A Simple Pro Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Graduate School

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An undergraduate student I mentored while in grad school, Aurora, with her poster at SICB in 2017. She applied to grad school this cycle and I hope it went well for her. There’s so much to think about!

You’ve done some hard work and soul searching to get into the graduate program you’re currently in. Or perhaps you’re making decisions about which program you’ll attend in the fall. In either case, you’re doing research in a field you enjoy and you feel like there are endless opportunities ahead of you in grad school.

If you’re already there, you know that grad school is quite different from your undergraduate education. You probably work long hours on your research and/or teaching and/or your classes. Don’t get so bogged down that you forget about the most important thing, the reason why you’re going to grad school in the first place: to get a fantastic job that you’ll love. Yes you want to learn and do some new things, but you need a job at the end of it.

Here are some tips for tasks you should put on your priority list (I know, on top of a million other tasks) because these will help you get that job and justify the years and tears you’re putting into your education.

 

Update a CV AND resume as you progress through school. 

Start this right away. Get your PI, postdocs and senior grad students to go through it with you to point out what you should include on it. There are a number of categories you should include and update: Education, Fellowships & Awards, Funding, Current Projects, Publications, Conference Presentations, Teaching, and Professional Service. As you move through grad school, you’ll probably break these headings into finer subcategories as you rack up accomplishments. You will rack up accomplishments as a good student. Keeping track of them on your CV with regular updates will make you feel good, and there will be times when you need that. It will also make your task of applying to jobs easier in the end if you’re already organized and have gotten some feedback.

“Don’t get so bogged down that you forget about the most important thing, the reason why you’re going to grad school in the first place: to get a fantastic job that you’ll love.”

Since your PI and those around you tend to be academics, they may not be much help with resumes. Luckily, there are good resources. Cheeky Scientist and The Professor Is In both have valuable content and services. You may also get some help from your university’s career services.

 

Do some self analysis on a regular basis. 

Not the kind that can leave you feeling overhwhelmed and lacking confidence. The kind that ensures that you’re happy and going in a direction that keeps you motivated. Or if you’re not, you’ll be able to identify the problem and find ways to solve it. Here are four questions to ask yourself…

Do I enjoy doing the types of tasks I’m doing? If not, what would I enjoy doing more? You’ll do lots of different tasks from writing and communicating to administrative organization, to mentoring students. You’ll learn a ton of skills. Reflect on which tasks you enjoyed learning and whether or not you’d like to continue developing certain skill sets. Sometimes, you’ll thoroughly enjoy doing things that don’t necessarily directly contribute to your “success” as a grad student and that’s fine. I’m defining success as: carrying out your research, writing your thesis and publications, presenting at conferences, the basics to graduate. If you really enjoy outreach, find ways to develop that. If you find that you’re really technically savvy at troubleshooting methods or equipment, wade further into that realm. Down the road, these things will only strengthen you professionally.

If you need help determining your interests and values or can’t decide which skills and tasks to pursue further, this AAAS service, MyIDB (individual development plan) can help you figure that out. It also helps you come up with a plan to meet your goals. Just create a free account.

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This is a screenshot of my Career Fit panel on MyIDB. You answer a series of questions on your skills, interests, and values, and the software generates a series of matches for you. You might like some of them. You might think most of them are awful, but you’ll get ideas, and you can use the tool to explore all the different paths further. 

 

What are my top three job tracks right now? Really think about this. You should not choose academia just because that seems like the default choice that everyone is talking about. There’s a wide world of enjoyable job tracks for people with graduate degrees. You may find that your top career interests change with time and experience. That’s fine and good. When you come across opportunities to participate in, go for it. If you end up not liking it or it’s not what you expected, stop. You don’t have to commit to continuous service. You shouldn’t put too much food on your plate.

Am I spending my time smartly? Not working long hours, not burning yourself out by keeping “busy”. A grad student can work smartly and still conserve their sanity and extra time for other pursuits. Your schedule will probably not always be regular, but you should not neglect yourself mentally or physically. Additionally, make sure you’re prioritizing your tasks well and spending your working hours productively. Have daily, weekly, monthly, semesterly, and yearly goals. Write them down. Keep them somewhere prominent. Share them with your advisor or another mentor who will help you meet your goals.

If you find that you don’t like what you’re doing and don’t see it working for you, change tracks. Do it. Don’t be pressured out of changing your mind. The resources linked above should help with this.

Remember there are lots of goal setting and time management methods online. Find something that works for you. Really, invest a little time up front into figuring out the way you tick and use what works for you. Some people swear by the pomodoro method. Some people need a written planner/organizer while others rely on Google calendar. I use a mix of both- goal setting written down, time allocation in google calendar, pomodoro on my watch to keep my focused for solid chunks of time. All of this is up to you.

 

You should also stay social, in a professional sense.

If you’re doing it right (and staying mentally and physically healthy), you’ll have  a network of peer friends in grad school. You’re going through the same challenges and you need to talk about, and let off steam, in the process of grad school (proposals, comprehensive and/or qualifying exams, dealing with advisers or difficult lab relationships, writing, and developing skills, etc.). Your peer friends will likely become your peers professionally after graduate school as well, but you also need to branch out and link in (yes, LinkedIn is an excellent tool for this if used properly) to others in your field, academic experts, and professionals outside the academic arena that have jobs you’re interested in. This is vital. Don’t just contact these people, but try to build relationships with them. When you send a contact request add a note with it to introduce yourself and ask a quick question to elicit a response. Later, look into this person and their work a bit more. When they’ve responded to you, follow up with a little more about yourself, acknowledge them in some way, contribute something they might find interesting or valuable, and follow up with another question or solicit quick advice.

“Relationship building is really the key to networking.”

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House dinner among all of the grad students from different institutions living together and doing research in Gamboa, was a regular event during my first year of Panamanian field work. We’re all don different tracks now, but still connected. Some of us are postdocs, some run the successful This podcast will kill you, and some are in industry positions. 

Relationship building is really the key because it shows that you’re interested, motivated, and an interesting/fun/competent/inspired professional in your field. Remember that you need to network in your academic community, but also outside it. I promise, this does not have to take very much time. Start by allocating an hour. Investigate three people who have the types of jobs you’re interested in on LinkedIn. Contact them properly and engage. If you choose three new people every week, your network will grow fast, and you’ll get even more introductions through secondary connections. Remember, to stay in meaningful contact. Again, use sources like the Cheeky Scientist to get ideas about the right way to do this, or just ask below in the comments. I was doing this all wrong for a long while, face palmed hard recently, and am correcting my mistakes.

 

And stay social in the personal sense. Find things and people you love outside of graduate school. 

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Hiking and outdoor exploration were major outlets for me during grad school. My husband, family (sister-in law Annie, also a Ph.D. student at the time), and friends made good memories, like this trip to Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes. You need to keep good times flowing in grad school as well. 

You’ll most likely surround yourself with lots of other grad students and Ph.D.s. You’re around them all the time and you’re bound to make some good friends. But, you should branch out and befriend people outside this academic comfort zone. People on the outside are interesting, and fun, and refreshing, and they will find you to be the same. Take time to be social and get some hobbies. Invest time in your physical fitness. These activities will make you happier and more focused at work.

 

Graduate school is a big commitment and success is a bit more complicated than this, but my take is that you should be goal oriented and deliberate in getting through to the other side when you can. Don’t get yourself in the scary position of being unprepared when you’re close to graduating. If you liked this content, have questions, or would like to chat further about the advice and resources I’ve presented, please get in touch through the comments, email, or twitter. I’d love to hear from you. 

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Hot & Cold Science

If you’ve read the last few posts, you already know this. I got a postdoc studying overwintering biology in Canada. But why did I switch from hot tropical bees to cold and freeze tolerant crickets and beetles?

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Tetragonisca angustula at the entrance to their nest. This is one of the tiny species I studied during my dissertation in Panama.

First, thermal conditions exist on a continuum around the globe. Temperate regions cycle through a great range of temperatures seasonally. Organisms that live there must cope with all of them, hot and cold. Tropical organisms generally experience a smaller range of temperatures. But, even in the tropics, some species exist over geographic ranges that include hot and cold. Why and how organisms tolerate and thrive in this variety of thermal conditions are important questions. There are some common behavioral and physiological responses to both hot and cold, and I believe that further understanding of the commonalities and stark differences can help us understand why organisms are distributed the way they are around the globe and how that distribution may change with the climate.

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Hiking in the Andes outside of Santiago, Chile. This region is temperate. From near sea level to the tops of these mountains temperatures can differ from 30s to below zero Celsius on a summer day. Mountains allow us to observe how transitions in thermal conditions impact animal physiology and behavior within and among species over a smaller geographic range.

Second, another of my interests, body size, varies with temperature around the globe. Animals tend to be bigger where it’s colder and smaller where it’s hotter. Ectotherms, dependent on the temperature around them to maintain their own bodily functions, develop faster in hotter conditions, achieving smaller body sizes because of faster developmental rates. Of course, there are tiny organisms in the polar regions (springtails, spiders, and pseudoscorpions abound!) and large animals in the tropics (have you seen the massive size of some tropical cockroaches, ants, beetles, tarantulas, etc.?) There are a number of correlative trends and “rules” relating temperature and body size observed throughout the animal kingdom that are important for understanding how life evolves (over many generations) and develops (within a single generation). Like temperature, body size is a primary factor in determining traits like metabolic rate, number of offspring, range size, locomotory pace and many other characteristics. The combination explain a huge amount of variation in animal performance. Naturally, I want to know why.

Third, temperate and tropics insects are important agricultural helpers (bees and other pollinators come to mind), pests (emerald ash borers and colleagues), and impact human health (disease vectors like mosquitoes and ticks). Many tropical insects are moving northward. Many temperate insects are becoming new vectors or pests or disappearing. Conservation and human health are well worth the move to Canadian polar vortex after beautiful, sunny Arizona winters.

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Wildflowers in the Arizona desert. Around this time of year, they begin to bloom. Meanwhile, it’s pretty cold here in Canada.

Finally on a professional development note, I will likely work in the temperate region for most of my career. Most research institutes and universities are in the temperate latitudes. Most people, period, live in temperate areas. Yes, I do plan to go back to the tropics and continue working on the physiology and behavior of tropical insects, but I feel I need to develop some temperate systems for comparison and because we need to know more about what lives in our own backyards.

 

 

If you’d like food for thought on the relationships observed between body size, temperature, and physiology, check out the publications below. If you can’t access them, please send me a message. Keep in mind, this is only a sampling.

Emerald Ash Borers in the news. No, the cold weather will not wipe them out.

Emerald ash borers have been getting a lot of attention in the news recently owing to our extreme cold weather and some headlines a few years back claiming that harsh winter conditions would wipe them all out. Brent Sinclair and I were recently interviewed for Western News and Brent also commented to Bloomberg on the topic.

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Please visit the Western News page for Deborah Van Brenk’s story. 

Will harsh winter weather wipe them out? The answer is a firm no. This, of course, is nuanced, and I’ll outline why below.

First, what are emerald ash borers? As adults they are small shiny green beetles found on or near ash trees. These beetles lay eggs in bark crevices which then develop beneath the bark of the tree. They begin this egg laying towards the tops of ash trees in branches and work their way downward to the trunk. As the invasion continues, they essentially girdle the tree, starving it of water and nutrients. The tree dies. EABs have wreaked havoc on ash tree populations in the US and Canada and continue to invade northward and westward.

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An emerald ash borer larvae inside a gallery it dug through the tree just beneath he bark.     Photo credit: Meghan Duell

As they develop, EABs need to overwinter before completing their life cycle. Further south, they overwinter as prepupae, the stage prior to pupation and metamorphosis into adulthood. Further north, some overwinter as larvae, younger than prepupae. During these stages emerald ash borers are inside the tree beneath the bark and sometimes dug in a little further than that. This means they are not directly exposed to the brunt of cold weather because bark acts as insulation against cold and wind. Bark also absorbs solar radiation and can warm the tree. As part of my postdoc, I’m working to understand how well bark insulates EABs from conditions above and below snow line and on different sides of trees and at different depths beneath the bark. This will allow us to finally say what conditions, exactly, EABs are actually exposed to during the winter.

We also know that EABs are very cold tolerant but not freeze intolerant. They build up some of the highest glycerol levels ever measured in any animal and this makes their freezing point plunge. EAB prepupae freeze around -27 degrees Celcius. Most will not die until they’ve dipped below -30. That is VERY cold and in their current range, they don’t experience those kind of deadly extreme temperatures within the tree. If they do, yes some of them will die, maybe even a lot of them, but not all of them. This is because there is variation in cold tolerance within the population. That means that extreme cold events currently have the potential to knock back the EAB population but not wipe it out entirely.

The freezing point and lethal temperatures mentioned thus far only reflect prepupae. They don’t reflect larvae and we are currently investigating whether larvae are more or less cold tolerant, and whether they use the same mechanisms for gaining that tolerance when compared to prepupae. This is important because overwintering larvae have a two year life cycle whereas overwintering prepupae are on a single year life cycle. If larvae are distinct from prepupae in cold tolerance, there are potentially big repurcussions when extreme cold events come about. If larvae are more tolerant, the population in northern areas (where they are a larger component of overwintering EABs) will not be knocked back as hard. If they are less tolerant than prepupae, extreme cold will be more damaging to the EAB populations further north.

Where might EABs currently experience deadly extremes? As emerald ash borers move west and north in Canada, we have the opportunity to track this. EABs recently arrived in Winnipeg where the average winter temperatures are around -10 to -20 degrees Celsius. We can track tree temperatures there and further south (here in London, ON for example) and we can compare the cold tolerance of EAB larvae and prepupae in both areas. This can tell us a few things like 1) whether EABs new to Winnipeg can tolerate cold temperatures that they and previous generations have not been exposed to, 2) if the Winnipeg EABs use all the same physiological cold tolerance mechanisms as southern populations, and 3)whether southern populations have further evolved their cold tolerance abilities as they too, migrated from further east and south.

We need to tease out all of these details to truly be able to predict the effects of harsh winters on pests like the emerald ash borer. Our data should also help in determining whether other invasive species like Asian longhorn beetles will continue their range expansion. Here’s a small sampling of peer-reviewed work on EAB overwintering physiology:

The overwinter physiology of the emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire (Coleoptera: Buperstidae)

Could phenotypic plasticity limit an invasive species? Incomplete reversibility of mid-winter deacclimation in emerald ash borer

Cold temperature and emerald ash borer: Modelling the minimum under-bark temperature of ash trees in Canada

Stay tuned, as this is exciting work in progress! I’m working with Canadian Forest Service on this as you read. In the mean time, Chris MacQuarrie (@CMacQuar) of Canadian Forest Service did a great job on twitter debunking the “Cold will kill all the emerald ash borers” talk that’s been going around.

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Why it’s important to study winter: cold & difficult times for all

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Documenting the extreme cold weather during twilight in our backyard in London with Rick and our dog Paprika, all sporting -40 rated boots and warm coats.

We tend to think of winter in temperate regions as cold, maybe snowy, maybe gray. Days are shorter. Maybe you hate winter because you dislike feeling cold and chapped, icy roads, and insert weather problems here (snow, ice, sleet, school cancellations, etc.) Maybe you love winter for all the possibilities for outdoor sports, hot chocolate, and winter holidays.

The recent polar vortex event got us thinking… how can we represent just how hard winter is for us and for animals? In other words, why should people care about the overwintering biology research that we do?

So, Alex Torson (another postdoc in the Sinclair Lab) and I searched the interwebs for headlines related to the polar vortex and and categorized them so that we and other Sinclair lab members could sample them for presentations and discussions with people who ask why we do what we do. Our categories included:

  1. Cold vs. Society. This should make most of us pause. Extreme cold weather events, and bad winter weather in general, have societal and economic impacts. It’s estimated that the few days of our most recent polar vortex caused roughly $5 Billion dollars of economic damage to the US alone. Why? Because society stops functioning and hits the pause button when people can’t get to school and work. This NPR summary is quite nice for briefly describing these effects.
  2. It’s so cold, it hurts. People can’t handle extreme cold. Even in normal temperate winter weather, we are wimpy (compared to many animals) and easily get hypothermia and/or frostbite. Extreme cold is a very real health risk, especially to children, the elderly, and people with health problems. If conditions approach -40 degrees, GO INSIDE. You’re risking nearly instant frostbite and bodily damage.
  3. Cold vs. wildlife. Many animals have to hunker down through the winter and avoid hypothermia and frostbite just like we do. Ectothermic animals may overwinter actively (still eating and moving around in the cold) or inactively, arrested in development at a certain life stage awaiting spring when they can begin to grow again. In the context of humans, the fact that they can do either of these should be fascinating. There are real medical applications to understanding the physiology of overwintering in animals such as cryopreservation and improving outcomes for people who suffer heart attacks and strokes. Another application of this is the extermination of insect pests. There are a number of headliners that come to mind (several of which the Sinclair lab is or has worked on) including the emerald ash borer, brown marmorated stink bug, asian longhorn beetle, mosquitoes, ticks, and others. Winter conditions may help control populations of these pests.
  4. It is REALLY %&*@ing cold. And, Cold & Climate Change go hand in hand.  Extreme cold events truly are indicators that climate change is progressing. This is because of the unique climate circumstances that must be in place in order for a polar vortex to reach far enough south to impact major populated regions. Research  has shown that extreme events, cold and hot, wet and dry, are direct results of climate change. By researching overwintering biology, we can understand how these extreme events, and the gradual change in winter conditions over many years, will impact everything from the length of insect life cycles, to the distribution of forest habitats, to the evolution of climate-related traits, and human health impacts. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT and will affect us for generations to come.
  5. Acclimation. Have you ever noticed how that first really cold day of the winter is  really difficult, but after a few of them it becomes normal? Or how warm -10 degrees felt after a few days at -30? Yes, you acclimated a little to the cold. But how did your body do this? Why is it important that your body did this?  Overwintering biologists at your service to solve these and more puzzles regarding acclimation. Learn about acclimation in freeze-tolerant crickets here.
  6. Cold Humor, because this is a way to get through the cold and dark days of winter when hot chocolate doesn’t cut it. A rehashing of Elsa’s (from Disney’s Frozen) 2015 arrest for weather tantrums was done for this year’s polar vortex. Let that one warn you that you can’t reuse someone else’s old photos without permission.  The Onion alerted us that the Chicago bean just can’t handle it anymore and that your local shorts-in-wintertime guys might be a bit more scarce.

There are certainly additional reasons to care about overwintering biology, but these are some important ones that fit many questions and study systems in the field.

 

Note: The links I’ve supplied here are just a sampling and don’t reflect the full array of research available out there. There’s tons of supporting literature. If you can’t access some of the articles due to paywalls, let me know.

An introduction to freeze-tolerant crickets in the great white north

In August 2018, I arrived in London, Ontario to work as a postdoc in Brent Sinclair’s Low Temperature Biology Lab  at the University of Western Ontario Department of Biology. I have two primary study systems and one of these is the spring field cricket, Gryllus veletis. This species is really cool (see what I did there?) because it can tolerate freezing under some conditions. Most animals cannot do this and die well before any part of them freezes. First, it must go through an acclimation process. In nature, this is the autumn, when daylight shortens and temperatures begin to fall. In the lab, we can simulate this process in an incubator with light timers and temperature controllers. After acclimation, the crickets have undergone some physiological changes that prime them for withstanding cold and freezing temperatures. We think that only crickets in their 5th instar of development are capable of going through acclimation, freezing, and coming out alive and well at the end of it.

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A 5th instar male G. veletis cricket. Notable features of this instar include small wing buds and a small ovipositor in females. Photo credit: Brent Sinclair. 

Acclimation and freezing are interesting topics all on their own. Acclimation is a process during which the crickets must respond to the environmental variables of light and temperature by changing certain aspects of their behavior and physiology. As ectotherms, they’re roughly the same temperature as their surroundings so, as they get colder, they become less active. They eat less (or not at all) and drink less (or not at all). Their blood becomes more concentrated and they manufacture cryoprotectants. Cryoprotectants are substances that are protective in stressful cold or freezing conditions. They may prevent freezing or simply lessen the damage caused by cold exposure. In nature, crickets acclimating to autumn conditions tend to hide in leaf litter or protected areas beneath logs or other cover. In our lab bins, they hunker down underneath their egg cartons.

Freezing is also a process in which cold temperatures interact with the makeup of a substance (like a cricket’s blood), to form ice crystals. Yes, these crickets withstand ice formation within their bodies. They begin to freeze at about -6 degrees Celsius. The formation of ice in muscle, gut, malphighian tubules, nervous tissue, and other areas of the body is potentially damaging to these crickets even though they can recover successfully from some degree of ice formation.

There are so many questions ripe for the picking and sciencing in these crickets concerning acclimation and freezing, and since a postdoc doesn’t (and shouldn’t) last forever, I can only work on a few. I’m most interesting in the following:

  1. Freezing causes damage: What kind of damage, how much, and where in the cricket body?
  2. How much ice forms in the crickets body? What is the maximum it can handle and recover successfully?
  3. How do acclimation and freezing affect behavioral performance?
  4. What is the role of the brain in regulating physiological and behavioral responses to acclimation and freezing?
  5. How are freeze tolerance and recovery genetically regulated?

 

Stay tuned for more on how I’m attacking these questions.

For information on acclimation and freezing in the meantime, check out Jantina Toxopeus & Brent Sinclair’s recent review. If you can’t access this and would like to read it, send me a message.

Upcoming Blog Posts

I’ve had a noticeable leave of absence from blogging. There are a variety of reasons for that, and I’ll go into some of them in upcoming blog posts. Here’s some of what’s happened and a taste of what’s to come on the blog:

Moving from hot to cold: I got a postdoc!

Dealing with health issues as a graduate student

Mental health ‘adventures’ in grad school

Marriage and Having a Life in Grad School

Research updates:

Tough Bugs & Their Weapons

USAID, Bees, and Climate Change

….

Please contact me to inquire about these or any other updates!

 

Prep Guide for Student Field Research in the Tropics

ASU students taking a break during a hike on Barro Colorado Island in June 2014.

ASU students taking a break during a hike on Barro Colorado Island.

I  did my dissertation research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, based in Gamboa, Panama and traveling around the country collecting bees and observing. While this time doesn’t make me an absolute expert in everything that is Panama, I have considerable experience living and working at STRI, exploring, and interacting with the culture. My first adventure in the country was part of a field course for graduate students. This also happened to be my first trip to the Neotropics and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here, I’ll describe my experiences and opinions/recommendations on what to expect when you arrive in Panama for a field course.

For additional information on the ASU undergraduate field course, search through my posts from June-July 2014. For pictures, explore the course Flickr page.

Arrival

When your plane touches down in Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, you’ll notice that everyone else is making a bee-line exit to the immigration lines. Everyone must go through this before leaving the airport but THERE IS NOTHING but one restaurant outside of security. Before security, throughout the terminal, however, there are a number of options. With this in mind, if you want to eat or have some time to kill before being picked up, don’t go through immigration immediately. When you finally do go through security, it doesn’t take very long. You’ll stand in line, someone will stamp your passport and ask you how long you’ll be in Panama. They’ll send you on your way to pick up your luggage. Then you’ll put all your bags through an x-ray and exit security. It’s that simple. MAKE SURE YOUR PASSPORT IS VALID AND INTACT. Occasionally they’ll deport you on the spot if your passport is not in good condition or if you can’t give evidence of an end date for your stay. Sometimes, security will also ask questions about how much cash you have on you or how you plan to pay for your stay in Panama. Take care to be respectful and honest. Sometimes travelers are deported for not showing any proof that they can pay for their stay or a departing flight. This is rare, but you should be aware. It’s a good idea to print out your return flight information and have it on hand just in case.

Having taught the ASU undergraduate field course several times, I’ve made travel arrangements for students, picked them up, and dealt with their immigration problems. Please get all your paperwork in ASAP to the course instructors. You may or may not be asked to stay in the airport for several hours so everyone can depart together. This will likely be boring but it’s a good opportunity to get to know the other students and instructors a little better. When scheduling your flights, keep in mind when the instructors are arriving. If you can, schedule yourself to arrive around the same time of day to avoid extra waiting.

Academic Expectations

If you’ve ever been told that your education is what you make of it, field courses are perhaps the best example. The course will be experiential learning through and through with some lectures and writing rolled in. All the field trips will be required and will enrich your experience. There will be times when you’re really tired, maybe sore, and too hot/sweaty to want to hike through the jungle. Do it anyway. You’ll see wildlife and gain knowledge that you will never otherwise gain. Participate fully all in group activities. You’ll also be asked to develop your own project and complete data collection and analysis to write a peer-reviewed style scientific paper. Again, the more you put into this, the better off you will be. It’s possible for you to get a truly publishable paper if you strive for it, something invaluable if you plan to continue on in science even if you decide field work in the jungle is ultimately not your happy thing/place.

Here’s an example of a student paper that came directly from Erika Cevallos Dupuis’s course project on leaf cutter ant trails.

Living Conditions & Accommodations

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You’ll be staying in STRI’s school house building in Gamboa, Panama for the duration of the course. It’s a canal style building originally put up when Americans were building the Panama Canal 100-200 yards away. The bedrooms are dorm style and will be shared, as will the bathrooms, dining room, laundry room, and living area. You’ll need to recognize and respect boundaries and privacy. Avoid any conflicts that arise from living in confined quarters or forming intimate relationships in this setting. Both can be extremely messy and ruin your experience if not handled well. The instructors will tell you the course isn’t a dating service, so don’t use it as an opportunity for that kind of mingling. That’s not to say that great romantic relationships among students in the course haven’t developed after the course was over…

Importantly, you’ll be staying on the top floor of the school house. The bottom floor is a set of locked laboratory spaces. Try to keep noise to a minimum because scientists and students work there 24 hours a day during the summer. Vibrations from dance parties or running through the hallway will not be appreciated.

The building is air-conditioned, a stark contrast to the high heat and humidity outside. You might be cold indoors so bring a sweatshirt. For anyone who routinely wears makeup, you’ll find after a couple days that’s it’s a nuisance. You will be sweaty. It will smudge and affect your skin and it’s not practical for hiking through the forest. Insects can even be attracted to some brands and scents, especially if they’re floral or mimic any kind of food.

The town of Gamboa is very small and divided into a couple sections. Nearest the canal is a primarily Panamanian section known as Santa Cruz. There is one small tienda there for snacks and minor groceries and a couple of food carts that serve local Panamanian foods around lunch time (rice, beans, plantains, and meat platters). These are within easy walking distance from the school house. The other section of Gamboa, where most of its population resides, is mostly American or otherwise foreign. Nearly everyone there is associated with STRI. Some STRI interns and grad students are starting to live in Santa Cruz in rental accommodations too. Most inhabitants of Gamboa are graduate students or interns but some staff scientists and their families also live there. Finally, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is located in town. This is a nice place to go if you want to watch a game on TV (in Spanish) and you are ok with paying higher prices for food and beverages. It’s pretty and comfortable, but there isn’t much entertainment to be had there for students.

Transportation is very limited. There are morning and evening busitos to STRI headquarters in Panama City daily. There are also SACA Co-op buses for roughly $0.80/ride into the city everyday but you are unlikely to have time to utilize these. There are taxis but I don’t recommend them. Foreigners tend to be overcharged and there’s no guarantee that drivers actually know where you want to go. Many won’t speak English. If you’re good with Spanish, then it’s probably fine. The course instructors will be driving you everywhere you need to go, and you’ll find that you really don’t have free time to wander to Panama City anyway.

Health & Safety

I’ve never felt unsafe anywhere I’ve been in Panama. There are, of course, spots to avoid but the likelihood that you’ll end up in any of these is minimal given that you’ll be primarily travelling with the group. A good rule of thumb is to never act in any way that you would not deem appropriate in the US, and then throw in a little more caution since you’re not in the US.

One potentially annoying thing if you’re female is the kind of cat-calling attention you may receive from Panamanian men. The best thing to do is ignore it and move away from that area. #MeToo is strong right now, but there are different standards outside the US and being confrontational can get you into additional trouble, especially if you’re alone. I’m all about empowerment and getting men to be better, but be safe. It’s common throughout Panama, however rude or unwanted it may be.

You should bring necessary medications with you as well as general items like moleskin for blisters, bug spray, and toiletry items. Over the counter medications for pain, allergies, anti-itch, and antibiotic cream may be a good idea. If you have any potentially serious issues, definitely let and instructor or TA know so we can have a plan. The nearest hospitals and clinics are in Panama City. In my experience (a staff infection after mysterious puss-filled insect bites, and Dengue fever), emergency medical costs are low and doctors speak English if you go to the better hospitals. They generally ask you to pay out of pocket up-front and get reimbursement from your insurance company. For major serious injury expenses, of course, you would not be charged up front. STRI and the course have procedures for handling these situations. You’ll be covered under ASU travel insurance but let the instructors know ASAP if you think you might want to see a doctor.

Since you will be outside a great deal of time, there is the possibility for you to injure yourself or encounter dangerous animals. Fer-de-lance snakes are common and venomous. You’ll require immediate care if you’re bitten. There are caiman in the canal, bullet ants (aptly named for how much it hurts if you’re stung), and the chance for Africanized honeybee encounters. If you’re reasonably careful, you shouldn’t have any problems with these. Don’t wander into the jungle alone or decide to take a swim in the canal. Both are regrettable ideas.

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A fer-de-lance we crossed paths with during one course hike, nicely camouflaged, and a great reason to wear your boots.

You’re probably wondering about vaccinations for tropical diseases. As I am not a medical professional, I cannot and will not tell you what you should/should not get. This is my experience thus far. Tropical diseases like yellow fever, malaria, Chagas, and dengue do turn up in Panama. There has been no malaria in the Canal Zone in quite a long time and, as such, I have not taken preventative medications for malaria. I’ve gotten all other recommended vaccines that are available, however. I have known several people to develop dengue fever, including myself. It’s not pleasant to watch or experience but there are preventative measures. If you wear appropriate clothing and insect repellant and avoid outside activity at certain times of day where mosquitoes are rampant (any standing water sources), you should have no problems. Again, I’m NOT A MEDICAL DOCTOR. Go to the Health Center and make a travel appointment for medical advice that’s appropriate for you individually.

General Program Schedule & Itinerary

The first several days of the course will be intense with lots of hiking and orientation in the forest. You’ll be pretty tired and overwhelmed at everything you’re seeing but this sets you up for a more fun and productive experience. The point is for you to gain exposure to as much as possible early so that you can develop your project ideas. After this, there will be routine group field trips around Gamboa and other locations throughout Panama. You’ll also be set loose on your own schedule to complete your data collection and observations. Use your time wisely because it’s impossible to do a sufficient job waiting until late in the course to collect data. If something can go wrong, something will when figuring out experimental design and how to collect data. This is true for any research.

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A hike up Rio Mendoza form Pipeline Road in Gamboa to the waterfall is always fun and a greta swimming opportunity.

Some possible field trip locations are:

  • Mirafores Locks on the Panama Canal
  • Embera Drua Village in Chagres National Park
  • Barro Colorado Island
  • Gamboa/Chagres River tour with Rachel Page’s Bat Research Lab
  • Playa Blanca (near Colon, access by boat only)
  • Cerro Campana Cloud Forest
  • Gamboa Pipeline Road in Soberania National Rainforest
  • Galeta (STRI field station for marine and coastal biology near Colon with mangroves forests)
  • Albrook Mall, Panama City
  • Casco Viejo Neighborhood, Panama City
  • Summit Gardens Park & Zoo
  • Sendero Charco
  • STRI headquarters in Panama City

Field trips to civilization will be minimal. We aim to learn about tropical biology so there won’t be much time for shopping, going to bars, restaurants, or exploring city sites. If you’re used to city living, you’ll either find jungle life peaceful or nerve-wracking. Field trips will be scattered throughout the course according to project schedules and deadlines.

 

Host Culture & Language

Spanish is the official language of Panama but you don’t need to be able to speak it. Many people speak English and much of the signage is in English. However, it’s always nice to try. Importantly, the couple who make meals and tend to the maintenance of the school house and the couple who own the tienda in Santa Cruz only speak Spanish.

Culturally, Panama has a lot of flavor and color. People are friendly and mean well. In most cases, anyone would help you out in the event you need it, provided you can communicate with them. There are a lot of wealthy people in Panama but also a great deal of poverty. You’ll see a mix of both. In Casco Viejo (Old Panama City), you’ll see a mix of Latin and Americanized businesses. It has been this way since Americans built the Canal and you’ll find good salsa dancing opportunities, a micro-brew called La Rana Dorada, and a couple of rooftop bars looking out on the Pacific Ocean here.

Most people are very modern but there are also a lot of indigenous peoples that you will notice by their distinct clothing and jewelry. Most commonly, you will see Embera, Kuna, Wounaan, or Ngobe-Bugle tribal people. Each has their own native language but most speak Spanish. They rarely speak English and try to maintain their culture as much as possible. Regardless of the origins of the locals you run into, be respectful and interact with them to gain a greater appreciation for Panamanian culture. Don’t take pictures of people without permission.

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Students and some Embera tribe members in Embera Drua next to the Charges River.

Expenses

You already know you’ll be responsible for plane tickets and passport fees. You should also bring money for souvenirs. All meals will be provided except extra snacks and alcohol. You’ll be well-fed at the school house at meal times. The currency is the US dollar and the Panamanian Balboa.

Let your bank and credit card companies known in advance that you’ll be out of the country. The tienda and food trucks only take cash so have some handy. However, you’ll be able to use either of 2 ATMs in Gamboa (one at the resort and one near the Canal dredging division in Santa Cruz). Most businesses will take debit cards or credit cards but occasionally you’ll need cash available. Don’t bring large bills- twenties and under are acceptable. Larger bills might be seen as counterfeit and not accepted. As you would do anywhere, be smart and keep your money out site and keep an eye on your wallet.

 

Packing and Dress Code

DON’T OVER PACK. Restrict yourself to one checked bag, one backpack carry-on, and maybe on smaller carry-on item. This should be easy to accomplish because you can do laundry in the school house. The important thing is that you’re comfortable wearing your clothing outside in high humidity for hiking and they all fit well. You don’t need to spend money on fancy new clothes from REI. If in doubt that you have the right gear, ask. My own field clothes are mostly older cotton shirts and cargo pants.

Items I find essential:

  • Light-weight rain jacket or poncho
  • A pair of flip-flops or sandals
  • one pair of sturdy sneakers or hiking shoes, waterproof if possible
  • High rubber rain boots
  • Backpack rain fly (or large garbage bag)
  • 3-5 pairs of loose-fitting pants (Jeans are not recommended. They’re very uncomfortable in the forest humidity. Leggings tend to snag and rip on sharp plants and insects bite right through them.)
  • 4-5 pairs of high socks (Or more. You want to keep your feet dry.)
  • 4-5 cotton t-shirts or tank tops (It’s best if you can tuck them into your pants. Show skin at your own risk of insect bites or scratch/puncture wounds from plants.)
  • 4-5 long-sleeve shirts (button-down field shirts or any old long-sleeve t-shirts are best
  • 1-3 sets of medium smart clothing  like shorts and casual shirts you would wear on vacation or a sundress. Be reasonably modest. You are there to take a course.
  • 2-3 sets of athletic shorts and shirts to wear around the school house
  • Personal toiletries & medications
  • Swimsuit (Again, be reasonably modest.)
  • Sunglasses
  • Round-brim hat or baseball cap
  • Backpack or drawstring bag
  • Rite-in-Rain notebook and pencils
  • Water bottle or Camel-Pak
  • Sunscreen (High SPF- you’ll be a lot closer to the equator.)
  • Point & shoot camera
  • Headlamp and/or lightweight flashlight (A headlamp is extremely useful.)
  • Copies of all travel documents (passport, plane tickets/itinerary, etc.) and medical documents (vaccinations card and anything else you may need). Ideally you won’t carry your copies with your originals in the event that you lose both.

Items that are useful but not necessary:

  • Binoculars (great if you like birds or wan a better view but not needed)
  • Laptop/ other computer (There’s wireless internet but if you’re worried about your electronics, you can use a STRI computer room).
  • Moisture-wicking/ventilated or other athletic/outdoor clothing. (You’re better off bringing old t-shirts/long-sleeve shirts.)
  • Insect repellant (I don’t wear it unless I’m somewhere with an extraordinary number of mosquitoes or at dusk because I work with insects that can be harmed by pesticides. If I have to, I use 98% deet and spray it on my clothes rather than my skin. It’s nasty but works.)
  • Cell phone (The instructors and TA will have them for emergencies but you likely will not need one.)
  • Pocket language/culture guide (nice to have but not needed)

Items you don’t need to bring:

  • Garbage bags (These will be provided for water-proofing if you desire them.)
  • Plastic bags or waterproofing gear for smaller items (will also be provided for smaller items like camera if you want them and don’t have other water-proofing gear)
  • Anti-itch creams/solutions (There are certain Panamanian versions that seem to work best, and will be provided, but you can bring your own if you like. )
  • Mosquito-netting (simply not necessary in the school house)
  • Bedding/pillows (will be provided)
  • Towels (will be provided. Bring a beach towel of your own if you like for swimming.)
  • Compass or navigation gear (You won’t need it.)
  • Wildlife guides and books (will be provided)
  • Water purifying gear- not necessary. (All tap water in the Canal Zone is drinkable and safe unless specifically marked.)
  • Food (will be provided or bought locally. Unless you have a really specific hard-to-find snack you can’t live without, you don’t need to bring any.)
  • A first-aid kit (will be provided but bring items you believe are specialized that you will personally want/need)
  • Duct tape (will be provided)
  • Camping gear- not necessary. You won’t be camping

 

If you have questions about the ASU field course, feel free to reach out. I’m happy to hear from you. If you aren’t participating in a field course but are interested in doing research or traveling around Panama to see natural sites, I’m also happy to chat.