Teamwork in Science

Collaboration is a necessary part of being successful scientists, but team-working skills are not part of our traditional education. As graduate students we spend tons of effort improving skills like statistics, programming, and writing, but we spend very little time improving how we work with others. In this course, whether we like it or not, we have been forced to work in groups and many people have vented their frustration in trying to work with others. As someone how values collaboration, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on how scientists can successfully work in groups.

I have spent most of my life playing team sports and many of the qualities that make a great teammate also make a great collaborator. One of the most valuable skills to have as a teammate is flexibility. Not in the yoga way but in that we have to be able to change the way we interact with different people. In sports, there are some teammates that can only be motivated by being yelled at while other people require a much more gentle approach. The same goes for science, with some collaborators its best to be straightforward and tell them you disagree with their idea, but with many people it is better to use more cautious phrases like “that’s interesting but have you considered this alternative.” The important thing is to know who you’re talking to and be willing to adjust.

Another important skill in a teammate is trust. When playing rugby, I am always relying on teammates for my own physical safety. In many plays, if they don’t do their job, I could easily end up with some broken ribs, but if I don’t trust them and hesitate doing my job, the play wont work and our team can’t score. Once again this has a direct connection to collaborative science. To work efficiently you have trust others to complete their part or come up with their own ideas and if they fail, your project fails. I think trust is a particularly difficult for academics because most of us are perfectionists and we’re scared a single detail wont be they way we intended. The truth is that work is better when multiple brains contribute to it and we must be willing to let go of our obsession with control and trust others.

These team working skills can be extreme difficult to master, but as developing scientists it is important for us to try to improve them. Fortunately, I believe there is one trick that makes working on any team much easier and that is getting to know your collaborators as people. Obviously, you can’t always choose your collaborators, but we should try to treat all collaborators as friends. All of my best teammates have always been my best friends. When your teammates are your friends, it’s much easier to trust them and know how to approach them when you disagree. I think this is one of the reasons the quality of work has dramatically increased as the course progressed. Clearly, a large part of it is due to the technical skills we were taught along the way, but as the course went on everyone became better friends and these friendships fostered better collaborations. I think this course should be lesson to us all that if we treat collaborators as friends we will not only be happier but we will also produce better work.


Unexpected interests

For me, one of the most valuable aspects of a course like this one is how it pushes students to step out of their comfort zones to try new methods and explore new fields of study. When our course first started six weeks ago, I heard all about the research that my fellow students were conducting in their respective graduate programs. I was excited to work with so many people from diverse backgrounds and with expertise in different fields. But on a course like this one, no one managed to work on projects only within their field. Even though we all struggled with it, I loved watching the community ecologists conduct behavioral experiments and the vertebrate zoologists work with plants. Our course definitely encouraged this environment of exploration and even pushed us further beyond what most of us were initially comfortable with by implementing several projects focused solely on science communication.

I feel that one of the main ways in which I benefitted from this course was learning how to incorporate physiology and community ecology topics into my research. I consider myself a behavioral ecologist, but I had been hoping to find a direction for my dissertation that would broaden its scope to include other fields of research as well. After working on an FLP in La Selva focused on malaria infection in anoles, I started thinking of behavioral questions related to that system. Bringing together so many people with diverse backgrounds is really an amazing way to foster more creative and interesting research.

On a more personal level, I really appreciated the emphasis placed on exploring new interests, because it encouraged me to get excited about all kinds of new organisms and systems that I might not have thought much about if I was only working on a single project. Even though I never actually did a project on fungal ecology, I rediscovered my love for wild mushrooms and had a great time searching for all the coolest and most colorful mushrooms in the forest.


Pura Vida Maes! Literally this is Costa Rica (Chapter I: My lovely plants)

People love nature, at least many humans do. In some places, people pay high amounts of money to “know” a preserved forest just to be in contact with nature for pleasure. And during six weeks we had the privilege of traveling along Costa Rica knowing its highly diverse ecosystems: from dry forest, rain forest, montane and premontane forest to paramos. A small land with an incredible and stunning biodiversity!!


For me, an official plant-lover it was amazing to see many different plants and how they are correlated with climatic conditions. But especially I was caught by the kings of the forest, the trees. Oaks (Quercus sp.) in montane forest or strangler figs (Ficus sp.) in rain forest) appear suddenly during our walks to steal our attention. I just could think of all the years that they have passed in the same place, all the information that they could tell if it were possible. They are the real witness of our steps on this planet, but few people think on it.


Walking in the forest is food for my soul, I recharge energy each time that I have the opportunity to get inside it. I need just few a minutes to be bewitched by colors, sounds and forms. Flowers are one of my main distractions, especially orchids. These plants, that belong to one of the most diverse families in tropics are beyond the limits of specialization and coevolution. They are one of the most beautiful representations of the diversity of life. Really it is not possible to pass next to one of these plants without admiring its beauty.


Now I feel satisfied and happy for this unique opportunity that gave me so much distraction and pleasure. Enjoy forests is one of the best things to do and study them too!!


The Personalities Behind the Podcasts, How Hummingbirds Stole the Show in Monteverde

I was thrilled! The cards, or in this case the random numbers we use to choose projects, were in my favor. I was assigned to the podcast project on the Colibri Cafe bordering Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. It became clear early on that our story would focus on the controversy surrounding feeding birds an unnatural diet so close to the reserve. We spent the morning recording sound bites from cafe employees, tourists, and reserve employees. The story came together well before our scheduled rendezvous to head back to campus. This left me with a lot of time to do exactly what I hoped we would have time for… snapping some intimate photos of of my favorite birds.


After five minutes of being inundated with zipping, zooming, whizzing, and buzzing, I found myself rethinking my whole perspective on hummingbirds. These little birds were battling it out for their food resources, and the number of feeders drew quite the crowd.


With the help of my field guide, I quickly learned the species around me. By watching them a little longer, I started to figure out who was boss, who picked the fights, and who tried to get in and out unnoticed.


One of the first hummers you might notice is the Green Violetear (above). These guys have conspicuous purple feathers on either side of their heads. In a defense display, these birds erect those feathers like “ears,” giving them their peculiar name.


The male Purple-throated Mountain Gem (above) looked small next to the Violetear, but he made up for it in might. These little birds picked fights with everyone, and aggressively defended perches by flashing their purple throats and vocalizing frequently.


The Coppery-headed Emerald (above) is endemic to Costa Rica, making it one of the coolest birds at the feeder. Small in size, this species seemed to avoid physical confrontation with larger species. However, when it came to members of its own species, it was always on the offense.


So you might be wondering who “king” of the feeder is… This title is indisputably held by the Violet Sabrewing (above). By hummingbird standards, these guys were MASSIVE! Unless another Sabrewing was around, they rarely engaged in physical conflict. All they had to do was fly up to the feeder, and all the other species scattered. Looks kind of smug, doesn’t he?

Now sometimes a girl with a not-so-great point-and-shoot camera happens to take a photo she will never forget. Right before we left the cafe, I was lucky enough to get an action shot of a Stripe-tailed Hummingbird (below) in a defensive display. These birds, like the Emeralds, mostly picked fights with birds their own size. In this case, a Mountain Gem decided that he needed that perch. The Stripe-tailed Hummingbird simply wasn’t having it, and sent him off with this grand gesture.


Despite the controversy surrounding the feeders, I genuinely enjoyed my time there watching the birds. I hope that in the near future, the Cafe can use native plants instead of sugar water to bring in birds. It’s in their plans, and I hope it becomes a reality. I came to the cafe thinking I would learn about the personalities and perspectives of the people there. I left having learned a whole different world of “personalities”, in tiny feathered packages.

Lauren Phillips, Graduate Student in Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University. 


Sharing Science: Skills Beyond Stats

Before OTS, I had participated in outreach events, but I never gave much thought to exactly how I was communicating with the general public. As part of the course, we had to design a talk, make a video, and write an article aimed at people without a science background. For me, it was the first time I had done any of these things for a general audience. When you interact with scientists everyday, it’s easy to forget that many of the terms and phrases we use regularly are completely foreign to the majority of people.

One of my favorite science communication activities was learning to make and edit videos in a way that makes your science interesting to non-biologists. To practice our editing skills, my group made this fun little “silent film”.

(Link coming soon)

I wasn’t expecting to learn these skills when I signed up for the course, but I realize how important it is to convince people that science is important. That was the goal of our feature film “The Dirt on Dirt”, which was made with the goal of educating the general public about the importance of soil. I’m excited to see how I can apply these skills to sharing my own research with the general public!

Memory, Fear, and Hope

Cognition science tells us that we remember three things about experiences- how they began, the climaxes (whether they be positive or negative), and how they end. As I sit here thinking about the end of the OTS course I am looking back on my time in Costa Rica and thinking about climaxes. What sticks out in my mind as those things worth remembering?

For the most part, I remember important experiences with nature. I think about the extreme diversity that nature generates- unfathomable variation on structure, behavior, and life strategies. I think about differences in scale, from the enormous pilon to the habitat that exists within every square inch below our feet. I think about mating stick bugs, giant butterflies, huge beetles, fuzzy catterpillars, quetzals, pygmy owls, macaws, bell birds, currasows, three species of monkeys that I saw and one species that remains elusive, weasels, coatis, agoutis, bats, crocodiles, anoles, iguanas, and basilisks. I think about intimate experiences that I have had with ancient fig trees. Trees that kill giants of the forest. Destructive beings. But also beings that create strength, microhabitats, and a home for bats. Beings that provide awe and recreation to people.  Out of destruction comes life as one existence is replaced by another.

And then my thoughts transition from ones of amazement to ones of trepidation. I worry about the dangers that I know this miraculous world faces from external forces. In a country where it is almost impossible to cut down a tree, how easy is it to cover much of the country’s paramo in antenna towers? How easy is it to replace pasture and coffee not with forest, but with pesticide and herbicide demanding pineapples and bananas. I fear that Dan Janzen is right when he says that Costa Ricans have lost their passion for conservation. I fear that this incredible place is losing its position as one of global role model. But I also fear my own judgments and what they mean. A brilliant man once told me that when travelling, I should observe quickly and judge slowly. I fear that as an outsider who comes to this country for a few weeks, uses its enormous natural resources to my benefit, and then disappears, I have no right to criticize anyone. I fear that my materialism and consumerism at home stands in stark contrast to my stated conservation preferences. I fear that I am a hypocrite. I fear that I’m more a part of the problem than I am the solution. I fear that my interest in preservation is a selfish one. An interest in my sustained ability to tour here as a foreigner, in a country where many of those who live here want to develop their land so that they can live the same materialist life that I do.

But then my fears of judgment and my first world guilt give rise to thoughts of those that I have met here who care so much about protecting the land for the future. Don Carlos de La Rosa, who works to understand and protect the rain forest before it is permanently destroyed. Don Victor Acosta, who criticizes pineapples at every opportunity and who exposes everyone he encounters to the wonder of nature around us. Don Carlos Solano, who seeks to repopulate his mountain with palms, whose conservation has cost him relationships with neighbors and friends, who cared so deeply about a puma injured by a human machete that he carried it down a mountain on his shoulders to give it aid. These men are the pilones of conservation, and they inspire as much awe as the pilones of the forest. They can speak with the conviction and authority that I, as an outside, cannot. They inspire me. They give me hope. I may have no authority to tell anyone in this country how to treat their environment, but I deeply hope that those who have that right succeed in protecting and conserving their world for generations to come. So as I sit here on my final night in the field, I raise my glass to you all in the same way that you all raise my spirits and my hopes. Buena suerte. Pura Vida.


A Bird in the Hand…

Isn’t nearly as cool as lots of birds in the hand!  At Cuerici, our Faculty Led Project was to examine heterothermy (facultative hypothermia) in highland tropical birds.  After 3 days of mist-netting we had quite a collection of species.

DSC_3045_DxOThis little black-cheeked warbler was the first species we caught.

DSC_3052_DxOSooty robins have some really cool eyes.

DSC_3066_DxO.jpgAnd a Yellow-thighed finch (a.k.a. bitey)

DSC_3057_DxO.jpgJust look at those yellow thighs!
DSC_3096_DxOBirds always look weird from head-on like this Ruddy-capped nightingale thrush

DSC_3100_DxO.jpgSee, not so weird from profile…

DSC_3101_DxO.jpgA nice Sooty-capped bush tanager.

DSC_3142_DxO.jpgRufous-collared sparrow


DSC_3137_DxO.jpgAnd a tuckered-out Fiery-throated hummingbird

DSC_3133_DxO.jpgHere he is again. Just another bird in the hand…

In case you were wondering, we did find that 8 out of the 11 species we measured lowered their body temperatures at night, demonstrating that heterothermy is much more prevalent in high-elevation tropical bird communities than previously thought.


Never forgetting Stone Bridge


Photo taken by: Pilar Gómez

I remember exactly how I felt the majority of the times I walked across Stone Bridge over Río Sarapiquí at La Selva Biological Station. The surrounding evergreen forest offered a serene scene. Mornings, however, were full of energy. Crossing the bridge early in the morning provoked an enthusiastic sensation, which made me feel like I was ready to take on the world. At times when I crossed the bridge during the day, I felt like I was walking down a hall of fame. I wondered about how many times did scientists cross the bridge before making their mark in the scientific community.


Photo taken by: Pilar Gómez 

Afternoons at the bridge differed vastly from other times of the day. The scene was composed by the Caribbean sunset who painted with a variety of tangerine hues that appeared as if they swirled down the river accompanied by beautiful choruses of critters.


Photo taken by: Janelle Peña

However, the most magical moments on the bridge were at night. I usually crossed feeling battered from the day’s grind but I would stop from time to time in the middle of the bridge and thought about how grateful I was for such an incredible opportunity. On Stone Bridge, I was able to experience one of the most beautiful starry nights I had ever seen in my life. Different shapes and sizes of interstellar clouds created a stunning scene of what looked like diamonds woven on a tie-dye purplish-blue blanket. You can say I fell in love with Stone Bridge, especially since I’ll never forget how it made me feel.

The Podcast Experiment


On June 18th 2016, after a couple of days working towards getting to know the San Luis community in the Monteverde area of Costa Rica, we moved on to our next task: PODCASTS! The training the students received for this was as follows: an hour and a half forum-style discussion on the issues of communication that scientists face, and what we can do to change this; then about an hour on storytelling basics; then we immediately dove in to basics of radio and specifics of the assignment.


The assignment was quite simple. They were given, as groups of four, an organization or institution in town to ask: How are their conservation/sustainability efforts improving the quality of life of the community as well as benefiting the ecosystem? Simple, right? Well, kind of. Because I gave them the biggest challenge: go find a story without knowing barely anything about it, and captivate us in a five-minute radio format. They crafted some backbone questions for their interviews and I dropped them off at their reporting adventure right after breakfast.

If you keep in mind they had a single day to do this, no recording equipment other than smartphones, no prior knowledge of sound editing and mixing – other than the half hour quick overview of an free editing tool – and barely any knowledge on how to tell a story in a non-scientific way, their creative results were brilliant, and they each carry the personalities of those involved in the production.

Without further ado, here are the results of this very fun and fruitful experiment.


1. Why Bats, Mister Wayne – by Sarah Zlotnick, Matthew Zipple, Allison Young, and Hiromi Uno.


2. The Colibrí Controversy – by Pilar Gomez, Lauren Phillips, Carol Peretz, and Keith Burnett.


3. Sustainable Coffee – by Jimmy Peniston, Pooja Panwar, Clarice Esch, and Janelle Peña.

When quitting is the right thing to do

Research is tough. It takes dedication, critical thinking, and a whole lot of perseverance to conduct an experiment- and that’s when everything works correctly. Once things stop going according to plan… that’s when a researcher is really tested.

Creative thinking.   A bit of MacGyvering.   Flexibility.

These are extremely important skills every researcher must use when carrying out an experiment that’s not going as expected.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time in the OTS Tropical Biology course, it’s that there’s one other skill that’s needed to make it as a researcher without going crazy; one that we don’t really think about much or like to acknowledge.

Knowing when to quit.

Quitting isn’t something most researchers like to do, especially when it comes to the experiments we are especially attached to.

“But I’ve put so much effort into this!” “Without it I’ll have to rethink my entire dissertation!” you say.

And those are valid complaints. But, as Kenny Rogers says, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”  And sometimes, you have to fold to help yourself in the long run.

I’ve learned that lesson quite well during the last (almost) six weeks. With only three days to design, conduct, and analyze a research project, you have to learn quick how to judge what is and is not working. Nowhere did I learn the importance of quitting so well as at La Selva. After fighting rain for most of the day, I had to accept the reality that my bees weren’t willing to fly (which made examining their flight distances rather difficult). In such a situation, quitting and finding a new project was the best thing I could do. (I did get to give some of them pretty paint jobs before switching projects, though….)



That’s not to say quitting is always the answer.

Having things go wrong is a part of doing research; you’re always going to run into unexpected and daunting problems. Most of the time, persevering and taking the time to find a creative way around the problem is the best course of action. But sometimes, trying to complete an experiment is like ramming your head against the wall- the only thing you’ll get out of it is a headache.

It’s not always easy to distinguish between the two types of difficulties you’ll encounter- those that can be solved with some innovative thinking and those that will never be solved. That’s part of what makes ‘doing science’ so difficult.

Hopefully, knowing when to quit isn’t a skill you’ll have to exercise often. But when you find yourself in a situation where nothing seems to be going right, no matter what you do, remember that sometimes the best way to solve your problem is to bow out gracefully and move on to bigger and better things.

In other words…