How To Become An Amateur Biologist 103

Hey everyone!

The time flies here. On one hand that is a positive given but on the other hand it also means that time start getting short to work and finish my project. These past few weeks have been very fruitful. While Andy and Kitty were away to Sri Lanka to organise stuff for DinaCon, Serena, Jorge and I were ‘in charge’ of the Dinalab. Besides working on our projects, we had lots of dance parties, ice cream celebrations and movie nights.

After two and a half months with a lot of researching, experimenting and seeking inspiration, I decided to do my project here at Dinalab about Leafcutter Ants. With the concept of Umwelt in mind, I try to ga in a little bit more insight in how these ants perceive the(ir) world. Right now, I am experimenting with ‘sound’, or vibrations. Ants don’t make sounds through the air (air-borne), but through surfaces (substrate-borne). With the help of Lisa Schonberg (former DinaCon participant in 2019) I started exploring this with piezo microphones, which are surface microphones. The cool thing is that you can use piezo as a microphone and as a speaker! So besides recording, I am testing whether the Leafcutter ants will react to certain frequencies and changes in frequencies. So excited to find out what is coming from this! Maybe we will even be able to communicate with ants in the future… 🐜

Serena and I started working on our collaborative project under the name ‘Cool2’. We chose three main themes where we wanted to build the project around, which are Nature, Feminism and Arduino. From these themes we started creating a mindmap and picked out four keywords which spoke to us the most. Cycle, misunderstood, meaning and ruthless. Last week we got the idea to make a plant that shows you in which fase of your menstrual cycle you are in by the colour of LED lights. The LEDs will light up when you water or touch it. This is a new way to track your period and to simultaneously learn about periods. The thought behind this was sparked by the fact that a lot of women I know use a period tracker but are not consciously aware of the fase they are in. For example, sometimes I would get quite moody and sad and then in a week or less I get my period. Afterwards I am always like: ‘Oh now I understand, I just needed to get my period!’ What a relief 😉

In the time period when Kitty and Andy I kept on volunteering at the APPC. My love for the sloths grows stronger each day. They are just the cutest things ever! Especially Ingmar, the sloth I named after my supercute cousin. Such a kind soul 💕 New sloth fun fact by the way: sloths have four stomachs, just like cows. Also Mireya taught me a lot about the different plants that the sloths and Valencia the tapir eat. I learned to recognize poro poro, indio desnudo, jobo, cecropia, mango and berignon.

For a long time Andy has been working on trying to sense ants. This has been proven to be a difficult task because they are so tiny, fast and with so many. Andy made a 3D design for a simple ant gate where leafcutters can be sensed. The gate works with a light source (in this case a laser because a laser light is the most stable) and a photoresistor. Right now, the ant gate only works for ants with leaves. If I have time, I will try to make the ant gate better by making it more sensitive to smaller ants, and ants without leaves, as well. Anyway, it was a fun (side) project that involved leafcutters and Arduino!

Serena and I also organised a small Arduino workshop for some students are doing a project with a heart rate sensor and a GPS. We taught them the basics of Arduino and they learned it very quickly. Thank you Daniel and your group for joining us and being so enthusiastic and good students! Good luck with the project 🙂

Luckily there was also enough time to explore the beautiful nature that Gamboa has to offer. I took Serena for the first time to Pipeline Road and she was very happy as you can see in the picture. Last week Andy organised a night hike. It had been a long time since I had been on one so it was very nice to go on one again. We saw so many frogs and I saw my first treefrog! Andy says that you haven’t been to Panama if you haven’t seen one. So fortunately now I can say that I have been in Panama for real!!

And last but not least there was also a lot of time to do fun stuff with my Gamboa friends. We went bowling, partying in the city, watching series and movies and playing tennis and volleyball. For the week I also went to Bocas del Toro with Josie and had a super fun time!

The upcoming weeks I will be working very hard on finishing my project. It will be a lot of recording sounds and videos, experimenting with different sounds, frequencies and other stimuli and combining this to a meaningful endproduct. Hopefully the ants will cooperate and will I be able to share something very special, a glimpse of one part of the Umwelt of a Leafcutter Ant. Can’t wait to unravel the secret life of Leafcutter ant 🕵️‍♀️ I will be back…

Lieke

My First Night Hike in the Rainforest!

I initially arrived to Panama at night; during the drive from the airport to Gamboa, I heard the sounds of the rainforest in the dark for the very first time, and I felt awe of nature wash over me.

A couple of weeks into my time here, Andy organized a night hike. Thinking back to how I felt during that first drive from the airport, I was super excited for the opportunity to explore the jungle in the dark.

And what an incredible night this was! I mean, just look at all the cool creatures we saw!!

A highlight of the hike was when the whole group took a couple of moments to turn all our lights and headlamps off, allowing our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Within a few moments, your eyes will read more details in your surroundings, and the layers of the forest start to form; slowly, you begin to see the canopy, then the stream banks, then people’s silhouettes. Eventually, fine details that you don’t expect start coming through, like stream pebbles and people’s faces!  

One of my greatest takeaways from this experience is how rejuvenating exposure to nature can be, even when the expedition seems daunting. I would be lying if I said I was not a little nervous going into the rainforest at night, but the experience was actually grounding and regenerative. Given that I grew up near the Red Sea, the closest thing I could compare this hike to is a scuba dive or snorkeling trip; you take your time to wander a novel, incredibly biodiverse environment, pointing out all the cool creatures that you spot to the rest of the group.  

I feel inspired by all the cool patterns and textures we saw – the slimy Red Eyed Tree Frog egg clutches, dark canopy silhouettes, and infinite frog color combinations. I’m looking forward to returning to the Dinalab and incorporating these elements of nature into my work.

-Serena

When Do We Choose a Disciplinary “Box”?

Serena – Research Update 1:

One of my research goals is to better understand what students in the natural sciences have to navigate when they are interested in transdisciplinary (TD*) experiences. To do so, I’ve been talking to students who have multidisciplinary interests and are curious about integrating that into their science. During some of these discussions, we’ve been drafting journey maps of our learning experiences. Some guiding questions included:  

At which points in your learning journey did you feel like you had to choose a discipline to “belong” to? When did you start learning or internalizing disciplinary demarcations between science, art, humanities, design, technology, etc…?

Below you can see some of the sketchnotes drafted from these discussions. Do any of these reflections resonate with you? Can you think of when you felt the need to pick a discipline to box yourself into?

*TD: stands for “transdisciplinary”, referring to that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline (Nicolescu, 1970)

Serena Joury

My name is Serena, and I’m the most recent addition to the Dinalab team of resident researchers! I’m a Palestinian Jordanian student at Drexel University (USA), and I’m incredibly lucky to be able to incorporate a three-month internship at the Dinalab for part of my undergraduate degree.

I’m looking forward to working with the Dinalab on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research in environmental science. My investigations primarily address the questions:

How can we empower students with the broad knowledge types needed to tackle complex sustainability issues? How do we teach and conduct environmental science when issues of rapid environmental degradation are intimately intertwined with social injustice, political disruption, and financial inequities?

This lab’s maker space in the rainforest is the ideal place for naturalists to diversify the lenses and skillsets used to approach environmental issues. For instance, I have been learning a lot about coding and Arduinos as tools for bringing humans closer to nature, and I look forward to seeing how these new skills inform my projects on science communication in the future.

Follow along to read about my reflections and process revelations in the jungle!

Taking time to play at DiNaLab

I was invited to spend two weeks in residency at DiNaLab in February. Ahead of my visit I had begun to meld my practices as a horticulturist and fiber artist into an exploration of crochet leaf studies. I decided to spend my time at DiNaLab furthering this exploration with the hope of making something new with the leaves. Kitty and I had been discussing the possibility of collaborating on a piece during my residency, as she is also a wonderful fiber artist. I love her amigurumi creatures and decided to make a home for some of them among a crochet leafy jungle. 

Fiber work can be a slow process (as can life) and I wasn’t able to make as many leaves as I would have liked. But in the end there were enough to make a nice home for a very cute sloth and a shimmery hummingbird, both knitted by Kitty. We made a headdress that one might wear as camouflage in the jungle or while rollerblading around Gamboa.  

I also learned a new skill at DiNaLab: using a laser cutter. I was really inspired by Andy and Kitty’s plastic projects. I love their keychain and earring designs and decided to take a crack at my own. Andy helped me create a two-layer papaya design to turn into earrings. I also repurposed some of Kitty and Andy’s existing designs to make new jewelry. I was able to pull off a mini collection in my time there and then got to collaborate with DiNaLab intern Lieke on a tropical photoshoot. 

DiNaLab was the perfect place to be after a very long and stressful pandemic experience in New York City. Each morning I sat in the yard with my coffee, watching the menagerie of critters: ñekes, toucans, chachalacas, iguanas, sloths, hummingbirds, and even one blue morpho butterfly who seemed to have a regular daily commute. I spent a lot of time staring at the leaves around me, noticing the subtle changes in colors, the curves in their forms, the way the light changed them completely. After two plus years of frantically trying to keep afloat during the pandemic, slowing that far down reset the chemistry in my brain. 

It’s rare to find folks as welcoming and supportive as Andy and Kitty. It was a delight to spend time making and talking about fiber art with Kitty. And being around Andy as he tinkers and explores his various projects was exciting and inspiring. Gamboa itself is an inspiring setting with the dense tropical forest and abundant wildlife. It was hard to find the emotional space to be creative during the worst of the pandemic. At DiNaLab I felt my head once again beginning to swirl with ideas. 

How To Become An Amateur Biologist 102

Hey everyone!

It is time for a new sequel on ‘how to become an amateur biologist’, edition 102! More and more I am becoming a true Gamboadian, but more importantly an amateur biologist! Little by little I start to recognize different birds’ songs, calls, colours and shapes and know how to name them. And I love it!! The same accounts for insects, butterflies and to a much lesser extent bats, all thanks to Kitty, Andy and my friends at STRI. At the animal rescue I am also learning so many fun facts about the sloths 🙂 Did you know that sloths are the only mammals whose hair grows downwards instead of to their extremities? No, me neither!

The past three weeks I have been working on multiple things. I have been gathering more information about agouti’s and bats. A few times I had the privilege to join STRI’s Bat lab on their netting expeditions, feeding training and experiments. Leonie, a bat scientist, has taught me so much about Trachops. Trachops are frog eating bats that locate the sound of the Túngara frogs, and with that the frogs itself, with echolocation. Even when the frogs have stopped croaking the bats know where to locate them because of the ripples they make in the water. So, very cool bats. Also, they also just get bonus points for being so darn cute.

Besides observing bats and agouti’s, I have been trying to study them by modelling something of their behaviour in P5js, an online JavaScript editor which allows you to program visually. I organised a small workshop where scientists got an introduction to this programme and got to try out their own ideas about their own subjects of study. Andy and I also reorganized the hardware room, so things are way easier to find now! 🙂

Next to my big project, I am also creating toys for the animals at the rescue center. Last week I, with the help of Andy and some residents at Adopta, have created a first prototype of a food enrichment toy for the spider monkeys. This toy is entirely made out of recycled plastic (besides the metal zip ties which connect the recycled pentagons)! I am very curious what the monkeys think of it, and whether the design works or not. Only time will learn. In the future I want to make other recycled plastic toys, for example cubes with bells, rocks or anything that can make sound. Monkeys love making noise, so I would love to make their life more noisy (and more irritating for us 😉). Serena, my new lab buddy, arrived last week and from the beginning she was thrown deep into the Dinalab hole. Together with Jessie, Andy, Serena and I we made a device where the strength of a butterfly can be measured!

Besides studying animals, programming and creating toys, I have had several very inspiring meetings with a few member of the Gamboa community. I met with Mulget Amaru. Yes that is right. It is the man who is running from Patagonia all the way to Alaska. Because of the pandemic his journey was being put on hold, and he stranded in Gamboa. He has told me some amazing stories about his adventures across the Americas, and he has taught me wonderful things about his home country Ethiopia. Next, Patricia and Yoel, besides being my neighbours and landlords, are two amazing artists which excel in different artistic disciplines such as piano, theatre and visual art. I have had some lovely talks with them over coffee and I hope there will be many more to come. Patricia and Yoel also brought me in contact with Grace. Grace is a writer and a poet. She writes amazing poetry based on her sharp and detailed scientific observations. I also came to know that her husband was Ray Solomonoff, one of the founding fathers of the field of Artificial Intelligence, which is so cool! Unfortunately, she was leaving in a few days since I met her, but she really has inspired me with her poetry and the amount of wisdom that she has. So, putting that in my back pocket for the future 🙂

Of course there was also lots of time to have fun in the past three weeks. I have been to a music festival, organised a potluck dinner party, went on a trip to Boquete and climbed Volcan Barú, sneaked up on the canopy tower, again had some nice sunset hangouts and ate pizza every week at the local bakery here. The next upcoming month I am going to experiment with Arduino and have lots of fun with it. Can’t wait to tell you more in ‘How to become an amateur biologist 103’!

Lieke

How To Become An Amateur Biologist 101

Hey everyone!

These past few weeks at Dinalab have just flown by. I have already seen so much amazing flora and fauna, met so many cool and nice people, and learned a lot about laser cutters, 3D-printing and plastic recycling. My first week here was mainly about settling down, exploring Gamboa and meeting the community. I went on my first hikes in the jungle and I also got to be acquainted with Teri, the plastic version of cookie monster and learned about p2 and p5 plastic. 

In my second week I started exploring and reading about the framework that is the basis of my project here, namely Umwelt. This concept concerns the subjective realities/worlds of other organisms. Every organisms’ world is constructed on the basis of its sensory perceptions and how they interact with their environment. In simpler worlds, I am interested in how other animals and organisms see, or rather experience, the(ir) world(s) and what these worlds look like. I hope to get a better idea of these worlds by studying and experimenting with them, and hopefully be able to create an output where people can experience these worlds themselves.

During this week, I also started volunteering at APPC and met Valencia the taipir, Lupe the nyeke, Lucy and Lucio the spider monkeys, Marco Antonio the tortoise and dozens of cute sloths. Furthermore, we went to the Mola museum, organised a bike repair with Andy, photographed and modelled for Chelsea’s cute selfmade earrings and had some nice sunset hangouts 😊

The third week was more about creating a plan for my project for the upcoming weeks and months. Together with Andy we created a plan and I filled in some form for my programme in Leiden. Andy and I started putting together the plastic extruder, went on a cool night hike and as icing on the cake I went to Coiba and Santa Catalina with lovely people from STRI.

In the fourth week, I started experimenting and studying my first organism in questions, the Leafcutter Ant. I learned about their pheromone trails, for example how they can be manipulated (😈) and that they can (at least) reach to 70 meters (🤯). Also it was interesting to see how well-organised the trails look from above, but when you start zooming in you see how every ant doesn’t really know what its doing; what a relief, they are just like us 😜. 99% of the time the ants will bump into each other, walk one way and then from one moment to the next the other way and they will carry leaves that are way too heavy which are dropped multiple times on the way. Fun fact: they also like chiliflakes and garlic.

This week I am learning more about bats and agouti’s, stay tuned!

Lieke

Lieke van Zijl

Hi everyone! I am Lieke and for the upcoming three months I will be a visiting researcher at Dinalab 🙂 My mission here is to fulfill my life long dream to become an (amateur) biologist, to learn more about trees and leaf cutter ants for example, and to combine this knowledge with my background in Media Technology. I hope to gain more skills in Arduino, 3D-printing and interaction design in general. For my own project, I am very much interested in how different animals and other organisms perceive their worlds, what these realities actually look like, and more importantly what we can learn from this. I just started with the project, so the concept and end product are still a mystery for me. However, I am super excited to work on it and see how and into what it develops!