The SFS Center for

Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies




Located on Isla Colón, the Center sits on a quiet waterfront a short distance from Bocas Town. Snorkeling, paddle boarding, and swimming are all just steps away, and the sounds of frogs, birds, and howler monkeys fill the air around the Center. The formal classroom is located over the water, while the region’s coral reefs, rainforests, and beaches provide myriad opportunities for applied learning throughout the island system.

Established in Bocas Town in 2012, the Center has quickly become known as a reliable source of information for a range of stakeholders – from business owners and boat drivers to local officials, school and government authorities, village leaders, and expats.  

Issues we focus on


SFS Panama
Semester Program

Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies

In this dynamic terrestrial and marine semester program, examine natural island systems and how they are managed. Learn about the interdependence of livelihood strategies, population structure of key species, and habitat conditions, and apply that knowledge to sustainability and management strategies. Learn More
Fall 2018


August 27 - December 5

Spring 2019


January 28 - May 8

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Summer Session I

Tourism and Tropical Island Ecosystems

Examine the human dimensions and environmental impacts of tourism in Bocas del Toro’s tropical paradise. Learn More
Summer 2019


June 3 - July 3

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Who We Are

The Center is led by research scientist and faculty member Dr. Cinda Scott. Dr. Scott is from Massachusetts, USA, and has been studying tropical marine ecosystems in Central America since 1998. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Miami in 2009. The Center’s faculty includes Leon Mach, Ph.D. (Environmental Policy), Leonor Ceballos, M.S. (Natural Resource Management), and Carolyn Kovacs, M.S. (Tropical Coastal Ecology).

Featured Staff

Ormelio Dixon Brown

Site Manager, Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies

According to students, the Center is very open, welcoming and friendly. Ormelio, they say, is at the heart of it all.

Ormelio manages site operations at the Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies. In his role as site manager, he coordinates maintenance of vehicles and boats, manages procurement, oversees expense accounting, and assists with coordinating field excursions. Born and raised in the community of Boca del Drago on the island of Colón, Ormelio has great knowledge of the people, culture, and local biodiversity.

Read more about Ormelio

Our Research

The Center is located on the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, a biologically diverse grouping of islands encompassing mangrove forests, coral reefs, lowland humid tropical rainforests, and seagrass meadows. The archipelago supports a great abundance of birds, monkeys, turtles, sloths, butterflies, arachnids, and the distinctive poison dart frog.

However, increased tourism has resulted in biodiversity loss and has greatly impacted the management and use of natural resources in the region. Poor infrastructure and enforcement of development regulations are degrading the very habitats and natural resources that draw tourists to Bocas. Unregulated tourism is also impacting local ways of life, especially for indigenous residents, and is affecting how people connect with their environment, thereby compromising the stewardship of critical habitats and key natural resources.

The objective of the Center is to provide to local clients and stakeholders with reliable information and considered advice on environmental conservation and natural resource management. Our research in Bocas del Toro has already revealed patterns and processes at the nexus of biodiversity, conservation, and human welfare that merit ongoing study.

Key Research Examples
  • Efficacy and impact of the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park on humans and the natural environment
  • Quantification of anthropogenic effects on biodiversity in marine and terrestrial environments
  • Effects of rainforest modification on insect, bird, and frog population diversity
  • Impacts of development on the diversity and abundance of fish, birds, spiders and insects in mangrove forests
  • Evaluating local stakeholders’ perspectives to parse out the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park governance.
Select Publications

Eggers-Piérola, C., August, B., Scott, C. P., Brown, P., & Lansiquot, R. D. (2016). Promoting an Interdisciplinary Campus Culture. In R. D. Lanisquot (Ed.), Technology, Theory, and Practice in Interdisciplinary STEM Programs: Connecting STEM and Non-STEM Approaches (pp. 107-124): Palgrave Macmillan US.

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The trip to beautiful Isla Zapatillas incorporated three of our five classes in the field.

One group followed a boardwalk through the rainforest, while the other group explored the coral reef in snorkel gear. Then we conducted interviews to learn about tourism on this small island, surrounded by a marine protected area.

Mikkel McGowan
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Panama Spring '17
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Community Collaboration

The Center collaborates with a wide array of partners to achieve its research goals. As part of the curriculum, students interview local fishers, farmers, tourists, business owners, and government officials to understand the social, economic, and policy context for tourism impacts as well as environmental management in the region.

Students also build relationships through meaningful engagement opportunities that focus on the needs of the community. Some of these include organizing a snorkel and swim club for children or urban birding festivals and educational talks. During down time, students compete in soccer matches in Bahia Roja and frequent shops, markets, and restaurants in Bocas.

Local Community Partners

  • Ngöbe communities
  • Ministerio de Ambiente and ANAM officials
  • Local elementary and high schools including teachers, parents and students
  • An array of non-profit organizations working on threats to the human and natural environment

Contributing to the Community

  • Environmental education and awareness
  • Provide knowledge and expertise about the state of terrestrial and marine ecosystems in the archipelago
  • A space for the community to discuss conservation and policy issues based on collected data
  • An understanding of tourism and its impacts on local communities

Life at the Center


The Center is located on a quiet waterfront a short distance from Bocas Town. Calm Caribbean waters provide plenty of activities for students including snorkeling, paddle boarding, and swimming. With such close proximity to the coral reefs, rainforests, and beaches of Bocas, it is common to hear the sounds of frogs, birds, and howler monkeys as well as the hustle and bustle of the nearby town while at the Center.

Field Station

  • Dormitory living with 4-person shared rooms
  • Private bathroom and shower in each room
  • Waterfront classroom, accessible by dock
  • Indoor classroom (to shelter from occasional tropical deluge)
  • Outdoor dining room/study area
  • Student lounge
  • Library/laboratory
  • Pool and hammocks
  • Beach and volleyball area