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ODU Doctoral Student Pursuing Her Dream in Panama

Julie Ray, the Old Dominion University doctoral student in ecological sciences who has refused to let her deteriorating vision derail her studies of jungle snakes and frogs, was back in Norfolk in December drumming up support for a research station she is founding in Panama.

Ray successfully defended her Ph.D. research on Dec. 18 and is making suggested changes to her dissertation, which will allow her to receive her doctorate in May. She has been advised by Alan Savitzky, professor of biological sciences.

But while back on campus after spending most of 2008 in Panama, she also was focused on her plans for the research station in that country's Parque Nacional General de Division Omar Torrijos Herrera. She revealed plans nearly a year ago for an elaborate $1 million station that she had taken initial steps to build in conjunction with the Panamanian government. Her work was the subject of an Associated Press news story that was distributed worldwide.

Now, she said, she has decided to scale back her plans so she can keep her proposed La Montaña para Investigacion y Conservation Ambiental (La MICA) a private and locally run facility. She likes the name La MICA-in English it stands for The Mountain for Research and Environmental Conservation-because "mica" is the local name for a snake found in the region.

"During my time there last year, the local people and I decided to make La MICA a private entity within the park," she said. "This will ensure that we can keep the money locally, directly benefitting the station, the park and the local communities. We have reduced the cost to about $100,000, including materials, general furnishings and wages for the local people."

The decision to downsize and stay local was helped along by a Panamanian lawyer who volunteered his services, she said. "After hearing about the project, he helped us with all steps for free. We now have a nonprofit foundation set up in Panama that will oversee the station, can accept tax-deductible donations, apply for grants and be able to offer scholarships."

More about La MICA can be found at www.lamica.org

News stories a year ago noted Ray's determination to continue her snake studies even though her eyesight is so poor she cannot drive a car. They also told of her dream to establish La MICA and become its first director.

During the past three years, Ray has spent more than 20 months in Panama. She and the helpers she has trained have captured more than 700 snakes, which are evaluated as part of ecological studies and then released.

The 29-year-old woman has prevailed against great odds since she arrived at the Parque Omar, named for the late Panamanian leader. She is blind in the center of her right eye. In her left eye she has lost nearly all of her central vision, leaving her mostly colorblind and with blurred remaining vision. She also spoke little Spanish when she first tried to explain to the park's officials and residents of the nearby village of El Copé why she was there. Based on tips she had gotten from fellow herpetologists, she believed the park might be a snake-rich territory that would promote her research.

Today, Ray speaks Spanish with ease, she has come to be known as the Parque Omar's unofficial biologist, she is invited to lecture about ecology at Coclé Province schools and she has performed enough barehanded captures of her prey to prove that the territory is, indeed, teeming with snakes. Those captures, and the fact that most of them are accomplished at night in the jungle, have gotten the attention of locals, she said.

The focus of Ray's research is a group of nonvenomous mollusk-eating snakes of the genera Dipsas and Sibon. Of special interest to her currently are the Sibon, which depend on frog eggs to augment their diet. But a fungal skin disease called chytridiomycosis that has moved into Central America has been killing frogs in the park since 2004 and no one is sure what may happen to the Sibon, and ultimately to other wildlife, if the frogs die out.

"I usually explain to people of the region about how the frogs are dying and that I am studying the snakes so we can also understand how the loss of frogs will affect mammals and birds," she says. "They think that is fine, but they still cannot believe that I touch snakes."

The station, as proposed by Ray, will have labs as well as guest rooms for eco-tourists who may want to visit the remote park.

This article was posted on: January 5, 2009

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