Monday, May 5, 2014

For a change of pace, I'm happy to present a short summary of a tour today to Barro Colorado Island, on Panama's Gatun Lake, home of a portion of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI.)  Our guide was Dr. Helene Miller-Landau, a staff scientist with research interests in ecology and evolution.

Under an arrangement with the Panamanian government, STRI manages the island and oversees the research taking place there.  It has been preserved in a natural state for many decades and offers an excellent laboratory to study flora and fauna.  A 50 hectare plot of land has been set aside to permit the complete mapping of virtually all the plants, providing a baseline against which to compare changes during the coming decade.  (Indeed, based on this precedent, several such plots have been established in other countries, and an effort is ongoing to coordinate research programs across these widely divergent sites.)

Beyond spending time with Helene, we had a chance to meet the panoply of scientists on the island.  They included Don Feener, from the University of Utah, who was a long-time resident years ago and stops by now for occasional visits.  His field is social insects, and particularly army ants, and he has been focusing on the variety of parasites that feed on this species.  But what gins up Don as much as the ants is the chance to meet with the young researchers on the island, graduate students and post-docs, who have come to carry out their own portion of the world's extensive study of tropical forest wildlife and plants.

We had a chance to spend time with several of these folks, and their enthusaism and desire to share what they have learned and to learn from one another is infectious.  I pointed out that such a spirit of collaboration and sharing is often missing from the world of medical research in the esteemed halls of academic medical centers and university biology departments.  Helene and others pointed out that the small likelihood of another researcher being able to "steal" a research finding, given the need to be "on the ground," might be one reasons people are more open about their progress and frustrations.  Also, there is more uncertainty in this field as to what direction of research is likely to be successful, so there is not a race to a certain conclusion, as there might be in more established biomedical research.  Whatever the reasons, it was a refreshing change from some places I have frequented.

This is truly a special place, in terms of flora and fauna, as you see from several pictures I've included.  But it is also a special place for the expansion of human knowledge, and it is a tribute to parties in both Panama and the US that it has been allowed to flourish.


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