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ODU Community Raises Money for Research Station in Panama

Julie Ray

Students and professors in the biological sciences department at Old Dominion University have boosted the hopes of Julie Ray, who will receive her Ph.D. in ecological sciences from ODU later this year and then work full time toward her goal to open a research station in the remote mountains of Panama.

Ray, whose deteriorating vision has not stopped her research with jungle snakes in Panama, has been the subject of several media reports, including one Associated Press article that was distributed worldwide.

Last week, during a break from her work in Panama and while on the ODU campus in Norfolk, she spoke to three biology classes to explain her plans and to seek financial support for the jungle station.

The team she is leading to develop the research station had been trying to raise $3,500 toward the construction of a student dormitory, and Ray said that before she got to ODU last week only about $2,500 had been raised.

With some students donating pocket change and one giving $50, and with one professor offering to match the donations of her 300-person class, the ODU community chipped in $1,269.33 to the cause, Ray said.

"In a time when we are met with economic despair, and little good news in the light of conservation, I am proud to see students stepping up and getting excited about a project located in Panama and helping people they have never met," Ray said. She said that someday soon she hopes to be able to invite ODU students to visit her station for internships, volunteer projects and a variety of research opportunities.

The young researcher spent time in Panama's Parque Nacional General de Division Omar Torrijos Herrera in Cocle Province while doing her doctoral research, and she developed the dream to open a research station there. Earlier this year she became director of the fledgling La MICA Biological Station, and has worked through public and private sources to raise money for it.

The station is designed to benefit not only biologists, but also people working in medicine, history, culture and art. Furthermore, Ray said, it will benefit the impoverished local people by providing employment.

During the past three years, Ray has spent more than 24 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 30-year-old woman has prevailed against great odds in her chosen field of research. 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.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the station or to donate money can visit www.lamica.org or send an e-mail to la.mica@yahoo.com.

This article was posted on: October 5, 2009

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