Why to be a Field Researcher? – My choice and Journey so far

 

For many people finding a career is never easy. Some spend years of their lives unsure of where they want to go and what they want to spend their lives doing. For me I have known for most of my life the direction I wished to take. I believe I am one of the lucky ones not lost in the sheer number of options. For me the only path I ever wanted to take was to work with primates in the wild.

As a child I would spend hours glued to the tv watching documentary after documentary. I was hooked on the idea of animals. I often went to the toy store with my parents to look at and get toy animals. It was one way I could show my appreciation of animals from all over the globe. For me the deciding point of what I wanted to do with my life must have come when I was around 3-4 years old. I was sitting in my parents living room watching a documentary about the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

The images of these beautiful creatures acting so peacefully in the rain glued itself firmly into my mind. I had a small plastic toy of a gorilla but nothing had prepared my young mind for the image of these gentle creatures.

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The documentary spoke about a woman, who spent her days out in the rainforest with the gorillas. Dian Fossey. All day she travelled with the gorillas and took notes about their lives, relationships and challenges. After long enough she had been accepted by the group;  a term I now know as habituation.

Hearing how this woman had moved her life out into the rainforest to spend her days researching great apes and acting to protect them and their habitat I knew from that moment that conservation was where I wanted to head to.

For my young mind I did not fully comprehend the difficulties and time it would take for me to realise this dream but I was determined to do my part and study primates. As time went on I continued to watch and read more about conservation and how these magical habitats were being damaged by people selfish actions. The polar ice caps melting, the Amazon being cut down and people shooting elephants for ivory. It is hard to understand as a child, and it has not got much easier to understand as I have gotten older. How people are indifferent to the damage being caused to our planet.

About age 7 I learnt how you should turn off electrical to save power and that would save the polar ice caps. As a budding conservation I was going to save the world by keeping the little red stand-by button off the tv. If my family left the tv on stand-by I could not leave it be. I would march over to the tv turn it off and tell people that it must be kept off. I thought that by doing this the world would be saved and polar bears would be protected. As I got older I noticed how I was still seeing how the ice caps were melting, and habitats being depleted even after my mammoth effort to keep the tv turned off. So I read more and more. If my school assigned a project for us I would do it always about the natural world and how we must protect the forest.

In high school my career path became more confused. “Career advisors” were asking what we could see ourselves doing when we grew up. They were not so enthusiastic about being professional conservation or field researcher. Instead they discussed how work in a zoo or animal collection was perhaps a better idea, more achievable. So I started to look at working in a zoo. Tried to convince myself that maybe that would be a way I could work in conservation. Be a primate keeper, care for great apes and maybe that would make a difference.

So I volunteered at a local zoo. Did a short animal keepers course to learn animal care from roaches to racoons. Asked keepers how they got into the job, if they enjoyed it, do they feel like they make a difference. Whilst it was fun and my first real taste of working with exotic animals I was never really that interested in animal care. I have respect to those who work in animal care and try to educate the public but I just never found it satisfying for me. Watching animals in the best designed enclosures in the world is always going to be less satisfying then seeing them in their natural habitats. Whilst I am aware that if zoos and breeding programs were not needed then they probably wouldn’t exist, but for me I felt I wanted to apply myself to conserving the habitats of the world as a way to protect the species.

So I disagreed with the career advisors at school and college and reaffirmed the idea I would be a field researcher. I began visiting websites regularly to find opportunities to work with primates and work in research. However, it was several years before I was able to get close to actual research. My education continued and I did my best to work towards science. I believed and still do that studying and learning more about the natural world is by far the best way to protect it. I enrolled into Bangor University in Wales to study a Zoology & Conservation degree. I feel that university had been the biggest step towards field research I could have taken. I began learning about concepts and ideas that I had never even heard about. I truly began to understand the knowledge and talent modern conservationists have and how it is applied in meaningful ways.

Even now in university I still made sure that every single optional project was about primate conservation and habitat protection. Really I haven’t changed that much in 20 something years of education and studying.

Despite me firmly knowing at this point I wanted to be a field researcher I still volunteered at the local zoo near my university. It was a good opportunity to practice my skills in educating the public and also learn new skills in animal care. Plus I enjoyed being around the animals and it allowed me great experiences, I fed a bear by hand (through bars of course) but still it was a magical moment.

It was in my final year of my undergrad degree that finally my constant email searching started to pay me back after all those years. I had come across a UK based researcher looking to study gibbon song and hormones in UK zoos. There was a list of the zoos they wished to study in and there it was. The zoo I volunteered in. So I spent days writing the perfect email. Trying to sound professional and confident in my ability. Weeks passed and I assumed I had been unsuccessful. Until I got a call from the researcher and she asked if I was still available. It was a great achievement for me. My first taste of primate research. Yes I was an unpaid research assistant conducting zoo based research, but that cannot take away from the pride I took in the work. Rising pre-dawn every morning for several months to spend most of the day watching gibbons. Recording their haunting duets in the morning, taking photos for observations and comparisons over many weeks and collecting pounds of gibbon poo. I felt like I had nearly made it. But at the same time I felt I wasn’t yet worthy to be doing such great work. The feeling of why me? When there are so many other talented people. But I was extremely thankful for the opportunity to improve, demonstrate my skills and spend the days watching primates.

How sad I was once the research ended and me and the researcher ,who had trusted me, parted ways. The research was complete and I wasn’t needed to collect data anymore. I had decided to study my dissertation at university on the same species. I studied how stress influenced their behaviour and this again allowed me spend all my king hours watching and studying gibbons. Doing research has given me the opportunity to look beyond the edge of knowledge. I have yet saved the world or brought a species back from the edge but I feel that I have made a start down that path.

I have now been accepted onto a research masters. I will finally be flying out to the rainforest to research primates. After so many years, since before I could even understand fully what I was dreaming of, I have finally made it to the brink of my dream career. It feels that this is the final step before I will be able to work, earn a living and spend my times working to save the habitat these species call home. Never could I have imagined how much work would have been involved just to get to this point. But I am grateful to all those that got me here. Thankful my determination did not give out, and owe a great bet to those who supported my childhood ambition.

So why did I choose to research for my career? Honestly I could never see me being happy in anything else. Perhaps it is a cop out of an answer but I still want to save the world, keep the ice caps frozen, keep the forests standing and the animals alive for everyone to appreciate. I hope that all this will be completed through meaningful research in the wild by committed, driven people who are always pushing knowledge to new fascinating places.

Im still aa dreamer, an idealist and kept the passion of my youth for conservation alive .

And to this day I cannot stand to see the little red light of a TV on stand-by.

 

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