Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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Two Panamanians in the service of the common good in Bocas del Toro

July 21, 2020

Bocas del Toro

Carolina César and Viviana Bravo radically changed their work rhythm: from going out daily to the archipelago, to keeping a research station afloat.

Carolina César and Viviana Bravo did not imagine that during part of 2020, kayaking some hundred meters to collect a probe at sea near the pier of the Smithsonian’s (STRI) Research Station on Bocas del Toro in Isla Colón, would be their most anticipated time of the month.

As marine biologists and research technicians for the MarineGEO program, a global network of scientists studying how coastal marine ecosystems work, they rarely spend the day on land. Their day to day usually takes them by boat all around the archipelago, where they collect environmental and biological data required for network research projects.

Carolina and Viviana’s day to day usually takes them by boat all around the archipelago, where they collect data for different MarineGEO research projects. Credit: Jorge Alemán/STRI.

After the total quarantine was implemented throughout Panama, the station closed its doors: the scientists suspended their projects and left, and the people in charge of administrating the station returned to their homes on the mainland. Viviana and Carolina stayed. Going back home to their families in La Chorrera was a greater risk.

They voluntarily took on new responsibilities to help keep the station afloat. They also continued a few activities considered vital. Among those, to collect the probe once a month and clean and calibrate it.

"The probe records data on salinity, temperature, pH and humidity every fifteen minutes. Every month we must calibrate it,” explains Carolina. This is an important part of STRI’s long-term environmental monitoring program, and marine sensors need more frequent cleaning and calibration than other types of sensors. "Going out in the kayaks to fetch it was our biggest adventure of the month."

If these data were lost, there would be no information to find out if the quarantine and other environmental changes have had an effect on the ocean.

Every morning, over three months, Carolina and Viviana took turns collecting rain, salinity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen parameters on the dock. During the day, they checked on the refrigerators with scientific samples and made sure the air conditioning and humidity control, vital to protecting valuable laboratory equipment, were working well. Every two weeks, they collected rainwater samples for another scientific project.

They also supported their teleworking colleagues, by helping troubleshoot internet problems and ensuring they could access their desktop computers remotely.

Viviana collecting rainwater from one of the station's rain gauges, a daily task.

“Carolina and Viviana’s support during these times has been invaluable for STRI,” said Rachel Collin, STRI scientist and director of the Bocas del Toro Research Station. “They have done a thousand little things to protect the science operations at the station.”

Both admit that the experience has been a strong mental challenge, mainly due to the change in their pace of work. They went from being outdoors every day to being locked up most of the time. For Viviana, in addition, there was an added concern for her family: her mother is a nurse. Despite everything, they try to keep a positive attitude and focus on what they have learned so far.

"The greatest learning experience of the quarantine has been to experience our adaptation capacity as humans," concludes Viviana. "We may think that we won’t be capable of something, yet we always find a way to adapt to the situation, even if it costs us."

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