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Study-abroad participants visit the COPEG lab. The students are holding an OSU flag in front of the building.
Study-abroad participants visit the COPEG lab: Rockny Pèrez Maisonave, assistant technical director of COPEG (back left); Pamela Phillips, technical director of COPEG-APHIS; Josè Uscanga, Justin Talley, William Lewis, Everett Daughtery, Lexi Cunningham, Desiree McGriff, Karen Hickman; Enrique Samudio, director-general of Panama; Robin Cooper (front left), Kaytie Cash, Delaney Jones, Melissa Reed, Abby Livingston and Gideon Morris. (Photo courtesy of José Uscanga)

Pokin' Around Panama

Monday, January 9, 2023

Media Contact: Kaitlyn Weldon | Digital Communications Specialist | 405-744-7063 |

Picture yourself in the middle of a Panamanian jungle so dark you cannot see your hands in front of your face.

Your tour guide asks your group to be quiet to enjoy the sounds of nature surrounding you in the darkness. For those few minutes, all you can hear are the hums of bugs and echoes of howler monkeys in the near distance.

For 12 Oklahoma State University students and three Ferguson College of Agriculture faculty, this memory is one they will never forget from their study-abroad trip to Panama.

In May 2022, these OSU students received an opportunity to study abroad in Panama, home to the only facility in the world with equipment to control a deadly, invasive pest known as the screwworm. Justin Talley, head of the OSU Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, and Karen Hickman, director of environmental science programs, led the trip.

“We planned this trip to introduce students to advanced biotechniques as a way to control an invasive pest,” Talley said. “Panama was also an ideal destination for a collaborative trip because of the diverse experiences available in the country.”

The 12 students who attended the trip represented various OSU Ferguson College of Agriculture disciplines, including animal and food sciences, entomology, environmental science, plant and soil sciences as well as integrative biology, Hickman said.

Screwworms, which are actually fly larvae, infect warm-blooded animals and feed on living flesh. The parasite devastated the North American cattle industry in the 1950s until the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared them fully eradicated from U.S. borders in the late 1960s.

In 1994, the USDA and the Ministry of Agricultural Development in Panama collaborated to eradicate the screwworm there. This collaboration led to the creation of the Commission for the Eradication and Prevention of Screwworms, referred to as COPEG.

This study-abroad trip was designed to be a collaborative experience among departments of the Ferguson College of Agriculture, much like the collaboration between the USDA and the Panamanian government, Talley said.

The COPEG lab, located in central Panama, uses radiation to sterilize the male flies because screwworms can mass produce by the millions. By releasing sterile males, reproduction is not an option, therefore controlling the screwworm population.

“Each experience in Panama provided something for each student, no matter their field of study,” Talley said. “Entomology students saw how sterilization is performed, while environmental science students witnessed the economic, environmental and cultural impacts the screwworm leaves in Panama.”

After sterilization, the flies are distributed across Panama and Colombia by plane to control populations and prevent outbreaks. Screwworms were eradicated to the Panama-Colombia border because the limited land mass serves as a natural barrier.

“The planes dispersing the flies are marked with the Panama emblem,” Talley said. “Because they are flying so close to Colombia, it is important for them to know it is not an enemy.

“Students got to hear little details like that, which make a huge difference and are so important,” Talley added.

Students visited Panamanian cattle ranches and interacted with farmers who implement sustainable ranching methods such as rotational grazing. Additionally, students visited the Smithsonian Tropical Research station on Barro Colorado Island for more of a biodiversity experience.

“It was really cool to see each student take something different away,” Talley said, “especially because we were all seeing the same things. But, because of their diverse interests and backgrounds, they all got something different out of each experience.”

The group traveled by van, departing at 4 a.m. most days as the majority of locations were hours away from their hotel, Hickman said.

“This trip was physically demanding,” Hickman said. “We hiked a lot of forests and visited so many places, but I never heard any complaining.”

Panama is home to the City of Knowledge, a business and technology park located across from the Panama Canal.

Many worldwide non-profit organizations are found in the City of Knowledge, Hickman said.

“I was impressed by the number of agencies and organizations in Panama doing good things,” Hickman said. “We were even able to see conservational practices put into place by volunteers.”

The OSU study-abroad group planted Pink Poui trees with the U.S. Embassy on roadsides that were once a forest. Endangered species conservation focused on species such as jaguars and frogs is also a priority in Panama.

“Water conservation efforts are also incorporated to reduce the amount of pollution in resources used for sustainable agriculture and habitat preservation,” Hickman said.

Kaytie Cash, an animal science sophomore, said her favorite part of the trip was visiting the island of Barro Colorado and the Smithsonian. The trip made her want to add a minor in natural resource ecology and management to her degree, she added.

“We were able to stay the night in the research dorms on Barro Colorado,” Cash said. “It’s incredibly humid there, so our rooms consisted of a mattress, a dehumidifier, a single pillow and a single sheet.

“It was the best night of sleep I’ve had in my life,” she added. “Think of the relaxing nature sounds you can download to fall asleep — that’s what it sounded like outside of my window.”

Cash chose this study abroad because it was the first time the course was offered in Panama. The culture of Panama also stood out because it is a “melting pot” of people.

“We ate at an authentic Italian restaurant one night,” she said, “but we had to order in Spanish.

“There was a lot of gesturing involved, but it was a really cool experience I don’t think could’ve happened anywhere else,” she added.

The vast amount of diversity in culture, nature and students is what stood out the most to Cash, and she learned just as much from her peers as she did from the group leaders and tour guides.

“I would see a plant and ask a plant and soil sciences student what kind of plant it was,” Cash said, “or if we saw a monkey, I’d grab the biology guy.

“We all knew different aspects pertaining to the trip because we’re all from different majors,” she added.

Everett Daugherty, a plant and soil sciences sophomore, enjoyed the relaxed lifestyle and culture in Panama. The humid, rainy weather was something students were not used to either, he said.

“We’re used to rushing around and being on time,” Daugherty said, “but the culture there was really laid back and tooktime to soak in the moments.”

During the trip, students made connections with not only each other but also learned about government agencies, cultural elements and agricultural practices. Planning of the trip began as a collaborative effort between departments, and the theme carried throughout the experience.

“From a faculty standpoint, I enjoyed seeing everyone build connections,” Talley said. “Some students grew up on aranch and others had never seen a calf before, but they each gained something from this trip.”

Join us!

People like Josè Uscanga, the multicultural programs coordinator for the OSU Ferguson College of Agriculture, make study-abroad trips possible.

“I always ask students what is holding them back from studying abroad,” Uscanga said. “It’s no surprise the main answer is money.”

Scholarships are available for study-abroad trips to help reduce the costs of flights, hotels and meals.

Studying abroad is more than a trip, Uscanga said. They are meant for students to learn while experiencing another country’s culture.

Study-abroad trips can be taken during winter, spring or summer break as well as a whole semester.

For more information about OSU Ferguson College of Agriculture study-abroad trips, visit

Story By: Macy Shoulders | Cowboy Journal

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