A year ago, Ira Rubinoff was considering a gala celebration, with lots of media and top brass, to dedicate the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s new $8 million laboratory in Panama City. Not any more. When the Earl S. Tupper Research and Conference Center finally opens its doors this winter, months behind schedule, the event will be decidely low-key.

Given the increasingly tense political situation between the United States and Panama, Rubinoff isn’t eager to draw attention to the existence of a U.S. facility anywhere near the Canal Zone.

It won’t be the first time that STRI has maintained a low profile. The oldest and one of the only laboratories devoted to the study of basic tropical biology, it’s been called one of the Smithsonian’s best-kept secrets. “If you’re a biologist, it’s where the action is,” says biologist Rubinoff, who has been STRI’s director since 1974.

But its low visibility isn’t...

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