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Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

The night before I came to the reserve, I was up at 2:30am, looking at the clock in a cockroach-laden hotel thinking to myself: what if I didn’t like the lemurs? I didn’t expect to be empowered. And I definitely wasn’t certain if primatology was for me after all. What was I going to do if this didn’t work out? Aside from being out at least a good chunk of money that could’ve been spent on a large student loan.

But I do, I am, and I have never been so certain of anything in my life. Much like how I stumbled into primatology by taking an introductory anthropology course to satisfy a general education requirement, I fell face first into my new favorite species. When I came, I wasn’t sure about lemurs all that much; my prior education had been composed of mostly new world monkeys and a brief research stint with some rhesus macaques.

At first, I thought the mongoose lemurs were incredible. My first experience with them was in the form of the female leaping onto my shoulders and crawling about as if I were a walking island for her convenience. Over time, it’s not that I didn’t love them–I do, but my heart was more violently gripped by another species, the ones I was the least sure of–the ring-tailed lemurs.

Ansell and Harp, two ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta).

Their personalities were so pronounced; there was the dominant mother, Ansell who wasn’t afraid to cuff her subordinate males, Sam and Adam. Sam, who was initially described as “pathetic,” quickly rose to one of my favorites. Whenever I’d watch Sam, I’d always catch his eyes watching me–perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing, but one of the girls suggested he was the most cognizant of the lemurs, and I’d have to agree. Whenever I’d be following him as my focal, he wouldn’t venture too far forward without stopping and waiting for me to catch off before darting forward a little bit or foraging. Then, there was Molson, one of the sweetest lemurs I’d ever seen in the other forest. Initially, Stella, the lady-like lemur (who always had her legs crossed while eating and her tail covering her ladybits) bored me.

And then a rattlesnake made itself present in front of me and my colleague. While I was following Stella, curious as to why she was walking so slowly and grunting repeatedly before standing on her hind legs, the infamous rattle was heard and obeyed. We quickly backed off–but not Stella. No, Stella was not having a snake in HER forest that day. Instead, she stood up to the snake with her hands out and growled right back at the hissing as Molson looked on at her.

Moments like that with the lemurs made me come to love them and even more upset to be having to leave them. I have three days left and I intend to make the best of it. I have plenty of pictures to remind myself of all of them–even the pesky red ruffed lemurs who were not afraid to crawl right up to me and sniff my feet. Nor the Sanford’s lemurs who had completely ignored the rattlesnake, but lost it at the sight of a raccoon.

I’ve heard many a time about how you can recognize yourself through an ape’s eyes and all of the tropes along with it, but for me, I’ve never felt more connected to my primate self than working with these lemurs and getting to know prosimians. I’m not knocking the appeal of apes or any other primate, but truly–this experience with lemurs has been the most personally rewarding primatology experience I’ve had this far and reinvigorated my passion for primatology tenfold.

I’m not sure what the future holds for me in terms of graduate school, but I think I would like to one day work with lemurs again.  When I leave, I know I’ll be empowered thanks to my time here with the lemurs–I can identify a lemur by sight, even some of the red ruffeds without the collar. I can handle being out in a field for hours at a time and I can do this. And for that, I have lemurs to thank.

Veloma, my lemur friends–but not for good.

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A red ruffed lemur (Varecia rubra) lazing about. (Photo by: CCH)

It wasn’t my intention not to update, but over the past two weeks I’ve been busy in training and preparing to start data collection. I’ve passed all the inter-observer reliability tests and safety training, so I’m ready to go! Because neither of those are particularly interesting, I figured I would hold off on updating until I could get to the more exciting things. I swear I haven’t been entirely like the red ruffed as seen above. Lazy lemur.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned an important lesson in “killing your darlings,” and truth be told, it’s worth it. From the ethogram I originally designed to the actual project itself, I’ve cut out a lot of things since coming up with the plan and it’s been for the better. If there is anything I wish for people, it’s that they have someone who’s good at cutting the excess from projects, proposals, and other things like I’ve been lucky enough to have. Originally, I had a two page ethogram–which was cut down to essentially food-related behaviors and then five others. In doing so, it maximizes the time in which I’m able to collect data.

I’ve been learning a lot about lemurs too. For example: red ruffed lemurs possess a sufficient amount of knowledge to distract a researcher and attempt to steal things. They tend to work in teams when they do this. Mongoose lemurs are also particularly good at catching you off-guard as well and will exploit this in order to have a free ride from one tree to the next, with a “human island” in between. For anyone that suggests lemurs are not intelligent, they clearly have never worked with a lemur before. I’m also surprised about how much I’ve come to really like ring-tailed lemurs, as well. It’s not that I thought I would dislike them, but I expected to be more ambivalent. Instead, they have quickly become my favorites and the ones I’m most excited to watch. The ones here are very diverse in personality; there are three that are particularly aggressive and there are also a few you will have to find yourself tracking in between scans just to ensure a healthy distance, lest you desire a small lemur paw touching your tripod chair. (And of course, we don’t want that because it manipulates behavior and data you’re trying to collect.)

The differences between here and La Suerte are particularly notable. Aside from the obvious of living in America still versus Costa Rica and the privileges and drawbacks of both, and that the primates here are still captive (even if semi-free-ranging) compared to wild, there’s a large difference in just walking around the field. For example, in La Suerte, I was most concerned about eating enough to sustain the forest walks, being able to breathe in a smaller forest due to allergies, and just being able to see the primates. Whereas, here, I’m more concerned about faceplanting into a massive spider’s web and attempting to avoid getting destroyed by mosquitoes (I found it more tolerable in Costa Rica, however, I invested in 100% DEET lotion versus the 35% DEET bug spray I use here), ticks, and fire ants. When I worry about potential diseases, I was never worried about malaria (the area in which La Suerte is located has not had a case of malaria in some time, to my knowledge), though I was terrified of having rabies (due to an incident of waking up with a dead bat in my bed). Here, I’m anxious about West Nile virus, encephalitis, and lyme disease.

But there are a lot of similarities too: attempting to avoid stepping on or nearby snakes or other wildlife, humidity and hydration are two major issues every researcher endures, and in the mornings, the red ruffed and mongoose lemurs can be particularly difficult to identify while 15m+ (or ~49+ ft.) in the air.

I don’t think I’d trade anything else in the world for this, though. If anything, this experience has really emboldened me and convinced me this is the field I was meant to be in and makes me voracious to learn more about primates–be it lemurs or any other species. As such, I’ve been doing a lot of work researching graduate schools in my down time. I’ve been contacting professors left and right (so far, I’ve had either positive responses or none at all–a good sign, perhaps?) and I’m doing some of my statements of purpose now so I can get more revisions in and make them better before applying. My goal is to have five programs picked out by the end of the next two weeks so I can contact letter of recommendation writers. So far, I have 3/5 and I’m looking into a few more to close that gap and get moving on.

Field work is different depending on where you go and what you intend to study, but there are some consistencies that are particularly rewarding. In what other career path could I say I watched lemurs run and tackle each other for twenty minutes?

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So, I graduated about two weeks ago. It’s a bittersweet thing: graduating and having nothing to fall back on, but in the meantime, I’ve moved out of state, started studying for the GRE (which I’ll be taking in late July), and trying to find a job before August so I can make some money and have something to fall back on before I leave.

Why before August? Because I’ll be working with lemurs for a few months as a Research Assistant at a lemur reserve! On the side, I’ll hopefully be collecting some data for an original research project, but that’s up in the air. I’ll be there for three months for sure, but if I can get a job, this may become five months (with luck!) I’m looking very much so forward to this and I’ll hopefully be able to update everyone as things progress.

My goal is to keep updating this blog every two weeks up until I leave to work with the lemurs. After that point, I’ll do my best to update with other things, but this will largely be determined by how much access I get to internet, how busy I’ll be, and other things. I’ll more likely be collecting data whenever I can, if only so I can maybe–hopefully!–eke out a publication for submission before I get into the swing of applying to grad schools.

I’m starting to get an idea for the schools I’d like to apply to and some of the more specialized aspects thereof; I’m beginning to lean towards ethnoprimatology. Ideally, I’d like to study Formosan rock macaques in Taiwan or Japanese macaques in Japan with primate-human interactions, but truthfully–I’m open to studying any sort of project so long as I get to work with primates. And who knows? Maybe after this, I’ll be more likely to study lemurs.

I’m keeping my mind open, staying hopeful, keeping my nose to the grindstone for the GRE, and preparing to play with lemurs.

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When you’re a graduating undergraduate in anthropology (primatology, specifically), the world is scary as each day brings you closer to leaving the comfort of the university you’ve come to know and love.  I am roughly 22 days away from graduating, a prospect of which I am none too excited about. In my case, there are a lot more questions than answers, and a lot of self-doubt and anxiety.

Truth be told, I’ve been struggling with the idea of graduating for awhile now. The now obsessive thoughts of: “What about next year?,” “What if I don’t get a job six months out from now?,” “If I don’t get anything, how will I be able to make myself more marketable for jobs and graduate schools?” and the like are things that keep me awake at night or distract me from things I should not be distracted on as almost all of my grades are on the cusp. Truth be told, the fact I haven’t given myself an ulcer yet makes me appreciate my body just a little bit more.

I suspect I’m not the only one who has these thoughts and I suspect I’m not the first or last person that will think these things. I acknowledge I am very privileged to even be able to have these thoughts, but that does not dissolve the constant anxiety of the situation I’m in.

I’ve given up on chasing after the much desired Ph.D. right off of the bat–I know my grades aren’t strong enough to compete for that and I suspect my GRE scores won’t be much better; especially as I’ve only given myself essentially two months to prepare for it given the new changes in August (Calculus?! OH GOD WHY). Instead, I’m looking at strictly Master’s programs for now to bolster my chances. I have two in mind currently and will be doing research into some other programs. But yet, I still can’t help but feel this isn’t enough for a Master’s program–that I need to do more and more to make up for the things I lack.

I have had field school/work practice. I have done captive studies. I have two strong people in the field willing to vouch for me in addition to another outside of primatology, but within anthropology. My grades in primatology classes are fairly strong. But yet, with a year inbetween–I can’t help but feel like this year depletes the meaning and importance of these, or so I get the feeling. It’s not as if I haven’t been obsessively checking Primate Info Net, AZA.org, Society for Conservation Biology–in addition to multiple non-profit job websites, qualitative research positions, etc.–anything to be using this degree. I haven’t ruled out doing a retail job for a significant portion of the year and working enough so that I’ll be able to make payments on the looming student loan, and maybe going off on some volunteer field work.

I know there are options, it just doesn’t feel like it, particularly so when you receive nine rejection letters in one day alone. And sure, it makes me think twice–if I can’t even get a job with a retail position, how is it I can even dare to think I’d be a decent applicant for graduate school? I know it only takes one job. And I do have six months of leeway, though that time is slowly whittling down from the day of graduation onward. But still, I wonder. What is it these people are really looking for? Am I doing the right things given my situation?

When you’re a graduating undergraduate in primatology with no prospects on the foreseeable horizon, the idea of graduating becomes just that much more intimidating. If you happen to come across a tiny girl with a sign that says “Will work in primatology for recommendation letters and experience,” come say hi.

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Today is This is Serious Monkey Business’ first blogniversary! I don’t have a whole lot to offer right now, but a blog post should be on its way and is a little delayed as school is in the full swing of things. However, I offer these links to look at a few past articles that I’m particularly proud of and don’t mind showing off.

As we turn a year, we're a little older and a little wiser. (Thank you Wayne's World, 4chan, and imgur)

In the past year, these are some of the more popular articles from Serious Monkey Business:

“Bad-sad-bad” and other responses to death. This is the most popular article thus far! In this, I wrote about the ways in which primates respond to death and looking at primate thanatology. It also won Editor’s Selection status at ResearchBlogging.org!

While “Bad-sad-bad” was the most popular, my favorite one I’ve written at this point was Primate vaccines: help you to help me? as it was able to combine two of my loves: primatology and medical anthropology. Plus, who doesn’t like learning about Ebola? Likewise, it also won Editor’s Selection status at ResearchBlogging.org.

In addition, I visited the ideas of feminist primatology a few times. It’s something I’m pretty passionate about and I was so happy to receive the support I did from some of the more famous bloggers out there. Both Feminism and Primatology: A Female Primate’s Work is Never Done and Raison d’etre of the female undergraduate primatology blogger are two articles of which I am rather fond.

As events in the Deepwater Horizon and BP Spill were underway last year, I examined another, much less famous oil spill that has been occurring for a rather long time now. Yet, it receives barely any attention! “Oil, Blood and Fire.” examines both human and non-human primates in this and the effects on both from the spill in Nigeria.

If you haven’t been able to tell by now, macaques are one of my favorite primates. As such, I did what I think is a pretty nice article on how they are affected by climate change and some things about them you may not have known in Macaques: the plastic kings in response to climate change.

If there’s anything you’d like to see in future articles or anything you’d like explained, by all means! Don’t be afraid to ask. In future articles, I will be potentially examining why the hymen may have evolved, malaria via primates on public health, and other things that might pop up in the news.

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Meeting Jill Pruetz.

None of my friends will tell you I’m like the average college student. I don’t party. I don’t consume excessive amounts of alcohol (well, in fairness, it doesn’t take much–two glasses of wine and I’m done and falling asleep for the night.) I’ve never gone to a concert in my life and I don’t see movies all that often. Likewise, I love learning. I love reading a good textbook. I can pore over a textbook easily and be excited about what I learned and think of how I can make this apply in a “real life” setting. I love just sitting at home and looking at scientific journal articles, looking at videos of things like chimpanzees mourning the dead.

I’m not like the rest of my family, either. My family is a group of athletes by nature; many of my cousins grew up adoring animals (the only thing I think I’ve had in common with them), but eventually grew up and found more affection for sports and other things. Whereas, I was more interested in politics and things that immediately affected people. I identified as a social scientist first above all else.

So when I heard Jill Pruetz would be coming to give a talk at the university I’m currently attending for our Darwin Day ceremony as the keynote speaker–I was excited. I had been told about how kind she was before this when I discussed wanting to study with her to my teaching assistant at La Suerte last summer; but I didn’t know what to expect about her. And I’ve done some research on Pruetz’s work but I can’t believe how underrated it is by some of my peers. They can all recite Goodall, some can get Fossey’s work, and even rarer–Galdikas’ (though, never by her name), yet none of them know of Pruetz.

Jill Pruetz, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Iowa State University and National Geographic Explorer. (Photo by: National Geographic via Jim Heemstra/Iowa State University)

At the risk of being called a sycophant, her work is, well, to me–unbelievable in the best possible way. Not only does she study chimpanzees in a habitat more similar to some of the earliest human ancestors (savannahs); but–she finds unique things that are variations found within other chimpanzee species in other parts of Africa. And as weird as it might sound to some–I feel a little bit of a spark of “kinship” with those chimpanzees for being different.

The Fongoli chimpanzees have been noted to pass on elements of “culture”–learning and sharing by observation how to become effective hunters by using and sharpening wooden branch spears. They also have an understanding of fire, a sense of empathy, use caves and play in water as methods to adjust to hotter temperatures. These findings are astounding and show the breadth of behavioral variation in a species dependent upon the geographic climate.

Pruetz, herself, was an incredible speaker. As someone who’s had a lot of public speaking experience under her belt (and spoke to audiences with 400+ people on a few occasions), the way she spoke was fantastic. Her presentation was phenomenal with her words, the videos she presented, and the pertinent information in understandable ways. But that isn’t what made me feel privileged to be in her presence (although, I very much so was before this): the way she interacted with us was what did it. During her speech, a little girl would ask a few questions every now and then–intelligent ones, at that!–ranging from “What are the chimpanzee’s predators?” to “How can you tell them apart?” and her responses were gracious, patient, and clear.

I had asked her a question about the effects of climate change on the behavior of the Fongoli chimps in the decade she has researched there. As soon as it left my mouth, I felt stupid as hell; after 10 years, how can you really tell these things? Way to go, dumbass, I thought. But, much previously, she answered the question with grace and poise and was kind enough to not make me feel like a dumbass at all.

After taking our questions, I was able to go up and talk to her with two of my friends. She was kind and patient, willing to discuss with us and invite us to apply to her school for graduate work (which I was thinking about already, but now it’s a definite). I don’t care much for musical rockstars or celebrities, but I really get starstruck when it comes to scientists who do and find amazing work and discoveries in the field. The three of us left raving about the talk–dying to be just like that one day in terms of providing something of scientific worth to the world.

Meeting Jill Pruetz was like meeting your most admired rockstar. Except mine studies chimpanzees that spearhunt, play in water, rest in caves, and understand fire.

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A few weeks ago, I sat in my advisor’s office talking about this current semester and about the woes I was having about classes (which, fortunately, have all worked out now.) We eventually got onto the subject about blogging and I had mentioned to her a few of the people I managed to have discussions with or read about through blogging and how I think it was a really great thing and that it was something that I felt expanded my knowledge of primatology tenfold. Unlike a lot of my peers in the same class, I was often giving the most recent information in the field in some examples–sometimes even information that came out just hours previous to the class meeting on the day of the class.

Yet, despite all of the positive things I could list that came from being able to have this blog, all my advisor did was express she did not read any of the blogs, some questioning over my status as an undergraduate and mentioned that sometimes, it wasn’t appropriate–although, there were some examples of good blogs such as John Hawks Weblog. (Who was partially the inspiration for this.) All in all, I’d say I was frightened for the result–but not surprised and even thankful I didn’t get chided as if I were a naughty child in the cookie jar before dinnertime.

When I read Dr. Kate Clancy’s article over at Context and Variation on the subject as women sciencebloggers under their own name, I began to think about my own background. Certainly, I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’ve experienced a lot of she has felt; and I only use my first name sometimes while preferring to keep my real name hidden. But, I would say that it definitely made me think about my experiences as an undergraduate female blogger: why I did it and why I want to keep doing it, even if it has some potential negative consequences.

Bold, Ambitious, and Paranoid.

It was perhaps naive (I think I took the “Be bold. Be ambitious. Be a little bit of a bitch.” advice to heart before I even knew that I should be doing it), but I wasn’t sheepish about telling my advisor I had a blog; I came right out with it for a lot of reasons, though I never told her the address of it or the name for reasons I perceived to be apathy. One, I wanted to test the waters for professional reasons–is it wise for an undergraduate to even attempt blogging? Clearly, I don’t have a lot of credentials to my name other than I’m doing my best to try and learn about the subject from someone more educated. But, after taking a course where blogging was one of the methods of receiving a grade, I was a little more comfortable with this idea. Still, there are plenty of times where I feel sheepish about writing some posts because–well, what if I don’t have the credibility to be saying some of these things? what if I have someone with more credibility suggest that I obviously had no idea what I was talking about and that I’d be “academically blacklisted” or something of the like in my mind. And, for someone that potentially wants to get even more education in the subject–that has some scary ramifications.

The second reason I told her was because, while primatology is a female-friendly science; at the time when I first started this blog, the first few blogs I found on the subject (or the more popular ones, I should say) were The Prancing Papio and The Primate Diaries; both of which are run by male bloggers. Initially, I tried to blog gender neutrally because I had every intention of being taken seriously and well–when you see that two of the more famous primatology bloggers are male, perhaps it was better to hide your gender. That, and for privacy reasons related to being an undergraduate–aside from wanting to have some anonymity in case some professor I wanted to work with disapproved–what if my advisor disapproved? If she did, would she write about it in any letters of recommendation or any of the like? Would I be cast out of her good graces? I had a lot of paranoid thoughts.

But then, I thought about it and realized I wanted to stand out as a female undergraduate who was really passionate in the subject and could articulate information on the subject effectively so that both primatologists and people not necessarily trained could understand what I was trying to convey because I knew it would be an essential tool later on in my future career–no matter where or what I do.

And the third point as to why I told her, like suggested above, was for professional development reasons. Initially, I also had every intention of using this to one day stand out from the rest of the pack in my graduate school applications. I wanted to use this as proof that I wanted to go into primatology; not because of all teh ky00t orangutans and animaws that I can watch and play with all day!!1 or something to that effect. If you get to watch orangutans–great! But I’m not here doing this for the cutesy factor some perceive women to be doing in primatology (which is incredibly patronizing.) I’m here doing this because I think primatology is critical to understanding ourselves as an animal species, and, equally as critical to maintaining our own survivability as what affects other primates will likely affect us (re: environmental health, global warming, climate change, etc.)

Two female chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes); one teaches and the other learns, much like an undergraduate from her professor (Photo courtesy: Yerkes National Primate Research Center)

I’d also be lying if I didn’t have the idea that I wanted to see what other scientists were doing because maybe, just maybe, I’d find someone doing something just that one thing that might be what I want to do and maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to form a connection with them and make myself a more appealing candidate in terms of as a future graduate student, a volunteer for research projects, or whatever else. I know I have a relatively good background for someone in my field at this point in academic status–I’ve got a rock star advisor, rock star graduate student mentor, experience in research in both captivity and field, leadership experience in a professional organization, and I’ve had enough classes that I’ve been told I’ve maximized all the primate-relevant courses available at my university. From this, I can put into practice and show what I’ve learned from these classes and further tell others why I’d make a great candidate to be their graduate student.

I pay a lot of attention to what the Ph.D.s and graduate students have to say on their blogs because I know what will affect them will, in turn, affect me–if not now, then later down the road. I pay attention to a lot of individuals who aren’t in my direct field (Anthropology) because I know that some of the issues they face will probably be what I will experience one day too, if I decide to go into academia (which, ultimately, is what I’d like despite knowing it’s over-saturated.)

But, until then, I’m still an undergraduate and I know my place: to learn, to build a starting resume, and build some relationships; all of which I can do with blogging. I know I’ve got a lot to learn, but I think doing this can help me learn those things faster and more effectively.

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