How did you come to study pouched rats?
I get this question A LOT.
It was early April morning in 2011 and I got an email from a friend and colleague, Dr. Alex Ophir I have known for many years. We both worked with Microtus ochrogaster – studying different systems, but vole researchers are a pretty tight group. In fact, he completed a post-doc assignment at my M.S. alma mater. He needed some fresh prairie voles for his colony at Oklahoma State University. He was sending a graduate student to central Illinois to trap and procure them. Incidentally, I knew the graduate student in question as well, now Dr. Bart Kensinger. He completed his B.S. at my Ph.D. alma mater and he was actually an undergrad member of my lab group, the Tang Gang. Anyway, Alex asked if I could give Bart some insights on prairie vole trapping, perhaps even meet him in Urbana and walk him through my old trapping spots. I said sure.
We eventually got on the phone and talked. He then asked me what I was up to. I relayed that I was wrapping up some consulting projects, but I really wanted to return to research and academia. I needed to get some pubs done, but in the meantime I had secured an adjunct position for the fall semester thanks to my dissertation advisor retiring. He then told me about this new grant he secured from the Army Research Office to examine behavioral syndromes of African giant pouched rats. He had been on an exploratory tour to central and east Africa and visited APOPO and developed some very interesting ideas for examining the general behavior and biology of this interesting yet essentially mysterious rodent. He sent me a copy of the grant proposal to give me an idea of the questions he set out to answer. The proposal was reminiscent of the studies I had recently completed with prairie voles, studying individuals over a series of exploratory tests, social interactions. Plus it included queries about their natural history and social organization, as well as their genetic signatures.
It sounded WONDERFUL! I made the pitch that I was the perfect person for this job. I emphasized my previous experiences with wild rodents, doing field work, and wrestling with the promises and pitfalls of behavioral syndromes research. Plus, I was lucky that he was also familiar with my research as well. (This is a nod to relationships and networking. It’s really the secret cause of academia and science).
Paperwork began and I moved to Oklahoma January 2012 and began the interesting journey of studying panyabukuu (local name for pouched rats in Swahili).
Why did I take on this assignment?
Short answer: I saw Adventure! I love travel. I love learning about animals, and I love exploring new places. This research has given me all of these plus more.
I knew this research would require travel to Africa and I’ve always wanted to visit the continent. After assurances that Tanzania, the destination of my research, was a relatively safe country I decided that I wanted to participate. I also saw research adventure opportunity. Among the many disciplines in the life sciences, natural history is an old school discipline. As Dr. Karen McBee, one of the Zoology professors from Oklahoma State University told me, “There aren’t many young scientists who appreciate curation work”. She’s right. So, I also saw a chance to make my mark in the field by researching an animal that we know too little about.
There is so much information at our finger tips today. There’s so much open data and opened archives of information, that it becomes very easy to miss how much we don’t know. Many people assume all of the mysteries left to explore (in the life sciences) are at the microscope or even molecular level. However, there are entire species, even ecological communities that are still widely and wholly unknown to conventional science. This is what I wanted in on. I wanted to be a part of this history of this animal – yes this amazing animal that can be used to saved lives, but I wanted to know about the animal – itself. Understanding species, its behavior and its biology is important whether or not it can detect landmines or tuberculosis.
My research is activism that Natural history STILL does matter <----link my storify, please check it out. This species is a part of the ecosystem, it occupies a role in a complex food web -- an ecosystem and food web that haven’t been fully studied in general and one that is being quickly and seriously impacted by climate change and human modification every day. So, yes the detection abilities of this species is the interest du jour, but it certainly isn’t the only thing that matters about this species. In fact, as we gain a better understanding of the basic biology and underlying behavioral tendencies of this species, we stand a better chance of using this animal to our (human) benefit and providing the most ethical and most ethologically relevant care, husbandry, and training for this species.
In closing, please check out Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty's TEDxLSU talk discussing Natural History, why it matters and is as vibrant today as ever. Plus, he just tells the story of my hear. Love, Love, LOVE!!