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.
The situation is exactly as it sounds. We have a fecal mystery on our hands. I climbed into Tree #23 today to retrieve a few cameras only to find THIS:
Rude. I mean honestly, I don’t care what species you are, you have to TRY to drop a deuce on one of these things. There’s just no passive way to get it to land like that. The whole situation stinks of bitter, hostile intention…and poop. The worst part is that I have no idea who it was because this unfortunately happened to be one of the few trees in which none of the cameras captured animal photos. Any scatological experts care to weigh in? I don’t mean to press, but I do need to find out as soon as possible if I’m going to identify the culprit, locate something he/she loves…and poop on it!!!