Saturday, October 3, 2015

The question of productivity

OTS’s La Selva Biological Station is without a doubt one of the most enchanting places I have ever visited. From the magical bridge to the small patches of micro-ecosystems, the station erupts with life. In just one morning, I’ve been able to see three snake species, two monkey species, a two-toed sloth, and countless arthropods. It’s so easy to lose myself in the forest and forget about the work to be done, but then I wonder: am I not being productive by watching ants inhabit an orchid and witnessing plant-animal interactions?
The question of productivity carried throughout our faculty-led and then independent projects. We spent many hours sitting still watching cane toads hop on a treadmill and female Oophaga pumilio remain motionless in the presence of similarly silent males. Hearing about and chancing upon a wasp paralyzing and preying on an arachnid in a forest was very different than observing endless behavior trials. I had a feeling of near-disappointment, popped expectation-bubbles as I learned that the crazy parasitism interactions I appreciate in the field were actually discovered through tremendous, tedious hours of labor and failure.
For the independent project, my group spent approximately 30 hours constructing, deploying, and collecting over 300 Lepidopteran larvae models, trudging through layers of spider webs, mud swamps, voracious mosquitoes, the hot beating sun, rain storms, and mental fatigue—“I swear I put the caterpillar right there...” I quickly learned that physical AND mental tenacity were both requirements for being a biologist.
But 50 chewed-up models later, the sweet, sweet taste of results and then unexpected conclusions put a large band-aid over the toils of the previous week. Here were the fascinating interactions we learned about in class; here was the magic I observe in the field. Optimism tells me that the results were so satisfying only because of the intensive work we invested in our project, but on rainy days I admit that I still hold doubts about my ability to carry the burdens of a biologist. Regardless, my blind excitement has been fine-tuned into expectant gratification. I proceed with more wariness and a more tuned mind, but the joy and wonder at a long-waited discovery is arguably more fulfilling than fortuitous encounters.  
Jeanne Shi
Duke University

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