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An invisible story is
revealed through the senses

September 3, 2019

Text by Leila Nilipour, STRI

Through sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow Jennifer Gil-Acevedo makes the world of microalgae accessible to all

When she volunteered for the Special Olympics in Greece in 2011, Puerto Rican Jennifer Gil-Acevedo became especially fond of the Panamanian team. So, when she was presented with the opportunity to develop a project in Panama while completing her master's degree in environmental sciences at Florida International University, she did not think twice. With the support of Rachel Collin, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and thanks to a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, the first to be awarded to a Latina, Jenny landed on the isthmus.

For nine months, she explored Panama’s two oceans and Gatun Lake, the reservoir created to feed the Panama Canal, in search of microalgae. She did three things with her samples: identify them to species, add them to a STRI database that documents the country's biodiversity and use them to educate the public. This last approach, that of communicating science, was her main objective, so she called her project “The invisible story of microalgae.”

What is so special about these imperceptible organisms? For starters, they help us breathe, because they produce half of the oxygen on Earth. Corals also depend on microalgae to provide them with energy via photosynthesis. And they are the main nutrient source in the ocean. A large number of marine organisms feed on microalgae.

To collect them, Jenny submerged a special mesh with tiny, 0.02 millimeter, holes into the ocean. She also took water samples to analyze in the laboratory. Then, under a microscope, she observed which species occurred at each collection site.

“Microalgae can be found everywhere: in rivers, lakes, the sea, even in your fish tank or where your puppy drinks water. They only need nutrients, water and sun,” explains Jenny.

Through a bilingual blog on the National Geographic platform and her Instagram account @jennymycro, she documented, on video and with microscopic photographs, her microalgae exploration process in Panama, while educating her followers about the different species she found and their importance. One day you could watch her sinking her mesh in Las Perlas, Colón, Taboga, Bocas del Toro or Gatun Lake, and the next day displaying her findings under the microscope.

With the support of musicians from the Panamanian band Afrodisiaco, the microalgae Euglena danced to its own melody. Credit: Rogelio Moreno.

At the same time, she organized events for the public to experiment with microalgae via their five senses. In addition to showing samples under the microscope, she led workshops to make soap with microalgae, which allowed the participants to smell them before and after adding essential oils. She also printed 3D models of different species in EcoStudio’s Fab Lab, to stimulate the sense of touch.

As for the sense of taste, she baked cookies with spirulina, a type of edible microalgae. Finally, and with the support of musicians from the Panamanian band Afrodisiaco, the movement of a microalgae called Euglena inspired a melody of its own.

This approach to educating through the senses had a lot to do with her work as a Special Olympics volunteer. So, one of these outreach events took place with visually impaired children. They not only tasted the cookies, but listened to the music, touched the 3D models and smelled the soaps.

“For me it is super important not to exclude anyone; to make sure that people with disabilities can also understand microalgae,” she says.

And thanks to her enthusiasm for communicating science to as many people as possible, during her collection trip to Gatun Lake in a Panama Canal Authority boat, Jenny gained one of her most memorable experiences. That day she was carrying a field microscope and took the opportunity to show the captain and his crew the microalgae she had just collected with their help.

“The captain told me that he had taken a lot of people in that boat for scientific purposes and it was the first time someone explained what they were doing. This is why I am a Digital Storytelling Fellow. I want to communicate science to everyone,” she admits.

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