A Day at the Smithsonian, but not THAT one.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is to biologists what the Smithsonian Air and Space museum is to astronauts. Located in Panama City, STRI attracts scientists from around the world for a variety of reasons. Not just biologists, but paleontologists, archaeologists, ecologists, palynologists (you know, people who study pollen!) and many, many other -ologists. Science abounds.

Today we met three scientists…

First was Jorge Velez, a post-doc fellow in the department of paleobiology, who is investigating how the Central American seaway contributed to the evolution and distribution of three species – the pygmy sperm whale, the river dolphin, and monodontids – the group of whales that includes relatives of modern day narwhals and belugas. The distribution of fossils of these three species are widespread, and the current day canal zone – pre-isthmus – appears to be a critical factor.

Catalina Pimiento, a PhD student under Dr. Bruce McFadden at the University of Florida, was next. Bruce is the mastermind behind the partnership that brought us here, and Catalina is passionate about ancient sharks. She is investigating the extinction of megalodon, the school bus sized predatory shark, as it may inform how we protect and sustain species such as carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. This work is particularly challenging, as shark bones are cartilaginous, and often break down before fossilization.  She and her team have collected over 6,000 specimens, mostly shark teeth, as they are all that remains.  Still, it is impressive to hear all that can be learned from the teeth of an organism that died off two million years ago.  Today, however, Catalina shared with us a course that she taught for the University of Panama, a blended course on the paleontology of Panama designed for students with little or no background in geology or paleontology. She engaged students in the practice of science, requiring each to complete the scientific cycle of investigation, analysis, findings and presentation over the course of the semester. This struck me as something that needs to become a larger piece of K-12 science education, and it will — the Next Generation Science Standards will require it.

The third scientist was Jorge Cardenes, a palynologist studying the evolution of neotropical pollen.  The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has been loaned a collection of 250,000 pollen specimens meticulously collected over a period of 52 years. Fifty-two years! One man’s life work, in the world of science, gives rise to another’s. A grad student from Illinois, visiting for a month to study the collection, was investigating the impact of the 1997-98 el niño event on pollen spores.  Any noticeable impact could provide palynologists a model of what to look for in fossilized pollen to identify el niño events in deep time. This, however, is just one of many investigations taking place with that collection.

These three presentations took place in a period of about two hours – pretty overwhelming, to be honest. I felt I needed more time to process each before moving on. But moving on is what scientists do. The dynamic nature of science requires that we do. Each new discovery has a ripple effect on what we understand and how we practice. And, perhaps because of that, each of the three scientists spoke about their work with passion, excitement and youthful curiosity. It is inspiring to be among inspired people.

Tomorrow we head to the canal for an overview of its’ geology and paleontology, and we’re bringing our digging gear just in case the rain stops long enough to explore.

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