Greetings from Tena, Ecuador!

I’ve been slacking on the blog front. We’ve been here for two weeks, and I’m not quite sure how that happened so quickly.

It feels like we’ve been going non-stop since we arrived. The trip from Germany was surprisingly uneventful. We left Munich at ~6:30 am, had a short layover in Amsterdam, then it was about 11 hours from Amsterdam to Quito. There was mild panic checking in for the flight because the check-in lady was asking everyone for their negative covid test, which we didn’t have because it’s not required to enter Ecuador. Your proof of vaccination is enough. However, to enter and stay in the Netherlands, you need a negative test. Once we explained that our final destination was Ecuador, it was OK, but it didn’t make you feel good to watch other people be denied check-in and go in search of the airport testing center.

Other than that, it was smooth sailing. All of our 12 checked bags made it (!!!!), and our pre-arranged vans were already waiting when we arrived. About 3.5 hours and I don’t know how many switchbacks (🤢) later, we arrived in Tena!

Since then, we’ve been apartment hunting (more on that later), Shane, Lucie, and JosĂ© have been working to get their lab and butterfly space set up at the university, and we’ve been trying to figure out daily life here. I’m sure you can imagine, it’s quite different than Europe.

So, first impressions, you ask?

We need a Spanish class.

I mean, this may seem obvious, and we knew we would likely find fewer English speakers, especially since Tena is only ~30,000 people. However, we’ve been spoiled. In the Netherlands and in Germany, you can get by without speaking the language. Here, not so much. Luckily we’ve had an Ecuadorian (JosĂ©) and a Spanish speaker (Lucie) with us to help navigate.

The plus side is that our Spanish has improved more in the first two weeks of being in Ecuador than our Dutch/German in the Netherlands or Germany in the same amount of time. Granted, our Spanish is still very basic, but we can ask for things and ask how much they cost (and understand the price). Shane even navigated a taxi driver to our apartment! I call it a win.

Speaking of shops…

There is no such thing as a “one-stop-shop.”

You have hardware stores, fabric stores, plasticware stores, metal-kitchenware stores, appliance stores… so, you can imagine the frustration of trying to find the one specific item you need. We’ve been trying to furnish and organize our new apartment, and it took essentially a day of looking to find a coffee pot.

There are two nice markets, though, and the fruit and vegetable shops are amazing.

A fruit stand at the market.
Dragonfruit for $1 each!

We have lots of food to try!

There is so much great and new (to me) fruit! We haven’t eaten out too much since we’ve been focused on organizing life, but we have tried a few delicious things, like smoked tilapia and bolĂłn de verde, essentially a fried ball of green plantains with cheese or cheese and pork mixed in. Looks strange, tastes delicious.

Probably the best fish I’ve ever eaten.
A bolĂłn de verde, served with an egg and usually a coffee.

Quick tip for paying…

Cash is king.

We were told this about Munich, but you can get by with a card. Here, not so much. Obviously, I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but if you plan on coming to Tena, come with cash, and by cash, I mean American dollars (which is what they use here).

The surroundings are gorgeous!

Tena has been labeled a “gateway to the Amazon,” so we are surrounded by mountains and volcanoes!

The Sumaco volcano.
Some of the surrounding mountains.

The city itself is what I expected, which I’m not entirely sure how to describe. There is a lovely riverwalk with a tower and a great view!

The main street through Tena.
Rio Tena with the tower.
Views from the tower.

So, so far so good with no regrets!

Are there any “first impression” questions for us? Let me know!

Hasta luego,

Whitney

The adventure continues!

Six years ago, we moved to the Netherlands so that I (Shane) could complete a PhD.

Last March, I completed said PhD. Since that time, I’ve searched for a postdoc position while working as a freelance science editor. Why such a long job search? Well, there are a couple of issues:

  1. My research interests are very specific.
  2. I need a long-term position; most postdocs are 1-2 years, which complicates Whitney’s ability to find a job.
  3. The location needs to have options for Whitney to work (i.e., biotech).

As you can imagine, these stipulations have severely limited my options and, to be perfectly honest, caused me to reconsider my academic ambitions. Nonetheless, we persevered (I say we because Whitney continually supported and encouraged me) and we finally have good news to share –

I got a postdoc position!

Image result for the cat's out of the bag gif
Get it? The cat’s out of the bag…

In her last post, Whitney covered our recent train trip to Munich. What she purposely omitted from this story was that the trip wasn’t all fun and games (don’t worry, she’ll have a ‘fun times in Munich’ post soon enough).

In truth, I had an interview at Ludwig Maximilian University. To keep a long story short, the interview went well and I accepted the position!

Got the offer while we were still in Munich.

Safe to say, I am very excited for this position. Not only does it meet all of the requirements I listed above (my specific research interests, longer-term, and a good location), but it also fulfills additional ‘wants’ of mine. I’ll try to keep this as short as possible as I explain:

During my PhD, I studied how adaptation to the local environment can influence patterns of speciation and biodiversity. More specifically, I studied how visual adaptation affects behavior.

Why is this important?

Well, if you think of our our day-to-day lives, we humans are greatly influenced by our visual perception of the world. Vision influences the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the mates we choose, and whether or not we step in front of that on-coming bus. Thus, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that similar processes are important to other animals.

To this point in my research career, I have worked exclusively in fish model systems (threespine sticklebacks, zebrafish, African cichlids), as they are very amendable to studies of visual perception and behavior (fish have similar visual systems to humans). Obviously, it would make sense to continue within fish-based research for a postdoc position, as this plays to my expertise and comfort. However, postdocs are a time to expand and learn new techniques. Thus, we come to my new position at LMU.

I will continue to explore how the local environment influences visual perception and corresponding behaviors, but will expand to incorporate other sensory systems and aspects of neural anatomy. Excitedly, this project will not be fish-based, but focus on the Heliconius butterflies of Central and South America. Evolutionary biologists have studied these butterflies for nearly 150 years and, much like the African cichlids of my PhD, Heliconius represents a large radiation of multiple species that have adapted to differing environments. Thus, this project will challenge me to learn a new model system and to incorporate new variables into my research (e.g., chemosensory perception and the anatomy of the brain).

Image result for heliconius
image courtesy of: Wikipedia

The most exciting part of this project? It’s mostly field-based! Though I didn’t include this as a ‘requirement’ of a postdoc position, it was a strong desire. I’ve completed a fair amount of fieldwork over the past ten years (in British Columbia, Tanzania, and Corsica) and was hopeful I could continue to do. So, after a few months of organization in Munich, it’s off to Ecuador! Best of all, Whitney and Meatball will join!

That’s right, the whole clan is moving to Tena, Ecuador for 18-24 months!

At this point, details are still being worked out. For now, we know that I will start in early May and that we will need to find temporary housing in Munich. In ~July, we will move to Ecuador. Whitney has given her official notice at work and will finish up at the end of April. We’re not exactly sure what she will be doing in next ~2 years, but we’re hopeful she can find a remote position or, at the very least, work as a science editor as I have done for the past 6-7 months. Regardless, she’s not going to miss the opportunity to live in the rainforest for two years. After fieldwork, we will return to Munich for the remainder of the position (~2 more years), which should give Whitney ample employment opportunities (biotech is well-represented in Munich).

So, after a long period of relative quiet, the pace of life has picked up dramatically. Per tradition, we celebrated my new position with a trip to ‘t Pannekoekschip.

We’ve also started learning Spanish (we’re ignoring German language requirements for now) and will soon need to find apartments in Munich and Ecuador. As more details develop, life is sure to become even more hectic. Nonetheless, we’re excited. We’ve been anxiously awaiting our next move for a long time, so it’s fun to know that it’s finally happening!

Stay tuned for more updates. Up next, Whitney has plenty to say about her ‘independent woman day’ in Munich while I was interviewing.

Until next time,

Shane