Press "Enter" to skip to content

Science Executive Committee in Panama

On March 22-29, I traveled to Panama and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) with members of the Smithsonian’s Science Executive Committee. This is the science unit directors group who meet with the interim Undersecretary for Science each month. Others on the trip were Scott Miller, the Office of the Undersecretary for Science (OUSS) staff, Cynthia Brandt Stover, Smithsonian Campaign Director and Jenny McWilliams, Science Advancement Officer. Oh yes, and Stacy Cavanaugh’s 12-year-old son.

Panama 1
SI Visitors with STRI graduate students.


Panama 2The focus of this trip was different for me. Before I have either been concerned with the STRI Library or accompanying the Libraries’ Advisory Board. This meeting was squarely on the science. For example, the photo above shows a bat in the background. This was on the side of a trailer, in which researchers conducted an experiment to discover two things about a certain species: how it can find at night the tiny frogs that compose its food, and how bats transfer information among themselves so that one can learn from the other where the food is. We also learned how scientists are finding the actual genes that determine the variations in colors on a certain butterfly species’ wings. In addition, we were shown where they grow hundreds of thousands of fruit flies to feed the frogs that they are trying to protect from a serious disease that is decimating the population.


The brand new BioMuseo, a Frank Gehry structure, was a real treat. Exhibits are finished in half of the building, and the designs are phenomenal.


Panama 3
Left: Artist rendering of building; Right: view of entrance
Panama 4
Sculptures at the Biomuseo showing historic animals before the two continents were joined and they mixed or went extinct.


Of course I couldn’t visit the STRI campus without going to the library, and I took a group with me to see the facility. I also visited the library on Barro Colorado Island, just two sections of shelving but containing key works relating to Panama biodiversity, as well as a well-thumbed copy of David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, a readable account of the canal’s construction. There were quite a few users in the library, which is always good when one brings visitors along.


Panama 6
Left: Jenny McMillan, Liza Fritzsche, Amy Marino, Nancy Gwinn, Kirk Johnson, Apolinar Guerrero, Scott Miller, Ricardo Beteta, Robert Koester, and Cynthia Brand-Stover. Right: Elizabeth Sanchez and Mr. Santos, taking care of the BC Library, with Nancy Gwinn (center).


A trip to Barro Colorado Island, STRI’s long-term research facility and the original location of a ForestGEO plot, reminded me of the several times of been there to hike through the forest and see the plants and animals, not to mention listening to the roaring of the howler monkeys. We had the good fortune of having three STRI guides and researchers with us to explain some of the research taking place and to help identify what we were seeing, like this airborne termite nest, nothing like the termite mounds of Africa.

Panama 7
A trip to Barro Colorado Island. Right: airborne termite nest.


While we were staying at a hotel on the canal but away from the downtown, we did get to the center for drinks at the lovely apartment of the new STRI Director, Matt Larsen, and dinner. The view from Matt’s balcony was gorgeous, as were some of the lighted buildings in Casco Viejo, the historical part of the city.


Panama 8
Views of Panama City.


  1. Hello:

    Nice article, we are glad to read you enjoyed your visit to Panama. If possible, we would like to correct a small typo: the name of STRI Director is Matt Larsen, not Larson.


    Sonia Tejada
    Public Relations Assistant
    Office of Public Information and Media Relations
    Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
    Tel: (507) 212-8111

  2. Nancy Gwinn

    Oops, Sonia, my fault. It has now been corrected! Thanks for letting me know.

  3. David

    That airborne termite mound is really interesting. Is their a known reason these termites erect them above ground? I’m guessing it has something to do with the amount of rainfall in Panama, perhaps to prevent flooding inside the mound or erosion. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *