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.

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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!