Friends

There’s this theory I learned about in Psychology 101, which probably has a name but I couldn’t tell you what it would be, that says in general cases, the more time you spend with a person, the more you’ll like them. It would be an understatement to say that I have spent a lot of time with my classmates in Panama. We take classes together, we work in the forest together, we eat together, we hang out together, we watch movies together, we explore the city together, we even brush our teeth together. We’ve had lots of time to talk and bond, and I have enjoyed getting to know some of these people so well.

To be completely honest, there have been lots of bad moments. Times when people are yelling at each other, or just too many people talking too loudly. Times where interactions are shaped by cattiness and selfishness and general unhappiness. Times when, no matter how lovely everyone else may be, I really just need a little bit of time on my own, but there’s really nowhere in our schoolhouse I can be alone. It’s been long enough that I’d begun to forget that group interactions didn’t have to be this way, that multiple days could pass peacefully and pleasantly without making me feel like I needed to scream into a pillow, or at least leave the room before I snapped at someone.

Thankfully, one of my closest friends has also been studying here in Panama, and we keep each other going. Almost daily I’m reminded of how much more there is to friendship and positive relationships than quantity of time spent with someone. It’s not about carrying a conversation to fill the silence, it’s about trusting enough to share personal thoughts, bouncing around jokes and joy, and sometimes reveling together in the quiet itself.

Over spring break, another wonderful friend joined us, and the three of us spent some wonderfully relaxing time together. It was exactly what I needed, and was a clear reminder that groups of people could, in fact, interact in a positive way, and make decisions so that everyone was content. We were a small group, yes, but it reminded me of various groups of my friends who have constantly done the exact same thing–made all sorts of decisions, about restaurant choices or rules for games–yet I never considered it any special success. I don’t think it occurred to me how much a group of people, planning on hanging out as friends, could conflict and argue and place their own wishes above anyone else’s, and how those types of interactions would turn so many little things, down to serving food for dinner, into unpleasant power struggles.

I don’t know if it’s amazing how much conflict there is in this group, or if I should instead be amazed at how little conflict there has been in many of my other groups of friends. I do know that I miss my friends from school and home very much. Spring break was fantastic reminder of how happy I can be when I’m truly comfortable with other people, and it made me realize that I have not ever been fully relaxed around this group. As amazing as my time in Panama has been, with every day full of new discoveries and adventures, I am very ready to return to my “norm” of overwhelmingly pleasant time with the people I choose to be around. And I would like to sincerely thank my friends, from all times in my life, for being so wonderful that I know just how positive spending time with people can be.

Profoundly Arnold

For one of the early lectures of our parasitology course, our professor set out to discuss something that he called one of the most profound and useful concepts in epidemiology: Arnold. He wrote it large on the blackboard as R0 (spoken as r-naught) but his British accent turned it unerringly into plain Arnold.

I began to think of Arnold as a quiet, middle-aged individual, wandering around oblivious to the hordes of scientists swarming like paparazzi. We estimated Arnold, more concerned with his general ratio than any particular measurements. We discussed what would happen if Arnold was greater than one (the disease spreads through a host population) or less than one (the disease dies out), and I pictured Arnold sitting down in his living room, going through his baby photos, while that gaggle of scientists peered in through the windows. We took notes on Arnold’s personal preferences, discussing how Arnold could be impacted by environmental factors such as temperature. We even wrote down equations to take a closer look at Arnold, not leaving him much privacy at all. Eventually the lecture moved on to particular disease traits and population growth curves, but underlying everything we discussed was this profound idea of the basic concept of Arnold.

The end of course one

For our semester in Panama, we are taking four courses, but we’re taking them one at a time. In a lot of ways this is a great schedule: at least some of our courses are very fieldwork-heavy, and this way we can spend all day (or multiple days) in the field, come back at night to do some research, lab work, and data analysis, and not have to worry about any other classes. At school there’s always multiple psets, projects, readings, reports, and exams coming up for all of my classes, so being able to focus on JUST ONE THING for a single class is fantastic.

What this means, though, is that our first course has ended. In a very short three weeks, we’ve hiked in four national parks, eaten meals with our professors, and chatted on hour-long bus rides. We even spent a couple hours on a beach—and we get to call this class. At the same time, we have had ten lectures, come up with an idea and procedure for an independent project, and carried out that project in nine days of field work, three days of lab work, and one day to write a paper. Yesterday we turned in our papers, gave our presentations, and that was it. Over. We said farewell to our professors not fully processing that we would not, in fact, see them the next morning, or possibly ever again.

It feels like this class can’t possibly be over, and yet despite its brevity, this has been one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Working on my own project in the forests has further convinced me just how much I like doing fieldwork (though I suppose that was never really a surprise, given how much I love being outside and learning about trees and rocks and bugs). I can’t wait to see what the next three classes will bring.

mini-lecture of the day: Inga

Inga is a genus of trees that are quite common in the neotropics. Two of the species I worked with last summer were Inga (thibaudiana and pezizifera) so I’ve gotten fairly good at identifying the genus.

I find Inga really interesting because of its extrafloral nectaries. “Extrafloral nectaries” may sound really complicated, but actually they’re fairly simple: “extra-floral” meaning not on flowers, and “nectaries” meaning something that provides nectar. With inga, the nectaries are on the leaves, and they attract ants that help protect the tree from herbivory and vines.

an ant drinking out of a nectary on an inga leaf
an ant drinking out of a nectary on an inga leaf

Another interesting thing about inga is that it has compound leaves. This means that all the parts that look like leaves are actually leaflets, and the leaves themselves are made up of four to twenty leaflets. Inga leaflets always come in pairs. Inga leaves (and leaflets) can be fairly small, or really big.

inga
inga
not an inga: ends with a single leaflet
not an inga: ends with a single leaflet
sometimes Inga leaves are really big! This picture has one leaf with eight leaflets
sometimes Inga leaves are really big! This picture has one leaf with eight leaflets

Lastly, some Inga can have a winged rachis. The rachis is the part of the leaf that connects all the leaflets together, and when it has a lot of leaf-tissue on it, it’s considered winged. I don’t know if this serves any biological purpose, but it makes them look really cool.

that bug is standing over the rachis, which is winged in this picture
the bug is standing over the rachis (winged in this picture)

Semester in Panama

I’m spending my spring semester studying in Panama. I’ll be doing fieldwork and small research projects in various places in the country, mostly around the Canal Zone.

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My first three-week course will take me to Pipeline Road in Gamboa (1), Parque Natural Metropolitan0 (2), Ft. Sherman in San Lorenzo (3), and a single-day visit to Altos de Campana (4). We’ll also spend some time on the weekends in Panama City.

canalzone

 

I’m really excited to explore take pictures in all of these wonderful places–and that’s just the first three weeks! Check out my photos here.

leafcutter ants carrying flower petals

Agoutis are like squirrels, only cuter

I taught summer camp for many years at a park with lots of birds, beetles, lizards, and deer. And ground squirrels. Enough ground squirrels that it felt like at least one was always in sight, and on any given patch of grass there would be two or three or twenty. They dug around in the grass, chased each other up trees, and chattered obnoxiously. These squirrels were unafraid of people, and consequently constant pests: we had to keep the kids’ lunches closed up in boxes at all times so they wouldn’t steal any of them, and I chased squirrels away from our group at every meal time.

To me, they were drab, dull, and annoying. But to the kids, these squirrels were AWESOME. Every squirrel we passed on a trail was a new discovery, to be exclaimed over and talked about. Furthermore, a squirrel approaching the group wasn’t a pest, it was funny. So, so funny, as it skittered around, shuffled forward, or dodged away. We saw a lot of other interesting wildlife, but those squirrels were always in favor.

I just couldn’t understand the appeal.

Yesterday, a couple of us went on a walk around Gamboa. I saw well-preserved old houses, a few leafcutter ants, beautiful views of the tropical treetops, a couple vultures, and many smaller birds. It was hot and sunny and really pretty. As we headed back, we saw a medium-sized rodent, called an agouti, standing on someone’s grass. It dug around in the grass, and ate something it found there. And it was so cool! We stood there for a couple minutes, entranced by the way it looked, the way it moved, and just how calm it was around us.

That evening I realized that if I had grown up with agoutis all over the place, this one would have been just an ordinary rodent, looking for food. I think this is one of my favorite things about traveling to new places: the little differences that open our eyes to all of the amazing things we take for granted, and the chance to drop any jaded reaction and look at our surroundings like kids, excited by everything we see.

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Princeton bonfire

If, on any given year, Princeton football beats both Yale’s and Harvard’s teams, the school celebrates with a giant bonfire. Apparently it’s been bigger in past years, but I thought it was awesome.

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The bonfire is constructed to be not only a raging inferno, but also a deliberate insult to the rival teams. There’s an outhouse with the scores written on it, a toy bulldog, and a Harvard flag (because what is a Crimson, anyway?)

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There were lots of people there, and almost everyone was taking pictures. I challenged myself to take pictures no one else was taking. I hope you enjoy the end product as much as I enjoyed the experience.

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Trickles of Spanish

I have often heard that being in a place where no-one speaks English is the best way to learn a new language–total immersion, it’s called. For the past six months I’ve been in a place where everyone speaks at least a smattering of English, and most of the people I interact with–other researchers, lab managers, even taxi drivers–speak fairly fluently. Still, many of them will at least try in Spanish first, as if giving me the benefit of the doubt, that even though I have repeatedly proven to be incapable of speaking Spanish, maybe this time the words will suddenly start flowing out, like the muddy brown streams suddenly rush down when they’re fattened by rain. I consider this to be a form of partial immersion, not the same as cannonballing in, perhaps, but at least the equivalent of dipping a couple toes into the water, and letting them stay there until they’re pale and wrinkled, and I’m fairly happy with the smattering of vocabulary I have picked up.

Of course there is the basic introduction: Hello. I am well, and you? Hola. Bien. ¿Y usted? I also know how to ask How are you? ¿Cómo estás? but usually the other person beats me to it. But more interesting is the set of vocabulary, scientific and food-related, that I’ve found most useful, important, or just fun to roll around in my mouth.

Trees are árboles, which was easy enough to learn because it sounds like the French equivalent. Bat is murciélago, a word I learned to pronounce before I could remember its meaning, because I thought it sounded so awesome. Leafcutter ants are zompopas, and these three are enough for me to spark elementary conversations about the forest.

At the dining hall I can understand a lot of the food-related words, but the ones I use most often are solo un poco (just a little), papas (potatoes), and un poco mas (a little more). Frequently sprinkled with gracias, these will get me through just about any meal.

Then there are the words that stuck because they were important to know immediately. Rain is lluvia, and okay to go out into the forest, but tormenta, storm, means its probably better to wait it out. Earthquake is terremoto, an adorably cute word for such a powerful event, and everything else can be covered by peligro, danger.

And lastly is Costa Rica’s equivalent of the sideways head nod, a saying that has no literal translation and therefore, with the right inflection, can mean just about whatever you want it to: Pura vida.

We sit next to each other at the lab bench, each wearing gloves and holding tweezers. She sorts through the ziploc bags of soil, discarding any roots she finds, while I clean dirt out of cups of roots.