Growing up in a family circle of nature-lovers, the (com)passion for animals was instilled early on. Along with this fascination for (and at times, adoption of) all that was furry, feathered or scaled, an interest in the behaviour of my fellow humans took hold. I was very curious about the amount of variation in personalities around me, yet how people at times still seemed to behave in predictable patterns. Luckily, I was not made to choose between animal or human behaviour, as the University of Bristol offered Psychology-Zoology as a joint-honours bachelor. I built a solid theoretical basis, but more importantly I started approaching questions from an evolutionary standpoint. A field course trip to Lundy Island was a first taste of what collecting and analysing your own data would be like. Sitting on a rock, in the pouring rain looking at rafting sea birds, I thought “this (+a pair of dry socks) is the life”.
My first “real” field work experience (and the start of what I like to think of as a healthy mongoose obsession) was as a research assistant in South Africa, Limpopo on the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project (DMRP). I learnt the joy of studying animals in their natural habitat: an exercise that incites a multitude of questions. How do these critters know where to go? What are they eating? What does that call mean? Why is that individual getting groomed more than others? Is that a snake? I became particularly fascinated by their territorial behaviour and gravitated towards pursuing a Research Masters. Being in charge of designing experiments, collecting data and becoming immersed in a little patch of literature was an immensely useful experience. In terms of future planning, it made this significant change: I felt that doing a PhD was within my capabilities, something I previously had thought was for “other people”. Full-time dedication to research, field work and (hopefully) producing something useful or interesting? Yes, please. Unfortunately, feeling like you can do a PhD and actually securing a funded PhD position are two different things.
After finishing my MSc thesis, I was keen to run follow-up experiments on the dwarf mongoose project. Unlike my undergraduate essays where the general discussion ended in a half-hearted “someone should really look into this more”, I actually wanted to be the one to follow up on the generated questions. I went out as project manager at the DMRP which, along with the novel experience of organising project logistics and training new mongoose recruits, allowed me to run new territorial intrusion experiments. During this time, I had my peepers peeled for interesting PhD projects. Lo and behold – my (slow) internet searches were not in vain. I remember loading up the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology Collective Behaviour page: a vulturine guineafowl picture appeared, I read the description and thought “bingo”. I got in touch and was successful in all steps of the application. The project was in its infancy, but it had all the building blocks to answer some really exciting questions regarding collective movement and group decision-making. Unfortunately, early stages of research rarely come with a lot of funding (a broken record track I’m sure is familiar to many academics). However, it was possible to send me out as a field technician and I spent 4 months in Kenya, Mpala Research Centre, making a start on the description and tagging of the wonderfully weird vulturine guineafowl.
Despite not moving straight into a PhD, the opportunity to remain in research under different titles, has provided the opportunity to accumulate experiences which inadvertently have turned into skill sets. Specific know-hows related to each project aside (from weighing a mongoose to GPS-tagging a guineafowl), I learnt things like improvising field work equipment, changing a tyre, adapting to the local culture and mediating clashes between team members. These transferable skills are best learnt through being dropped in the deep end. Moreover, working on two very different projects has highlighted which project aspects are important to me and what I want to maintain moving forward. Some perhaps under-rated qualities in research I have picked up on:
What now – I’m a stay-at-home scientist. I keep my head in the academia game through writing up papers and applications, keeping tabs on project developments and reading new publications (thank you Twitter). It is important to keep moving forward in this slightly unstructured phase, as I want to have something to show for this period. Moreover, I will soon be heading out for a second time to Mpala Research Centre to continue collecting data and start running some experiments with the vulturine guineafowl (the project has developed a spectacular amount since my first day there).
Something that struck me while reading other “academic life history” blog posts is that people who are multiple steps ahead of me on the academia ladder, ask themselves the question “what next?”. I suppose we are all still in transit and it will be a while before we look back and connect the dots.