Well, here I am again. Suspended in the air at 28,000 feet strapped to a giant flying metal box on the last leg of my very, very long journey from Antananarivo, Madagascar to Durham, North Carolina. Thirty-four hours and counting. Wow. Home. What am I looking forward to the most? Spewing the contents of my backpack all over my living room and promptly tossing everything I just unpacked into the washing machine to remove the layers of perma-filth that have accumulated over the past five weeks. Oh, that and eating a giant salad. And cereal.
It was a weird field season full of weird weather patterns (insert loud obnoxious grumble here…rain), weird skin rashes (hand models beware: Madagascar’s forests are lurking with stinging poison sumac-esque plants just waiting to make unsuspecting hands feel the burn…and the blisters!), and weird inexplicable noted absences of chameleons and frogs (many an unsuccessful chameleon hunt occurred, although I did make two very special chameleon friends named “Pickles” and “Signpost”).
But, despite the weirdness, I’m chalking up July of 2013 to be an incredibly successful field season. Our extremely prolific research team collected loads of excellent data. Peter and Andrew got multi-day EEG recordings from animals in deep hibernation, including some spontaneous interbout arousal recordings (that is, when an animal periodically rewarms every 7-14 days during hibernation for reasons that continue to evade and perplex hibernation researchers. Our question is: Do these animals arouse in order to fill a sleep debt? To be determined!) Kathrin got crazy-good metabolic rate data from our fuzzies, and Marina was able to collect blood samples, morphometric measurements, and replace the temperature-sensitive radio-collars so we can continue to monitor their whereabouts and skin temperature profiles until November. Me? I am proud to state here that I was able to obtain my highly sought after white adipose tissue samples from our very cooperative focal animals. Through brilliant use of a digital outdoor thermometer probe and some ingenuity, we were able to determine that core body temperature was around 16°C when I took my tissue samples. That’s true hibernation if I ever saw it, folks! These animals are exhibiting body temperatures that are approximating the soil temperature that they are surrounded by in their burrows, even though air temperature often dips way below that (Soil, it turns out, is quite an effective buffer from ambient temperature fluctuations). My samples are now safely stored in a freezer in Madagascar awaiting shipment back to my eager, itching to get “all molecular biology” on them, hands. Permits have been issued and fingers are tightly crossed they will be heading my way very soon. My phalanges are so tightly crossed, in fact, that I fear I am losing circulation to my fingertips.
With the accomplishment of all the tasks that we set out to do, we packed up our wet tents and muddy hiking boots and once again challenged the “road” less traveled (Trust me, we showed it no mercy). After a quick pit stop in the capital city we headed southeast, this time to the lush rainforest of Ranomafana National Park for the 2013 International Prosimian Congress.
The word “prosimian” is fancy science speak for the group of primates that encompasses lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, and tarsiers. Full of intellectually stimulating conversations and novel research programs discussed by the preeminent researchers in prosimian biology and conservation, this was a conference not to be missed. Stay tuned for the exciting details including, but not limited to, a rare sighting of the most elusive lemur that exists today! The highlight of my conference experience, however, was having to politely excuse myself as I was “talking science” with one of my science idols before I tossed my cookies all over his shoes. Well, I guess that’s one way to get noticed. I bet he won’t be forgetting me anytime soon! (“Oh yeah, you’re that graduate student who almost projectile vomited all over me back in ’13”). Do you think he’ll offer me a post-doc position in his lab? In my defense, I was one of the many fortunate enough to catch the 24-hour bug that was making its rounds at the conference. This bug rendered me completely useless and banished to my bed, subjected to violent shakes and extreme repulsion at the thought of any ingestible food or drink item. You’re never safe in Madagascar.
As my journey finally draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on this culminating season and share some insider secrets to life in the field. Field work is challenging. It is physically challenging. It is mentally challenging. It is emotionally challenging. Sometimes it feels as though every fiber of my being is stretched to the max. So why do self-proclaimed field biologists do it? Although I can’t speak for others on this matter, I can say that for myself scientific curiosity is the driving force behind purposefully placing myself in uncomfortable situations like primitive camping for weeks or months at a time (who likes running water and electricity, anyway?), living with the omnipresent threat of the many gastrointestinal complications that hang over my head like an ultra-saturated raincloud just waiting to burst (Go away, giardia. You’re not welcome here!), and incessantly wondering if this trail is the one that is finally going to break clumsy my leg. It’s the “why” and “how” questions that keep me chugging away even when I want to throw up my hands and quit. By doing this type of work in a natural setting, we can begin to dissect both the mechanism and evolution of how and why animals do what they do. This type of work just can’t be completed in a lab. Plus, it’s an adventure and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Field work also provides a plethora of time to be introspective and ponder said “how” and “why” questions, and if you’re lucky enough like me, to be with a gaggle of equally inquisitive and exceedingly brilliant people who’s vast knowledge makes me strive to always do and be better. This exposure to genius minds offers budding young scientists like myself rare opportunities to discuss such questions over a plate of rice and beans in an environment that, in my humble opinion, promotes learning and independent critical thinking better than any classroom ever could. And, despite all of its challenges, field work does get easier with each passing season under my belt. I now have packing for the field down to an exact science. Maybe I should publish that for my dissertation!
So what’s next for this jungle queen? Well, if you’re worried that my blog posts will dry up and cease to exist, fear not, dear reader! In nineteen short days I’ll be hopping on another flight to head back to my jungle home. Yup! Bring it on, Madagascar, I’m ready for Round 4. This time my goal at hand will be to collect samples from animals that have recently emerged from hibernation, ideally trapping them as they dig themselves out of their underground burials searching for some yummy banana waiting for them in the trap. Uber-tempting for a hungry lemur that hasn’t eaten for the last 6 months! Most of our study animals begin to emerge in early September and, depending on the species, sex, and age, can emerge as late as late-October. Here is the brilliance of my research program (and please forgive my blatant, er, modesty): I will be collecting samples from the same animals as I did in March and July of this year, providing me a dynamic picture of the transcriptome as it changes in accordance with changes in physiology! (Remember your buzz word, “transcriptome”? The transcriptome is all the genes that are being expressed at the time point in question.) I repeat. The same individuals. To my knowledge, this is the first study that has attempted this. Most other studies like this need to…ummm…sacrifice the animal when they collect their samples thus making a longitudinal look at changes in gene expression through time for one individual impossible. Of course, the stats will then tell me if these sampled individuals show alterations in gene expression that are likely occurring in a similar fashion across the entire population. For example, if I see gene “X” expressed during hibernation in the 8 animals I took tissue samples from, is its expression significant enough to suggest that gene “X” is always expressed during hibernation in every member of that species, with 95% or greater confidence? We’ll see! And here’s the epic part. This is also the first study to attempt this in free-ranging animals, as opposed to animals in the lab. And not to mention with endangered primates! Whoa. I’d say I’m pushing some scary boundaries. My mantra regarding my science has apparently become “High risk. High reward”, although I should probably also add to that “High stress”!
Wrapping up: Someone once told me that I’m a reluctant storyteller. That has always stuck with me and I’ve pondered this I am writing and polishing my posts for your weekly “science fix” and enjoyment (and, yes, selfishly for my enjoyment too, I admit). The reluctance comes from needing to mull deeply over a scenario before putting it into words–the need to use vivid imagery to accurately portray my experiences in question. And that’s what writing this blog has helped me do. It has helped me to express myself in a way that has previously eluded my desperate verbal attempts (and hence, leading to my hesitancy). I hope that you have enjoyed this edition of Chapter One of my tome of “Escapades from the Field”. There is plenty more to follow! I have truly enjoyed writing it and receiving great feedback and encouragement from y’all. And so now, signing off for this field season, I say to you…
It’s a jungle out there!
Update: It’s 4:43 am Eastern time. I made it safely home with my entire luggage in tow. I’m wide-awake thanks to jet lag, my biological timekeeper thinking it’s 11:43 am. But, I am happy to report that I did, indeed, remove the perma-filth from my belongings and eat a giant salad for dinner. In fact, I’m pretty sure I cleared out my local grocery store’s produce section. And my bed? Oh, how I’ve missed thee!