April 10, 2014 | 1
I’m writing this post while waiting at the gate for my flight from LAX to Indonesia. To anyone that knows me (especially my advisors, former teachers, and long-suffering parents) this last minute approach will not come as any sort of surprise. However, the expedition I’m about to commence has been years in the making, so I think that, for once I’m very well prepared.
Seven years ago, in the summer following my first year at university, I decided to go backpacking in Africa. The journey would eventually cover around 4,000 miles starting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and finishing in Cape Town, South Africa. Over the course of that summer I grew up a huge amount, learning a great deal about myself through the challenges and experiences that come from travelling alone. One experience in particular stands out: spending an hour with the Virunga mountain gorillas in Rwanda. To date, it is the most incredible thing I’ve ever done and it has changed the course of my career, directly leading to the point I find myself now, at gate 138, about to run my very own ape study.
Seeing the mountain gorillas was mind-blowing. As we walked up the mountainside, the giant silverback began pounding his chest (which was loud, but surprisingly high pitched) and then settled down to eat some foliage apparently not too bothered by our presence. Meanwhile fluffy infants played around our feet making a mockery of the rules about keeping your distance from the animals. I spent the entire hour in awe of these amazing animals, and by the time I’d made it back to my hostel in a nearby village, I knew I wanted to study primates.
Despite that desire, with undergraduate degree in marine biology I didn’t really have the skills needed to do this kind of work, so I completed a Masters in Animal Behavior at Exeter University. I picked this course specifically because it included a four-month thesis project during which I could study the species of my choosing in the wild. I get asked fairly regularly, “What do I need to do to study primates?” And the single biggest factor is practical field experience; you have to prove that you can do the research! To that end, I sent a lot of emails to different researchers around the world begging for a chance and was invited to study orangutans with OuTrop, with whom I’ll be working again this year. I had a wonderful time following orangutans around the swamp in central Borneo, desperately trying to get recordings of the males long calling and generally getting my first experience devising my own field project. In fact, if you’d like a similar experience, OuTrop are currently recruiting for volunteers. They were fantastic at encouraging me to think beyond my master’s thesis, and, as a direct result, the project I ran back in 2010 has ended up forming the basis of the Ph.D. work I’m completing now.
I knew that I wanted to continue the work, and studying under Dr. Roberto Delgado, Jr. at the University of Southern California was an obvious choice, given that he’d completed a long term study on the orangutan long call for his Ph.D. I arrived in Los Angeles two-and-a-half years ago, and have spent the time since writing grants for my project, taking classes in the theory and scientific skills needed to complete my project, and developing collaborations with other groups at USC, without who many aspects of my methodology and analysis would not be possible. Through this development process, thanks to the encouragement of my advisors Dr. Craig Stanford and Roberto, along with my colleagues in the Integrative and Evolutionary Biology program, my project has been constantly evolving to the point that it is almost unrecognizable from what I thought I’d be doing at the start (in a good way!).
Developing the methodology has been an amazing experience, and one that has definitely made me a better scientist, but an equal challenge has been the logistical nightmare that is planning and coordinating a long-term research project in three different locations on the other side of the world. Over the last six months I’ve put on 15 pounds ahead of the intense workdays, selected my field sites, sought out collaborator universities in Indonesia willing to sponsor my research, navigated the byzantine research permit and visa application processes, and taken Indonesian language lessons at my university’s cross-town rival UCLA (Terima Kasih ‘Bu, Juliana!). I’ve also bought more gear than I ever thought I’d own, and I’m incredibly excited to try (and probably break) each and every piece in some of the harshest jungle around!
My favorite bit of preparation, however, has been a collaboration with the Los Angeles Zoo, which was kind enough to collect urine samples from Eloise, one of their female Bornean orangutans. It’s incredibly rare to get samples from a cycling orangutan in captivity since they’re normally contracepted (with the same birth control as humans), pregnant or with unweaned infants. So I feel incredibly fortunate to have obtained these samples, which we used to validate the hormone analyses I’ll be using. Thanks must go to the orangutan keepers (Megan, Nancy and Candace) for collecting the samples and putting up with my incessant questions, but most of all to Eloise herself! She’s quickly become one of my favorite animals (captive or wild), and the keepers do an amazing job of looking after her since she’s the oldest orangutan at the zoo and has cerebral palsy, giving her limited motion. Her handicap doesn’t seem to impact her life too much, and she even produces a female version of the long call I’m studying!
This final week has, unsurprisingly, been hectic. Between packing, buying extra gear I’d forgotten, re-packing and crying because of weight restrictions, good-bye drinks with friends, repacking again due to misreading the weight restrictions (50 pounds each, not 50 pounds total! Thanks EVA air!), and a quick trip to Disneyland with my girlfriend, it’s absolutely flown by, and I’m still slightly shocked that I’m actually leaving! I hope this brief history has given you an introduction to me, how I got into the field and the preparation that’s gone into making this expedition a reality! My next stop is Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, where I’ll be completing the permitting process, practicing my Indonesian and picking up some even heavier equipment.
Other posts in this series:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX