Melanie Gates was on the ground in Panama for less than 24 hours before she sprained her ankle and fractured her foot.
The 2006 North Forsyth High School graduate may have donned a walking boot for the bulk of her two-month trip, but she didn’t let it get in the way of her chance to study abroad.
“I’m not a quitter,” said the University of Alabama-Huntsville senior. “If you can still get up and go, you shouldn’t let anything inhibit you.
“I still did [everything], I was just a little slower than everyone else.”
Gates was one of 11 students in the program, sponsored by CATHALAC, the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Along with a partner, Gates spent her time in Panama analyzing long-term water supply on Taboga Island.
“We discovered what we expected. That in the next 50 to 100 years, rainfall will be less abundant,” she said. “We wanted to implement rainwater harvesting systems in the homes on the island because their desalination plant quit working five years ago and the Panamanian central government has not attempted to fix it yet.”
Gates’ research will be presented to the government by CATHALAC, “in hopes that it will be implemented.”
Since she was a young girl, Gates was interested in math. It wasn’t until high school that she discovered an interest in science.
“I found something where I can do both,” she said.
Gates is on the hydrology track of an earth system science degree, along with a minor in math and mechanical engineering.
The 23-year-old was looking for class credit and, having already visited Brazil, said she thought traveling to Panama “would be the most adventurous way to get it.”
In addition to her research, Gates got to explore the area, meet the locals and stay with a host family.
“They pretty much catered to our needs. We had breakfast on the table every morning and dinner when we got home,” she said. “They took care of us like we were their own children.
“It was really intense at first. But as we gained more Spanish, it became less intense because it became easier to communicate.”
Though she studied Spanish in high school, Gates said she learned language from communicating with locals and a class offered to all the CATHALAC students on the trip.
Gates said she plans to attend graduate school in Texas. Her Panama experience likely will be the last time she studies abroad before she graduates in May.
But a painting and hammock she brought back aren’t the only reminders of the experience.
“You build lifetime friendships with people that you never would have spoken to,” she said. “It’s a good experience because you get to be completely immersed in a culture that’s not your own.
“Who wants to sit in a classroom or go to an office for a semester when you can go hike around Panama and swim in the Pacific Ocean? Who would pass that up?”