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Studying the Evolutionary Adaptation of Lizards
Madeline DuBois is a fourth-year student pursuing a BS in environmental engineering. She is involved in the Engineers Without Borders Uganda program, is a co-founder of the Research: Art or Science? Competition, and works as a research assistant in a lab on campus. Besides learning about environmental engineering, she also loves being outside, running with friends, and searching for the best chocolate chip cookie in Boston!
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! 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. This work will help us better understand both the ability of these lizards to survive increasing global temperatures and the implications of climate change for other tropical animals. In order to understand the effects of increasing temperatures, we are conducting a large scale transplant of lizards to small islands in the Panama Canal that have slightly different climates than their mainland habitats. We are later returning to the islands and recapturing the lizards and their future offspring to measure their physiological and genomic changes.
There are so many things that I love about this co-op, like the variety of the work. One day we will be out walking around the jungle and hand catching lizards, which are about the size of a pinky finger. Then the next two days will be spent in the lab, measuring each lizard’s body size, temperature preference, taking tissue samples for the genomics work, and giving them a unique tag. On the fourth day, we take a small boat out to one of our islands in the canal to release the new population of lizards. Even though we repeat these same tasks, I never know what cool creatures we’ll spot out in the jungle (like capuchin monkeys, beautiful morpho butterflies, or huge colorful frogs) or if our boat will break down and we will have to row down the canal back to the dock.
Another thing I love about this co-op is the opportunity to learn about the other research happening here. While attending weekly lectures and chatting with other scientists, I’ve learned that people are studying so many species of frogs, bats, ants, plants, and other flora and fauna that I’ve never even heard of before. There are people here who are so excited about their research that they are willing to work all night to observe frogs during their active period and then try to sleep during the oppressive midday heat or the people who spend so much time in a lab measuring and sifting through soil to understand and improve nutrient cycling. Listening to how passionate they are has impressed upon me the importance of studying all these species and their habitats, not just for the sake of understanding them but also so we can better utilize and protect these ecosystems.
Even though I’ve done it many times, I still get a rush as we’re zipping along the Panama Canal in our little boat, hearing the eerie roar of howler monkeys, passing the lush jungle on either side, and being passed by the gigantic ships carrying their cargo around the world. I can’t believe that I ended up here, working on this incredible project at an amazing institution that I didn’t even know existed several months ago. This co-op might not be what I ultimately end up doing for my career, but I’m loving every minute of it. And, more importantly, the exposure to all these research projects has given me a new perspective on my responsibility as an aspiring engineer to really consider the environmental impacts of my work.