Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

You are here


Secretary Lonnie Bunch visits “The farthest rock from the sun of the Smithsonian”

April 29, 2022

Text by Vanessa Crooks

The Secretary visited facilites in Panama and Colon and got to see first-hand the important science being done at STRI.

On April 1st, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch arrived in Panama for his first ever visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, accompanied by his wife Maria Marable-Bunch and his chief of staff Greg Bettwy.

Lonnie (as he asked us to call him), Maria and Greg were taken by STRI Directors Josh Tewksbury and Oris Sanjur on a whirlwind tour of the STRI facilities, with the first day consisting of a scenic train ride to Colon to visit Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory and the Agua Salud reforestation project in the Panama Canal watershed, to a helicopter overflight of the canal locks, a stop at the Barro Colorado Island Research Station for a hike on the trails, and a visit to the Gamboa labs, including the Batlab, the Butterfly project, the Amphibian Rescue Center, the Plant Physiology Greenhouse, the schoolhouse and more.

During this tour, Secretary Bunch had time for conversations with STRI Leadership, staff scientists, employees, fellows and interns about the research that happens in these facilities and the importance of academic programs.

At a BBQ dinner at the Gamboa lab with staff and students, Director Josh Tewskbury welcomed them to the STRI community.

“This community is on a journey. We have been on a journey for a hundred years here at STRI, and it is an exceptional honor to be able to have you here to see where we are, where we have been, and where we are headed,” he said.

Secretary Bunch gave a brief speech and expressed his awe and gratitude for the STRI community. “I’ve known about STRI my whole career, and I’ve had a vision of what STRI is, but today really made me realize STRI is more special I could ever have imagined,” he said. “The amazing work you do, is science that is transformative to science, but it is science that can transform the world.”

During this event, Batlab director Rachel Page, paleontologist Felix Rodriguez, and Academic Programs manager Adriana Bilgray and coordinator Paola Gomez, were named Unsung Heroes, in recognition of their contributions to the STRI community during a time when STRI was challenged both by the pandemic and with reinventing the way we do science to guarantee inclusion, diversity, equity and access.

Secretary Bunch renewed his dedication to making the Smithsonian community a safe and welcoming place for everyone. “I’m committed to making sure that STRI and the Smithsonian is always a place of safety, that honors and respects people and that gives them a workplace where they can focus on the work but know they are also protected. Those are the key principles of my tenure as Secretary,” he said.

Secretary Bunch and Director Josh Tewksbury with Paola Gomez, Adriana Bilgray, Felix Rodriguez and Rachel Page, who were given the Unsung Heroes recognition. Credit: Jorge Alemán, STRI.

On his second day, Secretary Bunch got a spectacular view of the treetops in the Parque Natural Metropolitano and the Panama City skyline from the Robert Bradley Family canopy crane. Afterwards, Lonnie, Maria and Greg stopped at the Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology (CTPA), the Museum of Freedom and Human Rights, the Naos Facility for a tour of the archaeological archives and the Punta Culebra Nature Center, where they met with Board Members of Fundación Smithsonian, directors of the Canal Museum, the BioMuseo and the Museum of Freedom, the Administrator of the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) Ivan Eskildsen, Dr. Eduardo Ortega-Barria of SENACYT, and STRI Leadership and staff scientists.

On the last day, the Secretary met with Stewart Tuttle Chargé d’Affaires, U.S. Embassy Panama, before visiting the Earl S. Tupper Center, to join the Director for a Town Hall meeting in the Auditorium. Once again, Secretary Bunch shared his commitment to making the Smithsonian and STRI a safe and welcoming place for everyone. During the event, members of the live audience in the auditorium and viewers on Zoom were able to ask questions.

After the Town Hall, Lonnie and Greg visited the Presidential Palace to meet with President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen and Chancellor of Foreign Affairs Erika Mouynes. In the meantime, Maria was joined by Linette Dutari, Associate Director of Communications and Public Programs and public programs manager, Jimena Pitty to visit SENACYT where they met with Dr. Maria Heller, Director of Innovation and Learning for Science and Technology, and teachers from the Ministry of Education’s public school program and the Teach for All program in Panama.

At the end of the day, Lonnie, Maria and Greg were invited, along with the STRI Directors, by Stanley and Linky Motta for a reception at their residence.

Lonnie reflected on the invaluable science being done at STRI and how we share it with the world. “It is too important for us not to share this information,” he said. “Whether it’s history or whether it’s the work that you do, it is too important to just be in the hands of us who love it. It really needs to be in the hands of those who need it.”

Back to Top