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.
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!!!
Best branch ever!
I collected cameras from two more trees today and was quite surprised to find one of the cameras captured photos of just about every species I’ve seen so far, PLUS one new one! I finally managed to capture an image of a couple Geoffroy’s Tamarins, the smallest primate species on the island. I put the photos from the whole branch together in a video:
The tamarins were particularly exciting because I’ve never seen them on the island before, only on the mainland. They’re a little bit funny-looking and can have some pretty enviable hairstyles, though this one’s is pretty tame. His mom probably made him get it cut because "she's the one who has to look at him" - I know how that goes. Here is a still photo of the tamarins in case you didn’t catch it from the video:
A sigh of...disbelief
I am very excited to report that we deployed cameras in the last two trees yesterday! This means that we hit our goal of thirty trees for a grand total of 90 camera deployments. At the moment all the cameras are out in the last 12 trees, which I will climb over the next week or so before I head back to the US on April 9. To be honest I’m a bit overwhelmed right now with disbelief and a rare sense of accomplishment - the victories in grad school tend to be small and infrequent, so this feels completely foreign right now. For the purposes of this blog, actually accomplishing what I set out to do makes it hard to think of the stories of frustration, self-deprecation, and backwards underwearing upon which I normally rely. In short, I’m so stunned right now that I don’t even know what to talk about. I think it’s still a bit too soon to do any sort of grand reflection on my time here (I do still have 36 cameras to collect, after all) so for now I will just share some of the highlights of the photos so far.
This is the most casual display of indecent exposure that we have documented thus far. I know that I could probably get away with revealing what is under this box under the veil of scientific documentation, but just take my word that it is pointedly offensive. We are currently working on photoshopping a Bud Light into his hand, if you possess such skills please let me know.
He also thought that he might get a better understanding of what the camera was if he looked at it upside down.
These are some of the best porcupine images we’ve gotten so far. These things are weird-looking. End of story.
Most of the woolly opossum photos we’ve gotten so far have been pretty far away and/or a little out of focus, but these ones really give you a sense of what they look like up close. Also, look how crazy-long their tails are!
Howler monkeys are one arboreal animals that we actually see (or hear!) from the ground far more frequently than they show up on the cameras. This is probably the best series of photos we’ve gotten so far.
I’ll leave it at that for now. As I said, I have plenty more to do here and will hopefully get a lot more photos to share over the next several days. I’ll keep you all posted on what I find!
So, my original plan was to write a post about the progress we have made so far in the field, which I must say is pretty substantial:
Since some of my earlier posts, in which I whined probably more than was necessary about my exhaustion, we have enjoyed a blissfully simple schedule (blissful in many ways, in fact). Two weeks of climbing multiple trees per day with very few days to rest makes the previous week feel like a vacation. When you actually have time to rest your body and only have to work in one tree every other day or so, you no longer feel like you are climbing, but rather lifted by butterflies and happiness…oh my god, I’m going to stop there before I barf in my big red helmet. Long story short, the last few days have been easy.
Today began like most others this week – wake up, breakfast, pack for the climb, etc. The original plan was to shoot a line into a tree that was only steps from my dorm building, set up a few cameras, then return in time for lunch. As a precaution, I did sign us up for the “late lunch” list, but didn’t think it would be necessary and certainly didn’t do anything sensible like pack a lunch to bring with us. First roadblock of the day – the nice, close tree looked like this at the base:
If you can’t see from the photo, the base of the tree has rotted away so there was a hole going to the other side. The tree itself was still alive and probably would have been fine to support our weight, but what if it wasn’t? As I’ve said before, the main priority for this project is to not die, so in keeping with that we decided to go to another tree.
The next tree was further away, but I was happy to find that it appeared in good condition and seemed to have some decent spots to place cameras. We didn’t have a line in it yet, but managed to do so after just a couple shots. From there all we had to do was set up the ropes, climb up, and place the cameras. Easy squeezy.
…but this tree had other plans.
I won’t get into the details of it as they probably wouldn’t make much sense, but it ended up taking us well over an hour just to get the first rope into the tree. As I climbed up to set the second rope, stomach growling from the lack of PB&J, I discovered that the branch where my rope was set was not super-duper alive. Though from the ground it looked like there was plenty of vegetation, it turned out that was all from other branches. Upon closer in-tree inspection the branch from which I was dangling a good 50 feet off the ground was in fact about as bald as my dad (see photo for reference).
Luckily I managed to set my rope on another more secure branch and then set up Owen’s rope without too much trouble. As I threw my little bean-bag-on-a-string to get to the next branch (this might not make sense, but trust me this is a normal way to do it), it immediately got stuck well beyond my reach. Retrieving this bean bag was critical in order to get to the spot where I could set up the cameras, so I spent the next hour or so trying my hardest pulling, leaning, reaching, and yelling to get it back. I even resorted to use of crude tools, which did not help.
Not one of my more graceful climbs, but I did eventually manage to get the bag back and set up the cameras.
By the time we finally got out of the tree and packed up it was about 3:45 and we still had a 45-minute hike back before we could enjoy our cold, plastic-wrapped lunch. What I thought would be a quick 2 hours in the forest suddenly turned into a 7-hour ordeal. I realize that this is still less than a normal working day, but honestly, how often do you look like this in a normal working day?
Perhaps it was that I got a little too complacent as the field schedule is beginning to wind down. Maybe a little more planning and an earlier start could have made our day less stressful. Or maybe this tree was just a butt face.
While I am definitely looking forward to wrapping up my work here and returning to the comforts and company of home, I have never ceased to recognize the opportunity, both scientific and personal, that this experience has afforded me. I’ve had plenty of good days and handful of bad ones, all of which I will remember for years to come.
I felt and extra surge of relief today when we returned to the field station knowing that tomorrow is one of our coveted days off. So if you need me, I’ll be right here until Saturday:
Oh man, it has been an exciting last couple days. Well, I guess exciting is the word for it…maybe horrifying would be more accurate. First, we went to collect cameras from one of our more tick-intensive sites – the kind of place where you find 30 on you and just stop counting – which unfortunately turned out to be the least of our worries. Because of how the branches were angled I couldn’t really see where all the cameras were from the ground, so as I climbed up my rope I counted one, two, thr…and my heart sank. While the first two remained on the branches just how I’d left them, the third looked like this:
The camera itself had clearly been tampered with, which is often a concern for people who set traps on the ground where poachers or anyone passing by might be tempted to look at, damage, or even steal the cameras. They make specialized locks for the cameras to prevent this, but given that I was setting mine several stories above general view, I did not invest in such security measures. To make matters worse, the mount that attached the camera to the branch had been colonized by ants, so the moment I reached out to retrieve it my entire arm was covered in an angry, biting swarm of devil spawn (I’m sorry if you’re into ants, but they are the devil and I hate them). You can see a clip of them here, but my priorities shifted from documentation to demolition pretty quickly after this was taken:
Clearly awful. I managed to grab the camera and clear most of ants off the mount, my rope, and my all-of-me, and once we got back to the lab we discovered that there had in fact been some foul play! I will be pressing charges and hope to recoup all damages, as the following photographic evidence provides a pretty open-and-shut case for jail time:
We found claw marks all over the camera and I was relieved to find that the camera itself still worked, but who knew kinkajous were such vandals?! While we’re on the topic, another camera captured a series of photos showing a kinkajou staring at, sniffing, and finally peeing on the camera. This kind of thuggery is simply inexcusable! On to the next day…
Walking up the steps to the trail I felt a leaf land on my shoulder and when it didn’t fall off right away, I brushed at it. I didn’t see anything fall but also didn’t feel it anymore, so I kept on walking until I once again felt something leafy, this time against my neck. With a careless flick I sent it to the ground only to discover it was A SCORPION THE SIZE OF MY PALM!
I realize there is nothing in this photo for you to judge the scale for yourself, but what size scorpion is not horrifying, honestly? This is the first time I’ve ever seen a scorpion here. I guess I always assumed they existed, but they were neither on my mind nor my body until this one showed up. Still shaking from that one.
Later in the day we were walking to our second tree, crunching through the thick layer of leaves that cover the forest floor, when Owen let out a panicked “WHOA!” behind me. Apparently I had just stepped on this:
If you’re not snake-savvy (as I am not), this is a coral snake. I imagine your next question is whether this particular snake is poisonous, to which I say once again, when is stepping on a snake of any kind not horrifying?! I did learn recall a little rhyme I learned from TV’s Jeff Corwin: Red touches black, friend of Jack; Red touches yellow, kill a fellow.
LOOK. AT. THE. RED. AND. YELLOW!!!
So to answer your question, YES, this is a poisonous snake, a coral snake to be exact. Also, little Wikipedia-ing revealed that Pfizer, the only manufacturer of coral snake anti-venom discontinued this particular variety in 2010 because of apparently insufficient bites to warrant its production. Awesome.
So, all in all things worked out more or less for the better – the ants didn’t kill me, the camera was fine, the scorpion fell to the ground, and technically I attacked the snake, so that worked out. To whom or whatever has been keeping me out of harm’s way since I arrived – while I appreciate your effort thus far, could we maybe tighten the reins a bit? Someone's clearly slacking, because these last few days have been a little too close for comfort.
Oh, and thank you, television, for being my only childhood source of herpetological education – 100 points for TV.
We’ve entered the busiest stretch of the field schedule. All the cameras have been deployed once, and we are in the midst of collecting them from their current tree, downloading and reviewing the photos, and deploying them in a different tree the following day. Most days we have to climb two trees and a few unfortunate days we have to do three, which is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. I realize I haven’t gotten too much into the details of how the climbing is done, but just to give you a basic idea, here is a video that Owen took of me the other day of one of the more taxing parts of a climb.
Going up and down in the tree is actually reasonably simple and while time consuming, it is not by any means the most challenging part of the climb. Moving laterally once you get into the tree is far more difficult and, as you can see in the video, incredibly slow!
I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people wishing me well and reminding me to stay safe, which is clearly always a priority. We do a pretty good job of staying rested when we’re not in the forest because every part of this work takes its toll on you. Still, in the middle of these couple weeks of intense work, the signs of exhaustion are starting to set in. I am aware of the fact that in the grand scheme of “exhaustion” mine is pretty tame, as I have never raised a child, held down a normal person job, battled severe illness or done anything else that constitutes true exhaustion in the real world.
The problem with exhaustion or fatigue when you are doing things that require such intense concentration is that it is an open invitation for mistakes, which can sometime be costly when you are swinging in a tree 100 feet in the air, an hour from the field station, and miles from medical attention. We’ve been lucky that the problems we’ve run into so far have been pretty tame and we are remaining vigilant to ensure that this pattern continues. Here are a few of the setbacks we’ve hit thus far:
There are probably dozens of other examples to choose from, I do stupid things all the time, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Time for some much-needed rest, we’ve got another big day coming up.
There is a weekly research seminar series here on the island called the Bambi Seminar. I’m not sure where the name comes from and until recently they actually had a picture of Bambi the deer on the flyer for it, but not wanting to suffer the consequences of a legal battle with the Disney corporation the flyers now have a picture of a real deer on them.
Anyway, with the rapid cycling of researchers coming on and off the island the topics are pretty diverse and you get a chance to see what people are up to. I would like to say that I was invited this week to give the seminar, but that would be a lie. I invited myself to speak because I’m not important enough to be invited to do anything…yet!
My talk seemed to go well, it’s so nice to finally be at a place where I can tell (and understand!) a coherent story surrounding my project. Also, at the end everyone signs a copy of the flyer as a very kind way to remember the experience.
I originally planned to post a few of the slides to give you taste of the presentation, but as I was going through to pick some out I realized they really won’t make much sense without me explaining them. So, you’ll just have to wait for me to hit the lecture circuit in a town near you. Tour dates as follows:
April 9, 2014: New Haven, CT
--End of List--
Yale Grad Student.