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Taking the Bull by the Horns

USC Dornsife undergraduate Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal took the initiative and landed a prestigious internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama this summer conducting underwater research.

Environmental studies undergraduate Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal is in Panama for a summer internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In underwater research, he is collecting data to assess the health of coral reef communities in the Bocas del Toro archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Photo by Eleni Petrou.
Environmental studies undergraduate Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal is in Panama for a summer internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In underwater research, he is collecting data to assess the health of coral reef communities in the Bocas del Toro archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Photo by Eleni Petrou.

Wielding a machete one day this summer, Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal slowly but surely bushwhacked his way through dense, humid Panamanian jungle. From their tree perches, three-toed sloths looked down at the commotion.

Pedroarena-Leal was at Isla Escudo de Veraguas, a pristine, remote and largely uninhabited island used primarily as a stopover for anglers during fishing season. The USC Dornsife undergraduate is in Panama on a summer field research internship at the Bocas Del Toro Research Station, part of the prestigious Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

That day, he was helping a researcher friend collect poison dart frogs and viper snakes to analyze and photograph. Since his own research is ocean-based, he wasn’t completely prepared for the jungle’s intensity.

“I didn’t expect we’d be bushwhacking through it for six hours that day, so I showed up that morning in a tank top and short board shorts!” he recalled. “Luckily I brought rain boots, but I had all sorts of weird spiders and grasshoppers coming out of them throughout the day.

“It was really eye-opening as far as what scientific researchers endure in the field, all for the sake of science.”


Pedroarena-Leal is seeing many three-toed sloths, a tree-living mammal that flourishes in the jungles of Central America, during his summer research internship in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Photo by Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal.

But Pedroarena-Leal is spending most of his time underwater. In Panama, he is part of a three-person team led by renowned marine scientist Harilaos Lessios and researcher Eleni Petrou. He will be in Panana until mid-August, collecting data to assess various environmental changes including temporal changes and their effect on coral reefs in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea.

Pedroarena-Leal, a senior this Fall majoring in environmental studies and economics and minoring in entrepreneurship through USC Marshall School of Business, is one of two undergraduate researchers at the entire Bocas del Toro-based institute this summer.

“It’s an honor to be here, since most everyone else is either a Ph.D. student or professional researcher. There are people from all over the world doing a variety of field research — every morning everyone gets up really early, makes their lunches and heads out to the field.”

Bocas del Toro (Mouths of the Bull) is a region featuring islands, bays, mangroves, rivers and forested mountains with a rich diversity of marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Pedroarena-Leal and his colleagues are there to quantify biotic changes that have occurred in the coral reef and marine invertebrate communities in light of increasing urban development and other anthropogenic changes, comparing current data they are collecting to data from the same sites in 2004.

Much of the damage to coral reefs there is the result of accelerating tourism, pollution and deforestation related to land development, said Pedroarena-Leal. The heavy rainfall routes sediments into the water, where they deflect sunlight and rob the reefs of sufficient light needed to flourish.

He is also traveling around Panama, exploring the local culture. During one excursion, he took a 13-hour bus trip, followed by one hour on boat to reach Isla de Coiba, an island reserve and national park with pristine beaches for surfing and diving among fish and coral reefs.

Pedroarena-Leal learned about internship opportunities at STRI through his professor and mentor David Ginsburg, assistant professor of environmental studies at USC Dornsife. Thanks to his initiative in investigating and applying for the opportunity, Pedroarena-Leal was rewarded with an ideal research experience.

“I applied for a few internships at STRI and got several responses, but this was the one I was most interested in based on my love of ocean diving and prior experience studying coral reefs. I enjoy working in the field in an environment I’m familiar with, and I love getting out there and being really involved with my work.”

Pedroarena-Leal took Ginsburg’s “Water and Soil Sustainability” course last Fall, and Ginsburg quickly noticed the undergraduate’s maturity and ability to think in terms of the big picture. In addition to these attributes, Ginsburg wanted to encourage the dual Mexican-United States citizen in the sciences, which tends to be a predominately white field. The internship would be an excellent opportunity for Pedroarena-Leal, who can bring new insights to the field, Ginsburg said.

“Harilaos Lessios is a really well-known coral reef biologist, and to be able to say you’ve worked with him is an amazing thing,” Ginsburg continued. “The connections you make at a prestigious place like STRI are pretty invaluable. Iñaki did exactly what many people don’t do, which is to look at the great wide open and go for it. I’m really proud of him.”

Pedroarena-Leal is an experienced traveler, spending previous summers backpacking in Belize and Costa Rica. In 2012, the San Diego and Baja California native participated in the four-week “Problems Without Passports: Scientific Research Diving” course in Guam and Palau, which was co-led by Ginsburg and Jim Haw, the Ray R. Irani, Chairman of Occidental Petroleum, Chair in Chemistry, professor of chemistry and director of environmental studies.

During that course, Pedroarena-Leal honed his diving skills and learned about the effects of climate change on coral reefs, human health issues, fisheries management, and invasive and endangered marine species.

“That trip was one of the most singular experiences I’ve had at USC, and probably a major factor in my selection for this internship at STRI. It allowed me to observe the marine ecosystem in a whole new light, which is important to me on a personal level.”

Pedroarena-Leal is adept at merging his professional and personal interests. The fourth generation in a family of agriculturalists in Tecate, Mexico, he is keenly interested in aquaculture and wants to advance the food production industry directly by developing new models that are economically efficient and environmentally sustainable.

“I want to mesh my family’s history of traditional agriculture with my love for the ocean, incorporating traditional elements from land-based agriculture with newer techniques related to aquaculture. Personally, I’d like to turn my family’s agricultural production into a sustainable, aquaponics-based operation and really develop the first economically feasible model.”

Aquaponics is a sustainable model of food production based on the symbiotic relationship between aquaculture, raising aquatic organisms such as fish, snails and prawns in tanks, and hydroponics, the cultivation of plant life in water rather than soil.

“Being fourth generation, I think it’s important to follow family tradition, and I thought, ‘what better way to do this than to combine my majors at USC with my family’s farming legacy.’

“I’m coming to a great point at USC where my majors and minor have come together beautifully and hopefully they manifest themselves in the near future.”