Wednesday, July 24, 2013


This weekend, Abrial and I paid a visit to the Miraflores Locks, one of the first truly touristy things either of us have done since arriving in Panama. Our STRI IDs allow us resident admission rates—$3 as opposed to $8 for non-nationals—granting us full access to the museum, theatre, and viewing decks housed in the 5-story monolith alongside the locks themselves.

I am not often impressed by feats of human engineering, much though I respect the design, effort, and power directed toward such projects. (Nature’s engineering, on the other hand…) The Panama Canal locks, with their 650-tonne gates, draw even my reluctant awe, as do the massive cargo ships which traverse the Canal. There are mere inches between the holds of these metal behemoths and the concrete walls of the locks.




Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tid bits and how to's at the Collin Lab

Welcome to the Collin Lab! For any new lab members, there are a few things you should know before you get here.

First, what to pack! 
  • Lab attire consists of long pants and close toed shoes at all times, so be aware. Also, the air conditioning at Naos is FREEZING so bring a sweatshirt or two. 
  • If you plan on going to the field, bring a long sleeved shirt (because the sun is very strong this close to the equator), athletic type shorts (with pockets is best) and a hat is a must! Sunglasses are also not a bad idea because the water can create quite a glare. If you have water shoes, they would be helpful for the intertidal zone, but the lab has many in all different sizes, so don't worry if you don't have a pair laying around. 
  • It rains almost every day during the rainy season (April through December) so bring an umbrella or a raincoat if you don't want to get wet. The temperature is always around 90º F or 32º C. For everything else, bring normal clothes, nothing too fancy is really needed, although it is fun to dress up a little to go out to Casco Viejo, or downtown every once in a while. 
  • Another point: if you are living at La Jaula, the STRI Ancon apartments, the laundry machines take only quarters. .75 to wash and 1.00 to dry, so it's probably a good idea to bring some quarters with you! I always have to scramble to scrounge up quarters at the last minute, and often go longer that I should without doing laundry. 

Once you are here, the most important thing is FOOD. There are many grocery stores around.
  • The easiest to get to from Ancon (La Jaula) is probably the Super 99 at Albrook Mall/the Terminal. To get there you can take a bus, which someone will have to help you use the first time, because you need to buy an orange bus pass at the Terminal to use the bus. The pass costs 2.50 and each ride is 25 cents. If you don't have a bus card, you can catch a taxi, which is more expensive (between 1 and 2 dollars to get from Ancon to Albrook). To catch a bus back to Ancon, you should ask the driver if they go through Cinco de Mayo. Most busses pass that way. Ones with destinations like 'Via Espana,' and 'Transistmica' are usually a safe bet. 
  • There is a fresh fruit and veg market a few blocks away from La Jaula, at the same place as the bus stop. Nothing can beat fresh produce at good prices!
  • Other grocery stores: one within walking distance along Avenida Central, and one each at Multicentro and Multiplaza, both malls a bus ride away. 
  • LUNCH at Naos is either pack your own, or buy from a taxi that brings rice and beans with some meat right outside for $2. Also there are a few cheap restaurants close by, and also a few really expensive touristy restaurants. There is also a minimart type store on the next island down if things are desperate. And a vending machine at Naos. 

Getting to Naos! Also important. 
  • A busito (small bus/van) runs from Tupper, the main STRI building in Ancon, to Naos every weekday. It leaves Tupper at 7am (although it used to leave at 6:45, and before that, 7:15, and people can be found waiting for the bus 15-30 minutes before it leaves), and gets to Naos about half an hour later after navigating the crazy Panama traffic. In the afternoons, the busito leaves Naos at 4pm (but again, people being lining up at 3:30, and the bus gets ridiculously full - it's a 15 person van, but most days holds at least 19, and up to 22). I have also heard that if goes to Naos from Tupper on Saturdays at 9am, though I can't verify this. 
  • There are one dollar taxis from Cinco de Mayo to Amador (the causeway that connects Naos and the other islands to the mainland). You find them underneath the highway just past the square at Cinco de Mayo, and the drivers will be calling out 'Amador.' They fill up the taxi, then drop everyone off at Amador. Let them know you want to get off at Naos though, otherwise they will go right past it. 
  • You can also take a taxi from anywhere in the city, though these will be much more expensive. Tell the driver either Amador or the causeway, and then tell them to stop once you reach Naos, the first island. 
  • It's also relatively easy to bike or walk from Ancon to Naos. Walking takes about an hour and a half, and biking takes maybe 30 minutes. Be careful of cars, especially if biking, because they drive like maniacs. A map of the best route is below. 

Everything else will be easy enough to figure out after a few days! Everyone at the lab is always willing to help out, and answer any questions you have. 

View Larger Map

Monday, July 15, 2013

Collecting Blue Crabs In Louisiana

Collecting Blue Crabs in Louisiana
By Matt Starr 2013


Since I've moved to Louisiana I haven't had a lot of time in the field.  Back in Panama, the lab would be out collecting snails at least once every few months but now if I need specimens I just order them and have them sent in the mail!  Last month, however, I was able to get back in the field and help new Neigel Lab doctoral student, Tim Sullivan, collecting blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus).


We were hoping to catch the crabs at a juvenile and adult stage. To catch them we used a combination of traps, hoop nets, and hand lines. The hoop nets were the best because you bait them with raw chicken and then all you do is wait for the crabs to come to you.


...and voilà!      Crabs in a bucket.


We were also hoping to collect the crabs at the megalopae stage.  The megalopae stage is a planktonic stage of the crab so they are still out swimming in the channel.  To catch them we set out traps made from a PVC pipe wrapped in a plastic air filter. The idea is that if a megalopae comes in contact with the filter it will think it is a great place to hide and grow so it will grab on to the filter. After the traps have been set for a few hours we lift them out and rinse them with fresh water to collect each megalopae.

Unfortunately we did not catch any megalopae this time...

After catching the crabs we measured them, politely took off one walking leg, and then placed the walking leg in alcohol.  Once we get back to the lab at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Tim will extract the DNA for each crab we caught.

Measure....                                   Remove one walking leg....          Preserve the leg in alcohol

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On trucks

I’ve known how to drive since well before I was technically of a legal age to do so, something not uncommon in the ranch community of eastern Montana where I was raised. I learned to drive in my family’s ’94 Ford pickup, a finicky beast which doesn’t like to change gears and doesn’t turn particularly well. But it does have an automatic transmission.

I had never driven a manual transmission before. I always meant to. I just never got around to it. So, when Dr Collin asked, as an afterthought to a previous e-mail conversation, whether I could drive a stick-shift, my immediate response was “No... but I can learn!”

For the three weeks I had at home before coming to Panamá, I borrowed a friend’s ancient manual transmission truck so I could learn to drive. This car is a stereotypical farm truck: beat up, rusty, mud-encrusted, with a broken window repaired with plywood and a bit of twine, and so much dirt in the back you could plant a garden. The gearshift is finicky and changing gears involves twisting, shoving, and generally manhandling the stick into place.

I learned to drive it though. Sure, I killed the engine a few times (actually, a lot of times) and I never drove very fast, especially as the car wouldn’t go over 57 m.p.h. without the engine sounding like it was going to explode. But I was on country roads where “traffic” is two cars passing, and three cars is a veritable traffic jam. My slow driving didn’t bother anyone.

Fast forward to last Wednesday. It’s a field day, so one of the lab members has to drive an STRI truck to Playa Veracruz. Allan is usually the driver, but it’s Allan’s last week and I’m the only other available person authorized to drive STRI vehicles, though the paperwork was only approved yesterday.

I’m nervous. I’m not particularly looking forward to driving in a city where the drivers are excessively, in my eyes, aggressive as they are here. I am even less comfortable when I have to drive a stick-shift through three different construction zones, onto a freeway, across a huge cantilever bridge, and through an obstacle course of hills and blind curves at 75 k.p.h. This is actually considered easy driving in Panama, as the road to Veracruz never really enters the city and the traffic is generally light.  To make things worse, I pick up the keys and head out to the lot only to find the truck we usually use is not the truck to which I was given the keys. Instead, we have the refrigerator truck:
You will note the large aluminum box in the back of the truck.

This means I have no rearview mirror.  (Dr. Collin notes that driving this monster is some kind of rite of passage at STRI, she herself had to drive a similar truck across the country...white knuckles all the way.... 15 years ago when she was a short-term fellow).

I quickly discover that this pickup, unlike the stick-shift I learned to drive in, shifts gears very easily. Too easily in fact. I can’t tell if I’ve shifted into 1st or 3rd and kill the engine reversing out of the parking space. Twice.

I’m holding the wheel with a death grip as I turn out of the parking lot onto the Causeway. All goes well and we make it to the field safely.  

The return trip was somewhat less stressful. I only killed the engine once at a stop sign, garnering yet more angry horns from the drivers tailgating me. We make it back to our island haven laboratory safe and not much the worse for wear. I am exceedingly thankful.

Now I just have to repeat this procedure every two days for the remainder of the summer…

Monday, July 1, 2013

Introductions and Goodbyes

It seems the blog hasn't been updated in a while. Gina was highly motivated to post updates, but Gina left in March. It is now June and we have several new faces in the lab, myself included. I suppose an introduction is in order. I'm Robin Alexis, the newest intern at the Collin Lab, although I arrived in Panamá nearly three weeks ago. 
The lab line-up has changed quite a bit since the last posts. Of course Dr Collin is still here, and our wonderful lab manager, Isis Ochoa. When I arrived, we had five interns in the lab. As of Friday, that number is reduced to four. Longtime intern Allan Carrillo left on Sunday to return briefly to Costa Rica before moving on to pursue a master's degree. Still remaining are Abraham Osario; Abby Spangler; Abrial Meyer, who also goes by Abby (to make things even more confusing, the two Abbys are roommates); and myself.
That's the current state of the lab, and that's all I have for now.

Top row, left to right:  Rachel, Allen, Abrial, Sebastien
Bottom row:  Abraham, Abby, Robin and Isis.