Bare feet and machetes: When the jungle is your laboratory

Biology student Selah Phillips collects algae at the Pacora River. She hopes the oil she has extracted from the algae can be processed into sustainable biodiesel. (Maddie Burakoff/Medill)

By Maddie Burakoff

The biology department of the Kalu Yala Institute looks a little different from a traditional research lab. Bare feet and gym shorts suffice instead of lab coats and goggles. Rather than scalpels or X-Acto knives, students pick up machetes to make their way through the brush and pluck up specimen samples. And, in place of a classic laboratory space filled with spotless counters and sanitized equipment, the “classroom” consists of open-air wooden ranchos in the heart of Panama’s rainforest.

Out here among the towering fronds and scurrying iguanas, Selah Phillips is taking advantage of one of the natural resources that abounds in the humid environment: algae. The 20-year-old plant enthusiast, on a semester abroad at Kalu Yala from Millersville University in Pennsylvania, has made it her mission to take the green filaments and turn it into green energy. By extracting oil from the organisms, which grow freely on the rocks in the nearby Pacora and Iguana Rivers, she believes she can produce a source of biodiesel to serve as an alternative to polluting fossil fuels.

“On a global scale, research on biodiesel enables us to deindustrialize, decentralize, and bring more income back to the community,” she says during a presentation for other Kalu Yala students. “Just save our environment in the long term.”

Those at Kalu Yala have taken it upon themselves to create a fully sustainable eco-city that can serve as a model for a more environmentally friendly future. The city in the making also hosts an “Institute,” which enrolls students — many of them on a semester abroad from colleges and universities — to work on projects from tiny house architecture to agroforestry. They’re hoping to find solutions to the biggest environmental issues of our time, all in the span of 10 weeks.

Phillips and her fellow “Kalu Yalans,” as they are fond of calling themselves, may miss out on some of the resources and credibility they’d find at a more standard university. But the unique nature of the program gives them unprecedented independence and access to the riches of the surrounding environment, a wellspring of biodiversity that often goes ignored by international researchers and underutilized by a national government that is decreasing its spending on research and development.

This past spring semester, Kalu Yala’s biology department consisted of three people: two students and program director Ryan King, who serves as lecturer, lab adviser, mentor, and everything in between. All of them had come from U.S. universities. And, during their time in the jungle, all had created projects uniquely suited to the setting, which could have real implications for the future of sustainability.

If, that is, they can successfully bring their ideas with them in their return to the “real world.”

Fueling the future

For Phillips, the social media-savvy Kalu Yala had been on her online radar long before she ever decided to make the journey there herself. An earlier project to create sustainable ponds for growing tilapia had put the eco-city on her map as a place where innovative environmental work was happening. After following Kalu Yala’s work for three or four years, Phillips said she decided to head to the jungle to see it for herself.

The journey, she said, represented an opportunity to challenge herself and be out in the field without the regular guidelines of the university curriculum.

And the project she picked out put her adaptability to the test. Though the algae was free for the taking, the makeshift jungle “laboratory” lacked a lot of the supplies and equipment she took for granted at her university. So, with King’s help, Phillips found ways to make do with what she could find.

To get the coveted vegetable oil out of the algae for biodiesel, King said he and Phillips needed a chemical solvent to break the oil from the cells it was locked inside. The two decided to start with methyl alcohol, already available as a waste product from the onsite rum distillery, and combine it with homemade chloroform.

“That was really awesome and really exciting because as far as research that we know of, it's the first time using house-made solvents — like solvents that we actually made in house, on our own — to produce biodiesel,” Phillips said

algae
Spyrogyra algae collected at the river. Phillips said this filamentous type algae was the most commonly found at Kalu Yala, but that another species, ulva intestinalis, produced more oil. (Maddie Burakoff/Medill)

Eventually, King said he wants to work on growing “massive amounts” of algae and phase out some of the diesel power being used at Kalu Yala, like in the backup generator and possibly vehicles as well.

On her end, Phillips plans to try to get the research published and see if she can continue the project at her university. King says there’s still research to be done in figuring out the most efficient way to produce oil, streamlining factors like the algae species and extraction methods. Phillips said she’s also considered returning to Kalu Yala as a teaching assistant.

No matter where her plans take her, though, Phillips said she is dedicated to the pursuit of a greener tomorrow. To create a sustainable future, she said new technology has to be based in an understanding of biological science.

“That's all chemistry. That's all biology that's being understood to create those things,” Phillips said. “So I think it's at the base of reversing climate change and implementing sustainability, because sure, sustainability might seem more like a practical idea, more applicable. But I think it takes knowledge of science and the earth and the ecosystem to apply.”

Sustainable soldiers

While Phillips was looking to the river for resources, her fellow biology intern Jules Hart had her eye to the sky.

Hart, a 20-year-old biology student from the University of Nevada, is the animal lover of the bunch. Her project took on sustainability from the other end: While Phillips’ natural biodiesel aimed to prevent waste, Hart’s focused on breaking it down more efficiently. And the tools she used to accomplish that? A colony of living, breathing — and, most of all, eating — black soldier fly larvae.

“Basically in the developmental stage, like when they're larvae, their sole purpose is to eat decaying matter,” Hart said of the species. “So they're perfect for eating rotting food.”

The larvae act as decomposing machines, effectively devouring even the tough scraps that won’t compost easily. After weeks of trying in vain to attract enough flies for a functioning system, Hart said she finally was able to establish a colony near the end of her semester, and since has collected thousands of larvae in a wooden structure into which she periodically dumps buckets of kitchen scraps.

Though she realizes the teeming mass and putrid garbage smell might put others off, Hart says the flies — which she often refers to as her “babies” — are a beautiful discovery for sustainable waste disposal. Adult flies don’t carry disease vectors, she said, and since they only live long enough to reproduce (about a week), they won’t mess with the ecosystem or become a nuisance to the community. Also, once the larvae reach the pupation stage, they become a “little bite of protein” that can be fed to Kalu Yala’s chicken or tilapia.

Jules Hart on her fly project
Jules Hart presents her project to her fellow Kalu Yala students. Hart successfully established a black soldier fly colony during her 10 weeks in the jungle, but has now left the larvae in the hands of future interns. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

Hart said the project and her entire stay at Kalu Yala were transformative for her. She came into the experience a little bit unfocused — she hadn’t been fully applying herself to her studies at school, she said, and living thousands of miles from her family and boyfriend took a toll on her emotional state.

But the time in the jungle, in addition to giving her insight into sustainable systems, also taught Hart a lot about herself – like the fact that she wants to be a teacher (she called her school from Kalu Yala to add a major in education). And while she’s not sure of how to implement the moisture-loving larvae back in her hot and arid hometown of Reno, Nevada, Hart said at the very least she’ll be taking home a renewed passion for her studies.

“Being here and being in the nature and just really being in the middle of the biodiversity and just in the jungle, it's totally rekindled my love for biology,” Hart said. “Out here traveling alone, getting here alone, being that emotionally vulnerable … it just helped me get to know myself and my limits and my strengths and weaknesses.”

Keeping the momentum

Despite the wealth of biological resources in the rich rainforest ecosystem, King said he and his students are part of only a small group of researchers working in the Panamanian jungle and similar tropical regions.

“Biodiversity tends to go up near the equator,” King said. “There's a lot of issues all over the world and in other parts in the tropics. … Not many people pay scientists or researchers to go out and document species.”

For an institute focused on sustainability, though, Kalu Yala hasn’t always succeeded at sustaining its own progress. As students come and go every 10 weeks, projects can get left behind; hopeful innovations fall into disrepair as new cohorts of students bustle in with their own ideas.

Hart said her black soldier fly colony was actually in part a reincarnation of a project that had been attempted in prior years. The structure she uses to house her larvae had been built by a former Kalu Yalan with a similar plan, but the concept had been abandoned once its originator moved on from the jungle. She’s created a detailed manual for maintaining the black soldier fly colony, which she said will involve only minimal effort. Still, the fate of her passion project lies in the hands of future interns, who will likely be preoccupied with their own big goals.

And when students leave, projects that at the time seem to have promising futures tend to stop maturing at 10 weeks. King said none of his former students have gotten published with the work they began at Kalu Yala, though he hopes that will change with Phillips’ algae research.

Tara McLaughlin, the president of the Kalu Yala Institute, said continuity has been an issue in the past. She and other leaders are working to provide more support for interns so they can grow their projects beyond their brief semesters in the jungle.

“We're going to start pushing into publication, trying to get accreditation (in partnership with a university),” McLaughlin said. “I would like to start opening up a more research station facility type thing, so getting independent researchers from universities down to be doing research and publishing and getting our name out there as a real academic powerhouse.”

Even for those far from the lush canopy of the rainforest, Hart said there is still work to be done. While the natural world might be more obvious at a place like Kalu Yala, she said biodiversity can and should be noticed anywhere in the world. If we as a species truly want to move toward a more sustainable lifestyle, Hart believes it’s essential that we pay more attention to the richness of life that is everywhere we go.

“Biodiversity is all around us. I mean, it is nature. It's every plant, every animal, everything that you're hearing and smelling and seeing is life and biology,” Hart said. “So, of course it has to be considered when we're trying to think about living in this type of environment and … living with the Earth rather than living off it.”


About the author: Medill student Maddie Burakoff can be reached at mburakoff@u.northwestern.edu and on Twitter @madsburk.

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