Every other year Butler University students, primarily those in the biological sciences, apply to take a two-week course in Panama allowing them the opportunity to work with world renowned researchers and scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

STRI, founded in 1923, is dedicated to understanding tropical biodiversity and is home to 38 staff scientists and supports 900 visiting scientists annually. Collectively, the work of STRI scientists and the location and quality of STRI’s facilities, has resulted in STRI becoming one of the premier research institutions in the world.

“The staff scientists who work at STRI, essentially the faculty, are top-notch, world renowned researchers and we thought giving our students access to them would be pretty phenomenal,” Travis Ryan, Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences, and one of the two faculty members who lead the trips, said.

The partnership with STRI formed about 10 years ago when Frank Levison ’75, Ph. D. established the Sciences Opportunity Endowed Fund. The income from the fund provides for equipment replacement and repair, faculty and student travel, undergraduate research, and scholarships to recruit high-quality science students.

“We run the class in the summer and use funds from the endowment to defray the costs of the trip for students,” Ryan said. “If you were to take a summer course on campus, it would be about $2100 for a 4-credit hour class. Last summer when we took the students there we charged them $2300. So for an additional $200 dollars, students got air fare, accommodations, and 85% of their meals covered for two weeks in Panama.”

Prior to leaving, students meet once a week for a semester covering the basics so when they arrive in Panama they are able to focus on experiential learning.

“We don’t see a lot of value in traveling a quarter of the way around the world to sit in a classroom. So if we do hear a lecture, it’s from a guest speaker,” Ryan said.

While abroad, students spend time meeting with staff researchers, graduate students, field technicians, visiting field sites, and tagging along on research trips. Oftentimes the students’ days begin at 6:00 AM and usually go to 10:00 PM.

“It’s a pretty intense couple of weeks, but the endowment makes it possible,” Ryan said.

Since the program’s beginnings in 2008, Butler has sent around 70 students to Panama.

In addition to the course, Butler students have the opportunity to complete a 3-month long internship in Panama working with STRI scientists. There have been around 15 students who have completed internships at STRI site in Panama and Butler continues sending about two students a year. 

“Interns become part of a research lab,” Ryan said. “In addition to contributing to a bigger overarching project, they normally have a project they’re in charge of—one of the first students we sent there was dissecting the brains of ants.”

Other research projects students have worked on include studying frog mating behavior both in the field and in acoustic chambers. Ryan explained over the last several years, a number of students have been sent to work in Rachel Page’s bat lab to work on various aspects of bat communication and ecology.

Carmen Salsbury, Professor of Biological Science and one of the people in charge of overseeing Butler’s STRI student internships added, “The STRI experience has proven to be quite transformative for our students. Several of our past STRI interns have leveraged their experiences to land positions in some of the top graduate programs in the country.”

It’s been made clear to both Ryan and Salsbury that the relationship with STRI is not only beneficial for Butler and its students, but for STRI as well. Ryan explained a commonality between the two programs at Butler is that students often leave a lasting impression on the researchers at STRI.

“Our interns have a great reputation among STRI researchers,” Ryan said. “The fact that we keep sending people to Rachel Page’s lab is because she’s always impressed with what she gets out of our students when they’re down there.”

Ryan concluded by saying, “The partnership with STRI is really a great program. It’s a fantastic opportunity for our students and one that you’d be hard pressed to find at other institutions.”