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ODU STUDENT SHARES HER VISION OF SNAKES

Julie Ray's deteriorating vision has left her unable to drive a car or use a high-powered microscope. But the Old Dominion University Ph.D. student in ecological sciences has not given up her dream to establish a center for the study of snakes and other wildlife in a remote jungle of Panama. Her adventures are the subject of an Associated Press news story that is appearing internationally this week in print, broadcast and online media.

During her Thanksgiving holiday, Ray will return to Panama, where she has spent a total of 15 months during the last two years, so she can do more field studies and advance her plans for a $1 million research facility in mountainous Coclé Province, about 125 miles from Panama City and the Panama Canal. Already, she and a few colleagues-including assistants she has trained from among the local population-have captured 667 snakes of 42 species, indicating that this jungle region may be one of the best places in the world to study snakes.

The 29-year-old woman has prevailed against great odds since she arrived in early 2006 at Panama's Parque Nacional General de Division Omar Torrijos Herrera. 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 the snake-rich territory that she needed to 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.

"Most of the people in the community where I live (El Copé is about five miles from the Parque Nacional) think I am 'loca' for working with snakes. Some of the kids said I was a 'bruja'-or witch-for working with snakes and frogs, especially because I go out at night to do the fieldwork." Her current main field assistant, Aurelio Gonzalez, sought her out, she says, because he wanted to be her guide. "But he had a fear of snakes, and it took him a month before he would capture one. Still, I really lucked out finding him. I owe many captures to my field assistants, but there are definitely nights when I out-catch them."

One snake that Ray is not trying to catch, but is definitely looking out for, is the Bushmaster, a viper that sometimes grows to be 13 feet long and is the largest venomous snake in the New World. She had heard tales about sightings of this viper in the park, but no scientist had recorded its existence there. Then came the evening in April 2007 when Ray stepped on something on a trail. "I didn't even see it at first. My field assistant saw it, a Bushmaster viper. Bushmasters usually only strike if you step on them or bother them, but this one didn't strike. We watched it and saw it curled up. It was about 8 feet long."

Ray has a plan in place for worst case scenarios. If she is bitten by a Bushmaster, for which no antivenom exists near the park, she would be rushed by her driver to a hospital a couple of hours away and probably then flown by helicopter to a hospital in Panama City or Costa Rica. If she were to be bitten by a venomous snake more common in Panama, for example, the ill-tempered Fer-de-Lance, she could be driven to a local clinic for treatment with antivenom.

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."

Snakebites are a job hazard that Ray accepts with a shrug. So far her bites-which she describes as "frequent"-have been from nonvenomous snakes or the rear-fanged venomous snakes that do not administer venom in most defensive bites. "I usually don't do anything with the bite," she says. "Some of the watersnake bites would bleed a good deal because of an anticoagulant in their saliva, but it is very similar to getting nipped by a cat or a puppy. It really doesn't hurt most of the time."

Although her neighbors in Panama know about her work, she says only a few know about her reduced vision. "It's not unusual for somebody like me to have a driver. So the matter doesn't come up."

Her vision problems started when she was 4 and a rare genetic form of macular degeneration-Best's Macular Dystrophy-left her mostly blind in her right eye. Her vision in her left eye was normal through high school and she had no trouble compensating for the loss. But the macular degeneration struck her left eye the year she started college at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

"When I began my freshman year, my left eye lost acuity in three months, something that is pretty rare among Best's patients," she says. The hastened progress of her condition is a mystery, she adds, because her symptoms typically only show up in Best's patients who are 70 or older.

Ray dropped her water resources/aquatic insects major because she couldn't handle the intensive work with a microscope, but she stuck with biology and learned to cope with her inability to read a chalkboard, or even to see PowerPoint slides. The Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provided her with special training and low-vision computer resources and has continued to support her research by paying for her driver and research assistant in Panama. "Also, I've had amazing professors, advisers and, now, students who have made all sorts of arrangements and accommodations for me," Ray says.

She earned a master's degree in biological sciences from Northern Illinois University-studying endangered snakes around Lake Erie with NIU faculty member Richard King-before coming to ODU to work with Alan Savitzky, professor of biological sciences and an internationally known herpetologist. He is one of the authors of the widely used textbook, "Herpetology," that was first published in 1998.

"Julie works incredibly hard at her science, and she interacts widely with colleagues both nationally and internationally," Savitzky says. "Her research at the master's and doctoral levels has been of keen interest to biologists with interests in ecology and evolutionary biology.

"Interestingly," her adviser added, "few of her colleagues are aware of her visual impairment, and even those individuals who have worked with Julie in the lab or field are surprised when they learn that her vision is so limited. Instead of her visual impairment, Julie's colleagues see only her confidence, determination and high-quality scientific research."

Savitzky says Ray is adept at identifying research opportunities and is skilled in designing both field and laboratory studies. "The work she is conducting now in Panama will set a new standard for studies of tropical snake communities, and her plans to establish a research station in the national park will benefit both science and conservation in that rapidly transforming nation," he says.

Marjorie Blaschko, the counselor with the Wisconsin DVR who has worked with Ray, calls her "fearless" and predicts that she can be an inspiration to young people. "Julie is proof that you can come from a small town and a family of modest means and overcome obstacles to achieve your goals. Julie's obstacle happens to be a visual impairment, but all of us face obstacles. We just need to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves."

In November, the Wisconsin DVR gave Ray its 2007 Career Achievement Award.

Parque Omar, where Ray intends to build the research center, is named for Omar Torrijos, the military and political leader of Panama who died when his aircraft crashed in the park in 1981. "The people revere him and they say his spirit is in the park," she says. She believes that this reverence helps protect the park and may even aid her in establishing the research center because people feel this area is important to the history of Panama.

Ray admits that a lot of resources have to be tapped before the research center can be built. So far she has won commitments and support from the University of Panama and park officials. The center even has a name, La Montaña para Investigacion y Conservation Ambiental (La MICA), which translates to The Mountain for Research and Environmental Conservation. She especially likes the name because "mica" is the local name for a snake found in the region.

"I am in charge of seeking funding and designing the station, and will serve as the director upon completion," she says. "This is a huge project and will be far from easy, but it is an ideal career for me. I can conduct research while helping to educate local children and researchers from around the world on the tropical forest. The station will be pretty much run by the local people and will benefit the poor communities surrounding the park on many levels."

Her work now is funded by small grants from a variety of organizations, including the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Chicago Herpetological Society, Sophie Danforth Conservation Biology Fund and the North Carolina Herpetological Society. She also has received supplements from the National Science Foundation to grants awarded to Savitzky. More funding possibilities will be open to her after she receives her Ph.D., which she says will be sometime in 2008.

This article was posted on: November 20, 2007

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