A few weeks ago I went down to the National Geographic headquarters in DC and had a chance to participate in their Adventure 5 series. They asked a bunch of their Explorers from different fields to explain some of the lingo they use. Their studio was really amazing, I wish I would have taken a picture. They had teleprompter to the side of the camera that made the interviewer's eyes float right in front of the lens. This "mirror mirror on the wall" effect was kind of like being interviewed by a ghost, but made it easier to look in the right direction, which has always been challenging for me (see below).
Anyway, the they did a really great job putting the whole thing together - looks a lot better than I felt filming it! You can see mine below, and the rest of them on the Adventure 5 site.
The third event wrapped up on Halloween (not a particularly celebrated holiday here, but people know about it) in Trabzon, a city on the Black Sea coast. I got to fly out a day early to see one of the most famous sights in the area – the Sumela Monastery. First completed in 384AD, the monastery is built right into the side of a cliff face, surrounded by forest; truly an amazing sight.
As if that wasn’t enough, the hotel we stayed at was right on the water, with a great view of the sea right out my window. We saw dolphins in the water on our way to the university, a possible sign of the marine life recovering from the pollution and overfishing that this area (and all the seas and oceans, really) have experienced – another unique and meaningful sight.
There are two more events left on the tour, but this was my last one. After having such a positive reaction from the audiences at the first two universities, I wanted to deliver for this final one as well. The day presented a few more challenges, however, none of which were disastrous, but added up to a very different experience. I came of the stage feeling a little bit shaken, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong.
Overall, I’d felt confident about my talk having given several times already, but I had also memorized a few sentences in Turkish that gave me some trouble at the beginning. The effort was reasonably appreciated and people laughed at the appropriate moments, but still didn’t make for a really smooth start. The whole program had also running a bit behind, so my time limit decreased quite a bit. I edited things out as I went along, keeping me within the shortened time limit, but the flow of the narrative got a bit choppy.
The Q&A session on stage was also a bit tense at parts. While all the questions seemed much more informed and directed than in previous sessions (this went for the meet and greet portion afterward, too), there were a couple questions that seemed charged with accusation or even hostility. One student pointed out the strong connection my research has to primates and how that affects my views on evolution and my belief system. Another asked what I would have done without support for my research, with the undertone that the same opportunity might not be available for him. To be clear, all were fair and valid questions – ones that I had thought about before – but it was an entirely different experience to answer them on stage in front of an audience.
I had been briefed about the slightly more conservative tone and the academic focus of the students at this particular university as one of the top institutions in the country. Thinking back, I feel like I gave answers that were true but diplomatic answers to all questions asked. The event organizers were happy with me and commended my responses. I left the auditorium, however, feeling like I had withheld honesty to some degree, that I had balked at a challenge. I don’t know what the best response would have been or if any response would have made me feel good, but it was certainly gave me plenty to think about and continue to think about.
Following the event I talked to some of the other speakers and organizers about the vibe of the room. I thought that it had been just something about my own presentation that had been different, but everyone had some sort of experience with the tepid mood. Part of me felt better knowing that others had similar experiences that day, but it did get me thinking about how something like this could be catered to a specific student body like this.
I also want to point out again that the personal interactions I had with students following all the presentations were extremely impressive. While there were the same requests for photos and such (which admittedly boosted my ego after my lackluster performance), I actually had a chance to discuss real, in-depth interests with people. A young girl studying microbiology wanted to know about new eukaryotic species being discovered in tropical soils. Another asked whether the training she was getting in mechanical engineering would ever be applicable to environmental research (YES!).
Though I admit that on the whole I prefer to be liked and accepted, I acknowledge that the whole world isn’t rainbows and butterflies. In the grand scheme of life challenges things certainly could have been more difficult. Discomfort forced me into deeper thought about what I was saying and why I believed it, which is never a bad thing. All three events were extremely memorable and informative in their own ways, but this is the one that I think will stick the longest. So for that, I say thank you, Trabzon, for keeping me on my toes.
Also, thank you for this brick of cheese melted in a kilo of butter, it may just be the best thing that has ever happened to me:
We had our second stop on the tour at Ataturk University in Erzurum, which has a beautiful campus tucked in the Palandokan Mountains. Erzurum is a popular ski town, though it was a little too early in the season for much snow.
When we arrived I was chatting with one of the event organizers. I told him that was really happy with how the first talk had gone and was very surprised at how big the crowd had been. He then informed me that the first university was a smallest one we would visit. After showing me the 800+ seats in the auditorium, we proceeded outside to the media vans, which would be broadcasting the event nationally on the radio. I wish the proper letters existed to communicate the squeak that came out of my mouth as my butt clenched tight with fear.
After pulling together a satisfying presentation at the first event, I wanted to keep the momentum going. I was texting back and forth with my mom before things got started, and she was surprised to hear how many students were showing up (as was I). So, when I got on stage I asked them all to wave to her while I took their picture.
The presentation itself went very well – better than the first one, actually. There were some very poignant questions on stage and in the greeting area afterward. I personally was never one to raise my hand in class or ask questions from the audience, so the enthusiasm students were showing was really impressive.
OH, I forgot to mention this last time – as if the Britney microphone wasn’t magical enough, every time I walked onto the stage they played that U2 song from Life of Pi. This is another feature I would like to adopt into my everyday life – I’ve never been a particularly devoted U2 fan, but from now on be prepared for a U2 soundtrack every time I enter a room, building, or conversation. I believe this will give my life the sense of whimsy it has been lacking. You’re welcome.
When I went back to my seat for the rest of the presentations I saw a kid trying to sneak a picture of me. I then tried to sneak a picture of him sneaking a picture of me, but I was too slow. Armed with a bodyguard and my wonderful translator Hasan, we went out into the foyer to answer student questions once the presentations were finished. The rolling desk nearly crushed me as students pushed forward, but it was really nice to have a chance to talk (very briefly) with a few of the students.
It has been hard to judge how many students are interested in applying for the program and how many just wanted to take pictures. The program is called Bugün Günlerden Yarin, which translates directly to “today is the day that is tomorrow.” The general message is something along the lines of “your future starts today,” but the Turkish title sounds more exciting. Plus look at all those umlauts!
The long-term goal of this whole project is to have a system in place to offer students from the more rural areas of Anatolia the opportunity to gain hands-on experience by applying for and carrying out a project, with the National Geographic Young Explorers program as a model. As I understand it, these kinds of opportunities are more difficult to come by in the universities outside of larger cities like Istanbul and Ankara.
We wrapped up the day with another amazing dinner at a restaurant that is over 300 years old. I had all the skewered meat, spicy soup, baklava, and rice pudding I could handle and flew home full and exhausted.
I have been searching for my fan base my entire life, wondering why people only ask me for directions and not my autograph. Well apparently they have all been waiting for me in Eastern Turkey!
I caught an early morning flight from Istanbul to Malatya, which is in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in Eastern Anatolia. Malatya is the apricot capital of the world. If you’ve had any significant number of apricots in your life, a good number have probably come from Malatya. They have a big apricot sculpture in the city center.
The moment I arrived on the campus I realized that this thing was much bigger than I thought. The auditorium was enormous – I still had suspicions that their 500-700 attendance estimate, but this place could definitely hold that many or more. Then they strapped a Britney Spears microphone to my face and asked me to rehearse. I’ll admit that it felt magical, but I was definitely not as prepared as I wanted to be at that point.
My rehearsal was HORRIBLE. I had been practicing my talk with notecards up until that point, assuming it would be like a normal science talk where notecards aren’t exactly encouraged, but are accepted. I was just terrible from the first slide, which literally consisted of me saying who I was and where I was from. Thankfully the real thing went much better – no notecards.
As the only non-Turkish speaker I had a translator on stage. I was nervous about this at first, but it actually worked in my favor and gave me time to think while on stage. I might start having all my talks translated from now on.
The whole event lasted about five hours and the line-up of speakers was really impressive. The whole event was meant to inspire Turkish students to pursue their interests, so they brought in leaders in a variety of fields. There was the CEO of a massive Turkish conglomerate and an author who had received support from the company that sponsored the event. There was also a high-profile fashion photographer – I don’t know how things are ranked among fashion photographers, but he had long hair and showed pictures he took of Paris Hilton, so he seemed pretty legit to me.
There was a short break after the first several I got a little bit confused because the program had listed one more speaker named Khave Monasi before me. They already had a giant National Geographic display up on stage and they were blasting jungle music, so it seemed like a logical (though ridiculous) set-up for me. The program didn’t have a bio for this guy and it was really getting close to the start time, so I did a quick Google Translate and found out that “Khave Monasi” actually just means coffee break. Thank you technology, for saving me from asking real people my stupid questions.
My talk ended up going really well despite my lackluster performance in rehearsal. Even though I didn’t understand what was going on, it was hard not to be excited after all the other speakers and everyone cheering. I went out on a limb and made a couple jokes that thankfully translated and landed, and then answered a few questions from the audience, the host, and from Twitter. That’s right, people TWEETED questions to me! Now that I think about it, those may have come from the conference organizers, but it still counts.
The whole thing was capped off with a speech and performance by Turkish pop star named Mustafa Sandal. Once again, I’m not sure how to judge these things, but he raced off stage and was never seen from again, which seems like a famous person thing to do. I realize that most of the students were probably there because of him, but I’m happy to profit off of his fame. Let’s just say they weren’t not there because of me.
Afterwards there was a lively crowd of students eager for pictures. A couple had questions about how they should get started in research – one had actually done an internship at Yale this past summer! Another girl shoved her program in front of me and, not really knowing what to do, I wrote down my email address. She looked back, confused and said “No! Sign!” So yeah, I’m the kind of person who signs things now. The fame has absolutely gone to my head; I’m going to be complete monster from now on.
We left the university and went out for an authentic Malatya-style dinner that was absolutely amazing. Most of the other people organizing the event were from Istanbul, so the dishes were even new to them. I also got to have some Turkish coffee, which was every bit as strong, delicious, and full of grounds as I had been told.
After dinner we flew back to Istanbul and I passed out in my hotel room. The whole day was such a blur of nerves and excitement; I can’t wait for the next one! For those of you who are feeling a little “bleh” about your day-to-day, I suggest becoming internationally famous – it’s fantastic.
Didn’t know I had a show, did you? That’s funny, because neither did I.
I got an email last Thursday asking if I might be willing to travel to Turkey to represent the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, which funded a portion of my research! A large Turkish company is starting up a similar granting program and they wanted someone to come speak about their project and encourage students to apply. Never one to miss out on an opportunity, I excitedly responded and four days later I was on a plane to Istanbul!
I’ll be speaking at universities in Malatya, Erzurum, and Trabzon over the next week and a half. It has been a while since I have traveled to a place that is totally unfamiliar to me – all the repeat trips to Panama really gave me a lot more comfort than I realized. I will certainly make a fool of myself in one way or another, but I’m hoping to do it while asking for directions on the street or ordering lunch rather than in front of the “500-700 students [that] are expected to attend each event.” Yikes!
I’ll keep you posted on how things go!
Well, all the cameras have been collected, the equipment has been packed, and (most importantly) all the data is backed up. There is still plenty of anxiety ahead of me – transporting ~250lbs of luggage, security in Panama City (the only place I’ve ever had anything confiscated), customs in the U.S. – but there is definitely a huge sense of “I’ve made it!” coursing through me right now. I realize there is probably a real word to use there, but I don’t have the energy to come up with it right now. With that said, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on my experience.
On getting permission
Though much of it was probably in my head, I had quite an uphill battle just being allowed to do this project. Beyond the extensive tree climbing training and seemingly endless planning, it took me four attempts to get my project approved. Doing was definitely beneficial in the sense that my fourth proposal was far better than the preceding three, but it was hard. In the face of so much rejection I questioned my abilities as a researcher and my potential as a scientist. As a result, I felt privileged just to be there and an enormous sense of responsibility to take advantage of what had finally been offered to me.
On assistance in the field
This is one of the few pictures of both Owen and me in the forest. I really like this photo because it is representative of how things actually were day-to-day. Reading through the past few posts I casually switched back and forth between “I” and “we” without much pattern, but I want to make it clear that NONE of what was accomplished in the past three months could have happened without Owen. Finding people to help out in the field is always a challenge, especially when you do weird things for your research. You need someone who can keep up, someone you can trust, and most importantly, someone who isn’t going to freak out when you expect them to work in blistering heat and forceful winds ten stories above the forest floor. Owen exceeded any possible expectations I ever could have had and he deserves every bit of credit that I do for completing this project. I say this not to discount my own accomplishment, but I know that working as a team kept me accountable. Alone I would have cut things short; I would have both physically and mentally burned myself out. I can’t imagine how I will ever be able to repay him for this.
On learning new things (or not)
Learning Success, Life Failure: Ants in the pants takes on a whole new meaning when you kick over an Azteca nest while straddling the branch upon which their dirt-spit-nest is built.
Learning Failure, Life Failure: For the life of me, I have not been able to learn not to swing my arms while carrying a cup of hot coffee. While walking to my office I have spilled far more coffee on my feet and down the front of all my clothes than I have actually consumed at my desk.
On being excited
Shortly before I left I saw a clip of Mindy Kaling giving an interview on some late night talk show. [I know that The Office’s Kelly Kapour may be a strange and/or obscure reference for this blog, but I have been listening to her audiobook on repeat for about three months now, so just bear with me.] In the interview Kaling talked about how creating and starring in her own TV show had been a lifelong goal that she was thrilled to have achieved. She described how she was having trouble sleeping not because of the stress, but because she was so excited on a day-to-day basis going to bed seemed so boring. Simply put, being awake was just so much better than being asleep.
At the time I could not appreciate this sentiment – I love sleep and to be quite frank most of what I had to do before this trip was not nearly as exciting as passing out cold for hours on end. Over the past several months, however, I have had a glimpse of what she was talking about. I went to bed almost most nights physically exhausted but filled with excitement about what the next day would hold. I don’t know whether this effect will hold now that the fieldwork is done, but I am glad to have experienced it. In fact, I hope it doesn’t continue because I have built up so much sleep debt here that I think my body is starting to hate me.
When I set up the last camera in the last tree, I set up a little photo message for myself. Because I have the memory capacity of a goldfish, I was genuinely surprised to see the following from my past self:
I know it’s cheesy, but I couldn’t help myself. I am proud of what I have done and I don’t ever want to forget that.
On sharing an adventure
I snapped this picture of myself shortly after collecting the last camera.
As I put the camera away and descended down the rope I could feel the tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. By the time I got to the ground to receive my congratulatory hugs from Jennie and KT I had burst into a full-on sob, incomprehensibly blubbering my appreciation for them being there with me.
I (thankfully) decided against asking the girls to take a video of me coming out of my last tree, and I’m sure both of them would have kindly omitted my bawling when recounting the story. So, why have I chosen to share such a private and somewhat embarrassing moment with all of you when it could have so easily slipped unmentioned into and out of my goldfish memory?
Over the course of the next few months I will search through photos, analyze data, and write up the findings of my project. I will talk about whether my hypotheses were supported, the statistical significance (or lack thereof) of my results, and if I’m lucky the whole thing will fit into just a couple pages of a scientific journal. This is the goal. Publishing those few journal pages are the final product to which I am meant to aspire. Learning how to make a novel contribution to your field is the whole point of getting an education in scientific research. I have no real problem with this and in fact now have more confidence in my ability to take this next step than ever before. However, you will see no trace of me in those pages. Sure, my name will be attached (my last one, at least), but the experience, the intensity, the satisfaction, and the emotion will all be stripped clean.
At the risk of overestimating the gravity of my experience and the impact of sharing my research with all of you, I wanted to include this final moment and I suppose this entire blog in order to highlight the human process of science, which I find to be the most interesting part. I know that people think of science as objective, emotionless process, but all of my experience here and prior has taught me otherwise. While there are certainly plenty of strange personalities in science who may come across as robotic or unfeeling, I dare you to find me one scientist that is not emotionally invested in his or her work.
I started this blog with very few expectations. I wasn’t entirely sure I would have the energy or motivation to keep it going and I certainly never thought that people would actually follow along with me. I will probably continue to post some select photos or a few interesting thoughts as I move into the analysis and writing phase of my research, but throughout the course of my time in Panama this year I feel like I have been able to share the majority of what I found to be the most exciting part of the process. I want to thank all of you again for your time and attention, the words of encouragement and just knowing that I was heard and appreciated meant the world to me over the past few months.
Anyone who has ever proofread my writing will know that conclusions have never been my strong point, so I will sign off by simply saying that I am excited to see what is in store in this next step and I hope to find new (or old), interesting ways to share it with you. Take care and thanks again, I’m going to sleep.
More help has arrived! Since Owen left a few days ago, I have been taking a series of very generous volunteers out to the forest with me to make sure I don’t die, the most recent of whom are two of my labmates all the way from Yale! Jennie and KT flew down on Saturday afternoon, hopped in a cab and onto a boat out to the island. I put them right to work on Sunday morning, as I still had nine cameras to collect from three trees. It was so great to have some familiar faces in the forest and up in the trees with me – plus, Jennie took some fantastic pictures of me, which is really what it’s all about anyway, right? All the good ones were taken by Jennie, all the others were taken by me.
Well, it finally happened. As I was carrying my third (or so) cup of coffee from the dining hall back to my lab, I opened the door to the balcony and heard a tiny “plop!” into my cup. I have been dreading a potential conflict of this type with my neighbors for the better part of three months, and now it is here. Though I instinctively scanned my surroundings, I knew exactly what I would find above:
In case you can’t tell, these are bats. And yes, one of them pooped in my coffee. I tried to get a picture of it, but as it turns out, taking pictures of black poo in black coffee makes for some really boring photos. You can probably use your imagination on this one, though.
These bats hang out on the wall of the lab building, and with the exception of a couple rare instances in which they accidentally flew inside they really don’t bother anyone. Aside from that I don’t really know anything about them, which actually feels a bit rude now that I think about it. It’s like taking the same bus route every day and never learning the names any of your fellow commuters – understandable, but still weird because in a way you do sort of know them. All I can say for these guys is that they are small and they have little tags on their wings…so I guess someone knows them.
Anyway, I thought I would take this opportunity to introduce you to a few of my other neighbors with whom I have become acquainted (sort of) in my time here. While the research station itself is amazingly well cleaned and cared for, we still do live next to a very species-rich forest, which means you tend to interact with plants, animals, and other strange beings far more often than is planned. These are all the critters that make their homes in or very near my own living quarters.
I've really been dropping the ball on the video logs. Here's a short one I recorded in the tree the other day. Now that I think about it, I didn't really say anything all that useful or insightful, but you can at least get a (very shaky) view from the top of the tree!
One of the guys from the STRI Office of Communications and Public Programs came climbing with me a few weeks ago.
We had a great climb and he took some amazing photos and wrote up a very nice piece for the STRI News. You might not be able to read the text from this image, but here is the link to the whole newsletter.