Finding inspiration in a tropical paradise
The tropical humidity made the air so thick with moisture that my fingers stuck to each thin strand of the net, causing my task to be more difficult than I imagined. I could feel the insects crawling into my boots and up my pant legs, but I could not do anything to stop them. I was trapped in the middle of a raiding swarm of tens of thousands of army ants until I could successfully rescue the bird I held in my hands.
Carefully, I pulled the strands of the net from the bird's clenched claws and slid each wing out of several loops. Despite my effort, the bird, soon to have its blood drawn, still seemed hopelessly enmeshed. My mind raced as I tried to remember if I'd doused myself with insect repellant and tucked my pants into my socks that morning to prevent the ants from locking their enormous mandibles into my ankles.
Since arriving on Barro Colorado Island with the ecology and evolutionary biology field semester in Panama, I had incorporated many rituals such as this one into my daily routine. These measures allowed me to eliminate the line that is often drawn between nature and humanity, so I could approach and understand the research subjects on their terms and in their habitats.
I put the thought of the ants out of my mind and pulled one last loop over the bird's feather-capped head, allowing it the freedom to flap its wings, and allowing me the freedom to dart out of the raiding ant swarm as fast as I could.
A few days later, when offered the chance to return to Panama this summer to study birds for my senior thesis, I remembered the rush of adrenaline I felt while holding my newly-freed feathered friend, and jumped at the chance.
When I arrived in Gamboa in June to begin my thesis, I was struck by how far from Princeton I really was. A five hour plane trip had taken me to the depths of a Panamanian tropical paradise complete with prehistoric-looking sloths glancing lazily in my direction, venomous fer-de-lances waiting on the doorstep at midnight, and the most amazing and complex ecosystem I had ever encountered. This inspirational setting was the perfect place to delve into my thesis.
Because of my interest in diseases and parasites — the only predators that attack their prey from the inside out — I set out to examine possible correlates of the seasonality of parasitic infections, primarily malaria, in a population of clay-colored robins.
When serving as Princeton grad student Andrea Gager's field assistant, a typical day was anything but typical.
We would wake before sunrise to set up our nets and our laboratory, which consisted of a tarp placed on the cement underneath an abandoned house adjacent to the forest. We would bring the birds here, take a few capillary tubes of blood, offer them a drink of water, and release them.
Every time I delicately held a bird in my hands, its tiny eyes focusing on mine, I tried to understand it and appreciate it for its beauty, its place in the ecosystem and the evolutionary time scale, and its hints of humanity that were evident in so many ways.
Several weeks and dozens of birds later, I returned home to sift through my data and reflect on my research experience as a whole.
When I was told three years ago that my senior thesis research would be the experience of a lifetime, I was too naive to understand what that really meant. I could not have predicted where this project would take me.
As I traveled beyond the University's gates, I came to realize how such an encompassing and demanding experience really could ignite in me a lifelong interest in the biological sciences.
Princeton is many amazing things to many people. But I can guarantee that I'll never find myself swimming with a school of squid, waking to the deep call of the howler monkey at five o'clock a.m., or watching a spider capture and devour a frog twice its size while here on campus. The unexpected juxtaposition of ordinary tasks like walking to lunch, and exotic encounters like being chased by a mischievous spider monkey, stirred a deep passion within me and offered me a new perspective on the true distance between animal nature and humanity. Nicole Basta is from New Kensington, Penn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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