! But here is the photographic evidence to prove it…IMG_1409

Sophia and I with President Aoun!

We also got to meet President Aoun’s wife (she’s adorable!), and during dinner the night before we learned about the extensive network of Northeastern alumni around the world. Sophia and I had no idea that there is a whole team of people at Northeastern working to cultivate this global network or that there are so many people around the world who still love Northeastern and would be happy to help current students. This is a great thing to be aware of, and something I will definitely keep in mind in the future since I’m considering self developing my third co-op!

Another cool thing about this event was the opportunity that we wouldn’t otherwise have had to chat with Northeastern alumni who are now living in Panama and some families of current students. I actually bumped into the parents of someone I know at Northeastern! It turns out that his younger brother volunteers every other Saturday in Gamboa at STRI?!?!? Such a funny coincidence, I couldn’t believe it! He is still in high school but considering a career in something environmental, so I am going to meet him soon to chat about different opportunities in this kind of field.

As the title of the post suggested, I’m a die hard Northeastern fan so I really enjoyed meeting a community of people from very different backgrounds who were all brought together by their love for this school. And I’m so glad that because of Northeastern I had this opportunity to come to Panama in the first place. Yay Huskies!

Visitors!

I’m super grateful that my family was able to come to Panama to visit me last weekend. One of my younger brothers, Harrison, visited Costa Rica for a week with the high school Spanish club, but my other little brother, Wyatt, and my parents had never been to Central America before so it was neat to be able to show them around. They got a good taste of Panama – a day in the city to do a boat tour of the locks and check out the old section of the city; two days in a teeny, rural beach town to take surfing lessons and hang out by the ocean; and a day in Gamboa to walk up Pipeline road into the jungle, meet my lab group, and see where I’ve been hangin’ out! It was a nice mix of experiences, and I also got to see some things that I would not have had a chance to otherwise.

For example, we took a boat tour of the canal and got to go through two of the locks. The Panama Canal is an incredible feat of engineering and it was interesting to learn more about it and see it from a different perspective.

Other highlights of the trip included…

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Hitting the waves!

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The neat air bnb that we stayed at in San Carlos, a teeny beach town about an hour from Panama City. To get there, we went to the bus terminal at the Albrook Mall and went up to the window with a sign for San Carlos. After buying the tickets ($3.25 each, public transportation is really cheap here!), we hopped on the little bus and it took off down the Pan-American highway. Buses here are always an adventure because they each have a guy working at the door who collects money and keeps an eye out for potential passengers at the stops along the highway. Actually, they don’t necessarily even need to be at a stop, frequently people will flag the bus down from the side of the road as well! I also love having a chance to look out the window and see some of the country…

Finally, it was great to get a chance to show my family where I’ve been living for the past few months and have them meet my colleagues!

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Here we are on a hike… I’m so glad they were able to visit!

It all boils down to this…

Would ya look at all that water

There’s water everywhere here – water in the canal, water in the Chagres River, lots of water falling from the sky, water constantly evaporating from all the vegetation and making the air incredibly humid until it rains again… But why can’t the water be where I want it, which is consistently coming out of my faucet?

The water pipes in Gamboa are old and leaky, so the water will go out sporadically and unpredictably. Usually it happens when I’m completely saturated in sweat after going for a run or feeling very thirsty and in need of a drink. That’s another thing – because the water pressure is inconsistent and external water can seep into the pipes, the water quality is questionable and we have to boil all our drinking water. Until now, I have never appreciated clean, running water so much.

On campus, I’m involved with Engineers Without Borders. Our chapter is partnered with communities in developing countries without access to clean drinking water and works with them to locate a safe water source and design and build a water distribution system. I work with the Uganda program and have seen photos that the travel teams have taken of children collecting water from muddy, contaminated holes. I’ve also worked to quantify our impact on the community and have read the residents’ responses to our surveys about how important the running water delivered by the system has been to them. This work has been a really meaningful part of my college experience and has challenged me reconsider how lucky I’ve been to always have running water.

However, seeing photos and reading responses on paper is quite different than actually experiencing firsthand the struggle of unreliable water that millions of people around the world face every day, which has luckily only been an inconvenience here. Realistically, when this is no longer a daily concern I will probably fill up my water bottle or wash my dishes without stopping to think twice about how amazing it is that I can turn a knob and get water. But hopefully when I’m upset about something I’ll be able to recall this experience and realize that as long as I can take a shower when I’m really sweaty, things aren’t that bad after all.

Jungle Living

Living in Gamboa, Panama, is definitely different in a lot of ways than living in Boston… For example, there’s only one road into Gamboa. Actually, it’s an old wooden train bridge that has been converted into a single lane bridge of questionable structural integrity that crosses the Chagres River where it connects with the canal. Beyond Gamboa, the pavement becomes dirt and the road stretches into the jungle for a few kilometers. 

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Once you enter Gamboa, you’ll find a tiny police department, some canal buildings, a church, a school, a resort, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) lab and research greenhouses, a food truck (that serves delicious lunches, usually consisting of rice, beans, some kind of veggies, and a meat dish for only $2.75!), and some houses. Especially during the summer, many of the people living in Gamboa are affiliated with STRI. However, there are also locals and canal workers who commute from the city during the week. Here’s a view of the road leading into Gamboa right after the bridge and some of the canal buildings: 

There’s also a little “tienda,” or store, that sells the bare essentials, including plantains, rice, beans, and milk. The tienda is a life saver because we are only able to go into Panama City to a real grocery store every week or two. I miss having easy access to groceries at any time in Boston! 

Another one of the strangest adjustments for me was actually the timing of sunset. Coming from the late evening Boston summer sunsets, I was startled when the sun disappeared at 6:30 pm on my first night. But it also rises every day at 6 am, which is perfect for beautiful early morning runs! 

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Lizard Catching 101

Have you ever caught a lizard with your bare hands? To be completely honest, I’ve spent a lot of time outside but I can’t remember ever actually hand catching a lizard until coming to Panama. Luckily, it’s not as tough as I expected once you get the hang of it. Here’s a photo of the first lizard I caught:

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After being snatched off their perch, the lizard is deposited into a cloth bag and placed into a cooler.

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Just a cooler full of lizards!

So what is the point of catching these little lizards? This project uses anoles as the study system to better understand how tropical animals will adapt to increasing temperatures resulting from climate change. To do so, we are capturing lizards from the mainland forest and transplanting them to small islands in the Panama Canal. The islands have less canopy cover than the mainland, and therefore experience slightly warmer temperatures during the day. By taking baseline data from the lizards and then returning to the islands in the future to see which individuals survive and reproduce, it will be possible to determine how the lizards adapt to increased temperatures and which traits are being selected for.

Last summer, lizards were introduced to five islands. For the first month and a half of my co-op, we were working everyday to capture enough lizards to populate four more islands. One day of catching 80-90 lizards would be followed by two days in the lab (a beautiful new building with lots of windows, see below!) taking all kinds of measurements, including the highest and lowest temperatures each lizard can withstand.

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We also took small tissue samples from each lizard’s tail for the genomics work, and gave each lizard a unique tag by injecting a very small amount of a colored plastic under the skin so it can be identified during recaptures.

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Here you can see the unique tag, as well as a parasite in the lizard’s stomach

Then the lizards were ready to be brought to their new island homes! These islands, which were formed during the construction of the canal, didn’t previously have any members of this species living on them… so untying the little bag and letting a lizard free to start a brand new population that could now be on the island indefinitely was a crazy feeling!?!?!

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Dan, a PhD student from London who’s also working on the project, releasing a lizard

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Someone’s excited about their new home!

We recently completed this transplant portion of the project. Next, we’re going to be returning to the islands and recapturing the lizards to see which individuals survive, which will indicate which traits are being selected for. We’ll also return to the islands that were populated last summer to see which lizards survived and reproduced. Assessing which traits helped these individuals survive will  make it possible to model future evolution. Science is so cool!

Intro…

Did you know that there are people who get paid to live in Panama and catch lizards in the jungle? I didn’t know that was a job until several months ago, but now I’m one of those people! My name is Madeline, and I’m currently on co-op working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), which is a branch of the Smithsonian devoted to ecological studies. STRI has several locations in Panama where scientists come from all over the world to study the biodiversity of the tropics. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to join that community of researchers at the STRI field station in Gamboa, Panama. I’m assisting a scientist with his research on the evolutionary adaptation of a species of lizards, Anolis apletophallus, to climate change.

 

Let me rewind and explain how I got here. I’m a rising fourth year environmental engineering major, and this is my second co-op. Last year, I worked at an environmental engineering consulting firm on a water distribution project in Cape Cod. I really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot about the industry, but I wanted to try something completely different for my next co-op. During an engineering ecology and microbiology class that I took this past semester, I realized that I love ecology and hoped to find a co-op that incorporated some science or focused more on environmentally progressive engineering solutions, like clean energy. Also, since I am from upstate New York and have lived in the U.S. my whole life, I wanted to take advantage of this chance to try living somewhere else in the world.

Luckily, I found this co-op and it has ended up being everything I could have hoped for and more! I have been in Panama since July 1st, and I absolutely love it so far. It has been great to talk to so many different people and learn from them about ideas and careers that I never would have been exposed to otherwise, and the project that I’m working on is really interesting. More on that later though! Anyways, thanks for reading this. Hopefully my blog will inspire anyone who’s interested in a global co-op (maybe even this position at STRI!!!) to take the plunge and pursue that opportunity… or if not, I will try to make it at least a mildly entertaining read!