Field Biology may be one the most romanticized career tracks of the sciences. Images of exotic wild places, muddy boots, trekking through forests or mountains or grasslands, enduring the elements, swatting mosquitoes and other pesky insects… a scientist on an exhilarating journey exploring nature. Field work can be simultaneously amazing and exhausting, filled with lots of time waiting and negotiating, dealing with international bureaucrat systems, avoiding miscommunications, and at times dangerous. But isn’t that what makes an adventure? I certainly think so.

Three days from now I'll be embarking on what is sure to be the most exciting adventure of my life: Field research in Tanzania, Africa! And yes, I'll share the whole experience with you! Demystifying science. It's what I do.

Dispatches from Tanzania (art work by @Lalsox)

Dispatches from Tanzania (art work by @Lalsox)

This summer, July 2012, I am going to Tanzania, Africa to begin my field research studying African Giant Pouched Rats, Cricetomys gambianus – one of the largest rodent species in Africa. Also called Gambian rat, it is most popular for its humanitarian work detecting landmines and tuberculosis. However, much less has been recorded about the natural behavior and biology of this animal. I’ll be leading a field expedition to assess the natural history and basic behavioral biology of the African giant pouched rat. I will spend two and a half months in Tanzania, near the city of Morogoro, trapping, marking, releasing, and following these animals in the wild. I will collect information such as the number of males and females I catch, their reproductive condition, and the GPS coordinates of where I find them. I can then use this information to assess the mating system, dispersal patterns, and population structure of this interesting species.

African Giant Pouched Rat

In addition to the exciting research, I am also looking forward to visiting Africa. It is a beautiful and culturally rich land. Scientists have visited this beautiful continent for decades, sharing stories of discovery and wonder. However, rarely have these scientific explorers been women or persons of color. I want to share my experiences, as researcher, as an African-American, and as a woman, and offer an alternative image and narrative of a 'foreign explorer' in Africa. Visiting Africa for the first time is as much a personal journey as it is professional endeavor to me. I want to share my personal accounts such as learning the culture and language, getting to know people, experiencing the food and sights, as well as behind the scenes of field research. I'll be living and researching in Tanzania for nearly three months.

Dispatches - Sharing the experience, engaging the public

Dispatches will be my electronic field notebook. I will share what I am doing on location. I will demystify the outdoor research experience and give readers a first look at the wildlife and ecosystems I encounter. With each expedition, the online audience will accompany me to exciting locations all over the world, visiting new ecosystems and learning about local wildlife and local cultures.

Essentially, Dispatches is a three-part science outreach platform to connect people directly to science, discovery and nature.

As I travel to new places and participate in various research projects, audience will be right there participating in the discovery and exploration. The three-part platform includes:

  • Blog posts: narrative, photos, and video updates
  • I will make regular updates to my blog, tagging those posts as #DispatchesDNLee, so that you can follow the hashtag and keep up with everything. Post will include narratives of my experiences and photographs plus videos. For the videos I'm partnering with the Summer Field Work Project coordinated by Carin Bondar of PsiVid. I will moderate my comments and answer readers’ questions, as time allows.

  • Post cards: personal, hand written correspondences, locally postmarked
  • Something that I have always done whenever I travel around the world is send post cards back home to keep family and friends abreast of my safety and my adventures. I will send postcards with hand written updates from me while in Tanzania to people in the United States or anywhere in the world interested in knowing more about field biology, Gambian rats, Tanzania, as well as lovers of nature and world cultures.

  • Video chats
  • Some of you have joined my for #OfficeHours before on Skype or Google + hangouts. I will schedule a couple online video chats with folks, preference given to groups (informal or formal science/environmental classes, students or citizen scientists to answer their questions about my work and experiences. (Tanzania is 8 hours ahead CST) so we would have to plan accordingly.)

    Like most developing nations, Tanzania is 3G accessible, though I've been told it can be glitchy. So am humbly requesting donations to help with costs to amp up my broadband access and for buying postcards and postage. I thought about doing a major crowdfund campaign for the science outreach, but I'm not sure of exactly what I'll be able to pull off on this first trip. But if things look good I might reconsider that. Any amount would be appreciated.

    I am so excited! And I can' wait to share it all with you. I'm asking for your prayers and well wishes. And please, please, please leave comments. I want to engage everyone in this fantastic journey. Wish me well!