Internship Program

Alexandra Kniewasser (Environmental Studies and Development, McGill School of Environment) worked as an intern with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) at its Culebra marine station in Panama. Alexandra’s work focused on increasing public understanding and awareness of Panama’s coastal environment and promoting its conservation through the development of environmental educational tools for the general public. She also compiled qualitative and quantitative data gathered through marine research conducted on land and underwater. Alexandra is interested in pursuing a career in environmental management and ecology.

2005 Tania Zouikin Arts Internship Award


Alexandra Kniewasser

Alexandra Kniewasser holds a turtle at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

In the summer before my final year at the McGill School of Environment in the domain of Environment and Development I had the honour to receive the Tania Zouikin Internship Award which allowed me to gain valuable experience during a six week internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. Throughout my studies I have been very interested in marine and conservation biology and other issues surrounding development and the environment. I was therefore thrilled to be able to spend time in a developing country while engaging in environmental conservation and research.

During my internship, I worked as an environmental educator at a marine station on the Caribbean coast. The STRI is a renowned research institute that maintains eight research stations across Panama, and attracts hundreds of scientists to pursue their interest in a great work environment. In addition to providing information about Caribbean Coastal ecosystems – namely coral reefs, marine pasture and mangroves – the Galeta marine laboratory operates an environmental education program whose aims are to raise environmental awareness and to provide the public with information about their environment. This diffusion of scientific information to the public is unique and is very important to the success of the Galeta marine research station.

My role during the six weeks I was there was to help with the education program and to learn about the ecosystems and the animals in and around Galeta. One of my principal duties was to guide visitors around the research station and teach them about the marine ecosystems and the animals living there. As a result, I acquired a lot of new knowledge about these systems and about the animals that make their habitat in them. I also learned to care for the animals that are kept in large tanks and corrals on the station. Part of my job was to feed and clean turtles, fish and other marine organisms such as sae stars, urchins and snails.

In addition to guiding visitors and taking care of the animals, I was responsible for gathering scientific information and creating pamphlets and posters about the research station for its visitors and for the general public. I therefore had to take this often highly scientific information and present it in such a way that those outside the field and non-scientists as well, could understand the work being done at Galeta. I prepared two pamphlets – one on coral reefs and another on mangroves – and mounted an exhibition detailing the construction process of the mangrove boardwalk, a major attraction at the station.

I was also an active member of the research station crew, which taught me what it takes to manage and maintain an organization like this one. To experience and to be engaged in the dayto- day life of a research station was one of my objectives and that was clearly fulfilled. I was also curious to learn more about the opportunities and challenges of environmental conservation in a country that faces so many other struggles such as social security, education and health care problems. In this sense, Galeta, which is located only about 10 kilometres away from Colon, one of the poorest and arguably most dangerous cities in Central America, was a very challenging but educationally satisfying place to work.

As in any place that is very different from what one is used to, I faced some challenges during my time in Panama. I was living and working in a different culture, speaking a different language, and dealing with the climate change. All of these were definite challenges for me at the outset, but thanks to a great social environment and lots of support from the STRI staff, I was able to overcome these challenges quite quickly and was able to improve my language abilities enormously. Facing the extreme poverty and the enormous disparities prevalent in Panama reminded me of the time I spent in Kenya. Despite the fact that I had been exposed to such themes before, I experienced again an overwhelming feeling of injustice and helplessness. The environmental education program at Galeta, however, provides an example of how progress can be achieved through the promotion of education, development and conservation.

My work at Galeta helped me to see a way through the development- and environmental conservation impasse by teaching young Panamanian students and visitors about their environment and the importance of protecting it. The opportunity to participate in projects that work to improve the future for both the Panamanian people and protect the extremely diverse Panamanian environment, inspired me and gave me ideas of paths to follow to introduce positive change in the future.

My academic background was helpful in terms of scientific knowledge I needed as a nature guide and for preparing the pamphlets on the different ecosystems. I was also able to observe the day-today life and routine of a scientific research station and realized that its activities encompass much more than I had learned during my studies, such as public relations, management and administration. Precisely because this internship was an excellent mixture between applying previous knowledge and skills and acquiring new expertise and practice in the “real world”, I was able to gain valuable practical experience and better my understanding of career opportunities available to me after I complete my undergraduate degree. I now know that in addition to engaging in scientific research, I would like to be involved in environmental education programs and in public relations work between the private and public sectors. This insight is a direct result of my internship experience in Panama where I learned to understand the importance of involving the public through education in order to improve their environmental ethic and consequently to succeed with conservation efforts.

Finally, the Tania Zouikin Internship Award provided me with the financial means indispensable to undertake this unique opportunity. Without such support, I would not have been able to cover the costs related to this internship. I would therefore like to thank the Internship Office and, of course, Tania Zouikin for her generous support.

I would also like to express my thanks for the great support I received in Panama throughout my internship. I would especially like to thank Dr. Stanley Heckadon, manager of the Galeta marine laboratory, Benjamin Ordonez, manager of the educational program and Dra. Helena Fortunato, scientific coordinator, all of whom provided me with great support at all times and made me feel very comfortable from my first day there. In fact, the familiar atmosphere at Galeta was one reason why I was able to quickly overcome the culture shock and settle into a routine alongside my fellow workers and newly found friends of both human and non-human nature.

“To experience and to be engaged in the day-to-day life of a research station was one of my objectives that was clearly fulfilled.”