woman scientist

in the field

Seeing the world in 360 degrees – Nikon KeyMission360

A friend lent me his Nikon KeyMission360 camera, so I thought I’d test it out on a recreation dive at La Jolla Shores, San Diego, California. Unfortunately with the underwater lenses the black band cuts the frame. Maybe one of these days the viz will clear and I can get better footage! The plan is to figure out how to use a camera like this so I can film us working underwater during a scientific dive!

Beach entry at La Jolla Shores

Surface swim

Exploring the canyon

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Exploring the Okavango Delta – Part 3

Last year I went to Africa in June. Their dry season. When all the green fades away and only shades of beige and golden hues remain. I was co-leading groups of undergraduate students who were eager to learn wildlife tracking and skills in collecting observational data on the Big Cats of Kruger National Park. Over the course of a month, we saw 101 lion, 33 leopard, and 7 cheetah, among a plethora of other fantastic african wildlife. I felt I had nearly seen it all.

This year, visiting Africa during the December wet season, proved to be equally spectacular but in a different way. The bush had become thick with green Mopani leaves and grasses extending all lengths. This cover allowed animals to better hide but despite the density of green, I was still impressed with the amount of wildlife we saw. Lions, leopards, elephants, and hippo. We did not go home feeling any sort of lack.

Early one morning, we sat with two female lionesses.  “Lions are lazy,” the guide said to us. “They lie around all day sleeping and only hunt when they have to.”

It sure seemed that way to us. Female lions are a pride’s primary hunters. They often work together to take down prey such as zebra, antelopes, and wildebeest. These lazy lionesses sure didn’t seem to be planning for any such activities that day.

Most of the time we saw lions, we either saw two brothers, two sisters, or a male and a female mating. The average size of a lion pride consists of five or six females, their cubs, and one or two males living in a family unit.  Extremely large prides are not typical, although last year, we did count a group of 29 individuals living together in Kruger National Park.

Lions are the only cats to live in social groups, and all of a pride’s lionesses are related. Female cubs typically stay with the group as they age, but young males eventually leave and establish their own prides by taking over a group headed by another male.

The story of one particular male roaming the area near Savuti had a sad beginning. Mr. Lion and his brother were a team. But one day, Mr. Lion met a Ms. Lion and the two went off to enjoy each other’s company. As a typical mating cycle lasts about three days, with the mating ritual taking place almost every 20 minutes, up to 40 times daily, the two would be busy for quite some time. Brother lion was left to wander by himself.Alone and unguarded, Brother lion ended up getting into some trouble. A band of  three other brother lions roaming the area challenged him to a fight. Without the help of his brother, he was no match for the three males and unfortunately did not survive the attack.

Mr. Lion had no idea this was happening. However, once the days had passed, and Ms. Lion’s interest wained, Mr. Lion went looking for him.

Nowhere to be found.

He called, and called. Through the night and day.

The guides suspect he eventually figured out his brother wasn’t going to come back. Without him, Mr. Lion wasn’t able to effectively hunt. They watched him slowly lose weight as time went on, and renamed him Mr. Skinny.

Each time we saw him, he barely moved. In the heat of the sun, you’d suspect he had died. Every now and then, though, he would stir, roll around, and clean himself off.  Then one evening, just before dusk, we saw Mr. Skinny in a rather peppy mood. We weren’t sure what was going on at first, but then we saw. Ms. Lion had returned. At first, she seemed rather annoyed he had started to follow her. She ran ahead, and he continued to slowly trot behind.

It became clear he was too weak to catch up with her. Exhaustion took over, and he lay down to catch a break. Surely Ms. Lion would be on her way?

Nope! She came back to him, rubbed her face against his, encouraging him to stand up and continue after her.  We watched as she played a flirtatious game of catch-me-if-you-can far into the sunset, past the hour of visibility to capture any of it on camera.

The guides were optimistic that Mr. Skinny could recover. Although, with the band of three brothers still roaming around and a flirtatious female visiting them all, his chances would be slim unless he stayed well hidden from the other males.

Each day our schedule was full of adventure, food, and relaxation.

Morning started with the 5:00 a.m. wake up call. At 5:30 a.m. we piled into the car for our first game drive of the day. At 9:30 a.m. we would find a nice place in the field to stop and have coffee and biscuits before continuing our drive.

By 11:00 a.m., we returned back to camp for breakfast with the staff and a lively recap of the morning’s sightings.

“The bar is open if anyone wants something to drink,” the host Sally announced!

“Join me in some champagne,” Eva, the German/South African would chime. Why the heck not?! We were on vacation, after all, and we had the best seats in the house!

After breakfast, we had a break in the day. Siesta time until 4:00 p.m. A perfect span of time to relax, journal, and nap. I don’t know if it was the heat of the day, or the fact we woke at 5:00 a.m., but a nap always happened.

Temperatures during December never got too cold, hovering between 60-80*F throughout the day. In June, nights would drop to 46*F and rise to 97*F by midday, so packing layers was crucial, however this time around, I never used my gloves nor hat.

At 4:00 p.m., we sauntered out to the main lodge where we sipped tea and nibbled on delicious snacks. All of the food prepared at Wilderness Safari camps was incredible.

At 4:30 p.m., we again piled into the car to begin our afternoon game drive. Every day we stopped at sunset to enjoy “Sundowners”, really just an excuse to drink and enjoy the colors of light playing off the landscape.

Tops offers Sarita a glass of Africa wine.

Eva holds a dung beetle to the light.

Unless an epic sighting kept us out late, we returned to the camp by 7:30 p.m. each night. A full course dinner and wine pairings began at 8:00 p.m. and we sat with the whole group, guests and staff.  Wine and conversation flowed as we recounted the day’s events and stories of our lives back home.  It truly felt like we were eating with family.

 

***

This story ends here! If you’d like to keep reading, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter and get immediate updates delivered to your inbox. For stories earlier in the trip, read part 1 and part 2.

As always, please share Woman Scientist with anyone you think may feel inspired!

Thanks for reading.

***

All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick. Information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

 

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Exploring the Okavango Delta Botswana – Savuti Part 2

“Knock, knock, knock…”

“Helloooo…”

“Good morniiiiing….”

…It’s dark…

I sleepily open my eyes to the 5a.m. wake up call.

“Good morning!”

“We are awake. Thank you!”

In thirty minutes the sun would rise, which gave us just enough time to roll out of bed, throw on clothes, grab our bags, and slug back a cup of coffee and light breakfast before heading into the vehicle for our morning game drive.

In the wilderness, if you want to have the best opportunity for animal sightings, you wake up when the animals wake up .  And sunrise is actually one of my favorite times of the day.  It always feels like you are in on a secret the rest of the world doesn’t yet know about.

Elephant and a saddle-billed stork

Four of us piled into the rover eager to start exploring: Our guide and driver, Tops, a lovely German/South African woman named Eva, and my mom and I.

There is never a real agenda when you are on safari. You go where the animal signs lead you.

Tops began the morning meandering along the main roads, keeping an opportunistic eye out for fresh animal tracks.

Even when we didn’t see big game, there were plenty of other animals and birds to keep us occupied. Botswana has 75 larger mammal species and 593 bird species have been recorded. Because of the Delta’s dynamic watery woodlands, amphibians are also abundant.

Helmeted Guinea fowl

Coppery tailed coucal

Lilac breasted roller. My favorite.

White faced whistling ducks

Marabou stork

leopard tortoise

african bullfrog carcass

Southern carmine bee eater

Another lilac breasted roller

Sable antelope

Kudu

They joke that warthogs are part of Africa’s “Ugly Five”.  A play on the sought after “Big Five” game animals: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. I found the warthogs to be endearing and my favorite site was them trotting off into the bush with their tails held high. A signal to other hogs to say, “Follow me if you want to live!”

Warthogs typically live in family groups of a female and her young. Female warthogs only have four teats, so litter sizes are usually confined to four young. Each piglet has its own teat and suckles exclusively from it.  After about 4 months, the young switch to receiving most of their nourishment from grazing.

Mama warthog and piglets

Baby impala

side striped jackal

Blue Wildebeest

Pair of jackals

A playful zebra

   Giraffes are probably one of my favorite animals. They’re so tall and slow. If you’ve ever seen a giraffe running, you know what I mean. They’re operating on a different timeline and for good reason. They have some of the longest nerves around. The sciatic nerve, which runs down each of its legs, is several yards long, so responding to a stimuli actually takes longer. 

Wilderness Safari’s Savuti Camp is located in the Linyanti concession. This 125,000 hectare area is rich with mopane woodland, floodplains, and riparian forests. The year round water source from the Savute Channel attracts wildlife including herds of elephant that can reach very high densities in the drier winter months (July/August).

“Never trust a hippo,” they say.

Here, you really get to appreciate the full circle of life. From the living, to the dead, as well as the breakdown process of decay. Everyone is hard at work surviving.

Tops holds up a Cape Buffalo skull. This was a female which you can tell by looking at the helmeted cap on the head. Males have larger more fused plates which help them in combat.

Tops explains to us the importance of elephant dung in the ecosystem.

Dung beetles ready for action.

Skin of an elephant. This one probably died naturally. Signs of poaching involve removal of the tusks and Botswana has a shoot-to-kill policy against anyone suspected of doing so.

One sign that decay is close by, is that of the Scavenger of Death. The Vulture.

Vultures are not known to kill their own prey. Instead, they wait near the scene of the crime for their chance to gorge. If you’re out driving and spot vultures circling on the horizon, there is a sure chance you’ll find something exciting if you get close.

Perhaps a lion has just made a kill? Or a pair of cheetahs has finished feasting on a zebra?

One day, we saw vultures circling around a tree, so we decided to investigate.

As we got closer to the tree, we noticed many of the vultures were sitting in its branches staring at the pond below.

Then, we saw it.

A dead hippo in the water!

Trying to get a better view, we decided to circle around the pond. Attempting to cross a water way in the rainy season is always a risk.  Depending on the soil type, the ground can turn into sticky mud within minutes. 

Our effort to get closer immediately failed. The mud pulled us in. 

Tops revved the engine trying to force the Land Rover free. We didn’t budge. The mud was too slippery and grabbed us, pulling us in further.

There was no escape.

That’s when we knew we were really seriously stuck. At first, I tried to play calm. Stuck? Its part of the Safari experience! … right?! 

Then my mind started working. Vultures. Dead hippo just lying there. Nowhere to go.

I couldn’t help think the lions would be there soon.  We were goners.

Tops radioed for help but we were more than an hour outside of camp.

As we waited, he cheerily offered us all coffee and biscuits. Coffee? Biscuits?? How can we eat right now?! WE MIGHT DIE!

“But Allison, if this is your last meal, you might as well enjoy it!” Eva said as she crawled to the back of the rover and lit up a cigarette.

“Mom? Are you scared?” I asked.

“No! We are fine,” she smiled. Calm. Too calm, I thought. A sure sign of denial regarding the imminent doom we were facing.

 I felt a mix of high anxiety and thrilling adventure while my mind played thoughts of lion attack. I also knew I could trust our guide, Tops. He grew up here. Surely getting stuck has happened before.  Right!?

Tops distracted us with jokes and stories while we waited. 

And waited.

The team, enjoying our last meal.

Finally, after an hour, our help arrived!

Pahlana and ST showed up with another vehicle and long tow straps.

After several attempts, a shovel, and lots of wood jammed under the tires, they eventually pulled us out and my nerves subsided.

We circled around to get a better look at said hippo.  That’s when we discovered it’s face had been chewed off, the entire body was bloated ready to explode, and we had luckily gotten stuck upwind from the wretched stench.

An adventure to remember for sure! 

I definitely slept well that night.

This post ends here. To keep reading, click here for part 3.

***

To get immediate updates the minute new posts go live, please subscribe to the newsletter in the field at the top of the site!  And as always, if you know someone who may be inspired by the articles on Woman Scientist, please share it with your network!

Stay tuned for more stories of my adventures in Botswana and Zimbabwe….

If you missed the beginning of this journey, click here to start from the beginning.

*****

All information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

Photos by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick.

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Exploring the Okavango Delta in Botswana – Savuti Part 1

I still could not believe I was about to spend the next seven days soaking in the beauty of the Okavango Delta, enjoying the wildlife and hospitality of the people at Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. If you missed the post about how I came to book this trip, click here.

The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland river delta and the last remaining intact wetland.  In June 2014, it became the 1000th site to be officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The source begins in the Angolan highlands where myriad streams and smaller rivers combine to bring summer rains (falling between October and April) through Namibia before finally reaching the delta basin in Botswana (around March through August).

Simplified catchment flow progression. From Wilderness Safaris pamphlet

At this point in the season, the delta swells to three times its permanent size. Animals from miles around come to Botswana for this influx of water, thus creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife.

 

So how long does it take to travel to Africa from the west coast of the US?

FOR.EH.VER.

We spent nearly 26 hours in flight, totaling 38 hours of travel, including layovers. I left San Diego bright and early to fly to Washington DC,  where I met my mom and caught my overseas flight to Johannesburg. That distance took 18 hours to fly and the plane made a pit stop in Ghana to refuel.  Once we got to Johannesburg the flight to Maun, Botswana, was less than two hours. From Maun, we caught a small puddle jumper flight to our first camp at Savuti, which is in the Linyanti concession.

I was able to sit as co-pilot in the tiny plane and gaze at a spectacular bird’s eye view of the region.

Copilot with Trent in charge. (Trent also has hopes of flying with Kenmore Air for any of you Seattle folk! Although I’d say flying bush planes in Africa is WAY cooler.)

Can you see the elephant at the waterhole below?

Our pilot, Trent, warned us about slight turbulence and made sure we knew where to find the doggie bags. Down below we spotted elephants drinking at a watering hole, so to gain a better view he made a large circle around.  It was during that time my mom discovered airsickness. Luckily, the doggie bags were within reach.

We landed at the small dirt airstrip where ST greeted us with a big smile. It had been raining off and on so everyone was wearing dark green ponchos. ST drove us down a mud road to the Savuti camp where a group welcomed us with singing.

Greeting committee: Quest, Julia, Sally, Kelly,  Nkuma? (If you’re from Wilderness Safaris, help me fill in the missing names!)

We had no idea what to expect but were blown away immediately. The Savuti lodge is built rustic and beautiful with an open air plan, just the way I like my living! In the elements where you can feel close to nature, hear the sounds, and see the sites directly from your bedroom. Nothing like the boxed in cages of posh hotel rooms in the city.

Elephants could literally come through your front yard, and have in the past.

After our briefing with tea and cookies, we had the option to go out on a game drive or relax. Relax?! I dont think my family knows the meaning of relax. Even though it was raining, we emphatically said YES to the game drive! My mom and I were born and raised in the rainy city of Seattle, afterall.

Sally, me, ST, mom and Phalana wait in the rain for our guide to come.

The rain didn’t seem to bother the impala nor the elephants as they feasted away on the mopane trees…

Last year I had visited Kruger National Park in South Africa during the dry season of June, so I was not expecting there to be so much green. I suppose, when you think about it, that is the whole point of the rainy season in December! It was spectacular and made the bush lush and thick. A perfect place for animals to hide.

We left the thickets and opened into a large meadow. I raised my binoculars and started scanning the edge of the meadow. Thats when I saw it.

A lion!

Two lions!

It was amazing to be so close to the king of the jungle. Awe struck and slightly terrified.

The two males, brothers, were beautiful and relaxed. Sleepily watching a heard of elephants grazing in the distance. Every time the elephants moved away, the lions took a stand, stretched, yawned, and lazily sauntered closer to them.

Their amber eyes were stunning and had the magical effect of drawing you in while seemingly reading your mind. “Please don’t eat me!” mine pleaded.

As the sun set, the two started to roar in what sounded like a duet harmonizing. Deep, guttural groans that echoed through the meadow.

We stayed with them for a while as the sun set a brilliant hot pink, casting fluorescent green on the grass.  An excellent way to begin our journey in the Okavango Delta.

Botswana is approximately 224,610m2  (581,730km2) home to just over 2 million people consisting of many ethnic groups (Bayei, Bakalanga, Babugakwe, Hamkubushu, Bakgalagadi, Batswana, Baherero, Basarwa (San), European), each with its own ethnic identity and language. I was amazed that an entire country of that size held less than the population of my home region! To put that in perspective, Seattle and Washington’s Puget Sound alone contain more than 3.8 million people all crammed into just over 1,000m2 (2,642 km2)!

Retreating into wilderness treasures, like the one in Botswana, was a welcomed relief from the rush of city life.

Many of the indigenous communities are represented within Wilderness Safaris, employed as knowledgeable guides sharing stories of the dynamic ecosystem and their culture and life living in the Delta.  To travel through this pristine region, learning from the experts, was honestly the highlight of the experience.

I will end this post here but be sure to sign up for the newsletter to get alerts the day posts go live!

To continue reading more, click here for the next post in the adventure.

Thanks for reading.

Please, follow on social media, and feel free to share the site with others who may feel inspired by the stories hosted at www.womanscientist.com

***

All information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides.

All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick.

 

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Bidding High for the Okavango Delta

The dream started when I attended a National Geographic Live! event at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA on November 2, 2015.  South African conservationist, Steve Boyes, and Multi-disciplinary artist, Jer Thorp, led a “live-data” expedition across Botswana’s Okavango Delta in 2014 and presented the results with Seattle.

The team of baYei River Bushmen, scientists, artists, writers, photographers, bloggers, naturalists and engineers traveled from the Okavango Delta river source waters in Angola all the way through to Botswana documenting the numerous biodiversity they encountered, sharing it in real-time with thousands of followers. They recounted tales of discovery and danger, captivating the audience and stirring my wanderlust.

Photo Credit: National Geographic team

Fast forward a couple of months: January 7, 2016. A friend, Kirsten Gardner, tipped me off to a fundraising event  to help raise money for Dr. Gregory Rasmussen’s Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe. “It could be a good networking opportunity,” she said. Boy, was that a foreshadow for what was to come.

I had never been to a true auction before, much less bid on anything. And with the entry price being $50, and me being a non-profit scientist, I told myself I would bid on nothing, I was only there to network.

As nervous as I was, knowing no one in the room personally, I encouraged myself to sit down at the table in the front where sat the Woodland Park Zoo’s Vice President of Field Conservation, Fred KoontzDr. Lisa Dabek, a National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program grantee and founder and director of Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, and wire artist Colleen with Colleen R. Cotey Studios.

The auction got started. I listened, intrigued as small items racked up high bids.  Then, the bigger items came. Weekend get-away adventures, wine packages, large wire sculptures.

I held fast. Nothing really interested me enough to actually make a bid. Then, the auctioneer said it.  The magic words: All-inclusive 7-day trip to the Okavango Delta.

Whaaaaaaat?! The Okavango Delta? Holy crap. Seriously?? I had dreamed about going there the day I heard the Nat Geo explorers talk about it in November!

Ultimate Africa has donated an all-inclusive 6 night / 7 day Botswana and Victoria Falls safari for 2 people valued at US $20,000. Two nights at their Savuti camp, followed by three nights at Vumbura Plains all ending at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Puddle jumper flights and ground transportation needs from Maun to Victoria Falls were included.

Photo credit: wilderness-safaris-vumbura

Photo credit: Allison Lee wilderness-safaris-savuti

Typically I don’t travel in luxury. I’m more of the camping/getting dirty/on-the-cheap/roughing it type of gal. But this. This, I had to bid on.

The bid started low: “Going for $1250, we have $1250, anyone for $1250, next at $2000, $2000, anyone for $2500? We have $2500, anyone for $3000, $3500?….

The bid crawled up to $5500. I quickly did the math for two: wait a minute, that’s only $2750 per person! I had to act fast.

I held my card in the air: ME!

$6000?”…

Another guy took the bid. Dammit!

The price climbed… $7000?  … $7500?

Trip for two. Six nights. Okavango Delta. All inclusive. High end (glamping) luxury safari. Got it. I knew that last year I had spent a month in Africa for $4000 so I set my price point and told myself I wouldn’t go over that per person.

$8000, do I hear $8000?” Prices were climbing fast.

Fuck it.

ME! I held my card high again.

$8000, anyone for $8500? $8500? Going once? Going twice? $8000 to the young lady!

Oh. My. God. What have a I just done?? I felt slight shock.

Everyone congratulated me and I held a smile on my face. Luckily, I had just paid off my credit card 10 days earlier, so there was room to go right back up to my credit limit. (Despite this story, I’m actually very good with money and have an above 820  top credit score. What’s money good for if you don’t spend it, right?!) Plus, it was going to a good cause. I already know adventure and conservation are my weaknesses financially.

Dr. Rasmussen approached me to thank me and I quickly told him I was also a scientist if he wanted help in the field. “Could I stay on after my trip and come visit you in Zimbabwe?!” I begged.

Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “But only if you like picking up poop.” (A comment only true wildlife biologists would get giddy over).

Phew. OK. My $8000 7-day trip for two would now become a month long trip for me. I would spend the safari in Botswana with someone (didn’t know who yet), then we would pop over to Zimbabwe to hang out with Dr. Rasmussen. I could handle that.

I sped home and furiously began to text anyone I knew if they wanted to join me on this adventure. I spent all night in a panic hearing “no” after “no” after “I would love to but can’t afford it”.

Then, I found her.

The lucky Partner in Adventure: my mom.

It was during the next couple of month’s that I found out I would be leaving my job at the Institute for Systems Biology to attend graduate school in June at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I debated selling the trip since I would no longer have a salary, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I HAD to go. Africa was waiting.

We booked our trip for December 10, 2016 (during my school’s winter break), and planned for it to have three parts:

  1. Cape Town Road Trip in South Africa
  2. Okavango Delta Safari in Botswana
  3. Visit with Dr. Rasmussen and Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe

My mom would spend 15 days total in Africa, and I would stay for 24. Then, we waited patiently for the day to arrive.

Ultimately, the trip ended up being pretty costly after purchasing flights from US to Africa, and flights within the countries of Africa ($3100+ in flights and travel insurance). But it was all worth it in the end.

I’ll end the story here in this blog post as its getting very long.

Stay tuned for continuing stories of Okavango Delta, Botswana and Zimbabwe Adventures…coming soon!

To see the next post on Part 1 of the Okavango Delta, click here.

For those interested in what my packing list looked like, here is the run down with comments on what I used and wished I had packed.

  • sandals (luna)
  • flat walking shoes (Toms)
  • Running shoes (didn’t really wear)
  • warm socks (only wore one pair once)
  • bra (2 sports)/undies (10)
  • water bottle (used a lot)
  • cards (didn’t use)
  • book (read 2: Half-Earth by EO Wilson and Citizen Scientist by Mary Ellen Hannibal)
  • ziplocks
  • bug spray
  • small first aid kit
  • toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, dry shampoo, floss, glasses, contacts, moist wipes, kleenex, chapstick, sunscreen)
  • sunglasses
  • good binoculars
  • pretty scarf (dresses up any boring outfit)
  • gloves/hat (didn’t use, but if I traveled in their winter, might have needed)
  • allergy meds/ibuprofen/malaria pills (used! Don’t forget the malaria pills)
  • headlamp/batteries
  • down jacket (only used on frigid airplane)
  • zip up hoodie sweater (used to ward off mosquitos but was too heavy for heat in general)
  • african print sweatshirt (great! light weight but gave good coverage and comfort)
  • two light weight hiking pants
  • one pair of shorts with pockets
  • three light t-shirts (blue, black, and blue)
  • two tank tops (black and white)
  • Safari button down long sleeve shirt (loose fitting clothes are excellent)
  • poncho (used once in a downpour)
  • GoPro / cords
  • iphone / cords
  • 6-charge battery pack (VERY handy)
  • small foldable backpack (day bag also used as additional carry on item for books and airplane needs under my seat)
  • small coin/card purse (could fit passport and phone)
  • small notebook/paper/pen
  • quick dry towel (never used)
  • 26 Clif Bars, just in case food situation wasn’t good (only ate 4, gave the rest away)
  • one 44 liter/2650 cubic inch carry on backpack to fit it all in (mine is the very old version of Kelty Redwing 2650)

 

*Featured Image photo credit: Allison Lee

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Fifth Month of Grad Life

Hello! I completely bailed on making a recap video for month three and month four of grad life (coming soon). That’s because…well, grad life.

We are nearing the end of month five and I felt inspired to get back on the ball (or am heavily procrastinating on writing my term papers), so here is the latest recap video of our fifth month in graduate school.

Make sure to watch what we did during our first and second month.

To remind you all, I’m in the Master of Advanced Studies program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography studying Marine Biodiversity & Conservation. Its an amazing interdisciplinary program focusing on economics, policy, and social constraints and I highly recommend it!

I apologize in advanced for the incredibly choppy audio stitching–I clearly need to take a media productions class some day–but I wanted to at least share the content of how our month has progressed.

Thank you so much for watching!

Don’t forget to follow Woman Scientist for more inspiration on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.

Also, if you get out in the field for work, we’d love to share your career journey. Click this link to fill out the interview and inspire others to go in to science!

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Swift Interview with Corvid Expert Kaeli Swift

Kaeli Swift knows crows. Between her undergradaute work and current doctoral work, she’s studied them for nearly seven years.  While these exploits have given her a holistic education on all things crow, her current interest is in understanding their “funeral” behaviors.

Crows, in the family Corvidae, are known for their intelligence and adaptability. Everyone has a story, good or bad, which demonstrates the inquisitive, sometimes mischievous nature of these corvids.

To gain expertise as an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, Kaeli earned a Master’s degree and is currently pursuing her PhD at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington.

A masked individual held a dead crow for 30 minutes (Credit: Kaeli Swift)

I met Kaeli at a dinner function in Seattle. Woman Scientist had just started hosting “Dinners with Field Scientists” — a night of informal connection between women pursuing careers in the sciences that get them out in the field. A mutual Field Scientist friend, Carolyn Rachel, brought her along. As we went around the table sharing our work, she spoke to us about studying funerals. The crow stories flew across the room.

5thdinner

Knowing her subject matter was such good conversation topic, I invited her to give a talk at the Institute for Systems Biology, where I worked at the time, for our informal luncheon discussion groups.  She came straight from the field to share with us everything we needed to know about crows and it was the most well attended luncheon I’ve seen.  The entire room was captivated by her research material and engaging presentation style.

Kaeli received her undergrad degree in Biology from Willamette University and knew that she wanted to go into wildlife biology. As a junior in undergrad, she started working with crows (and talking to John Marzluff), and crow work became the goal. Through her education she realized she wanted to have more power designing her own experiments. To figure out how to gain that independence, she made many calls to individuals who held job titles she saw herself having and asked what degrees they had.  Most earned degrees in higher education which inspired her to pursue a PhD.

Let’s hear more from Kaeli:

What was your first science-related job?

The summer of my Sophomore year I participated in The Student Collaborative Research Program which was basically a paid science internship (supported by the Murdock Charitable Trust). I looked at using the photo sharing network Flickr to track banded bird sightings.  

Did you have any preconceived notions about science, or scientists, and did that change once you explored your career in science?

I thought it was cleaner. You learn about these famous experiments, even animal behavior experiments, and you have no idea how much mess and disaster goes into actually producing the data. It’s much less precise than I pictured when I was a young student doing mostly very simple lab experiments.  

Kaeli and John Marzluff look at the brain activity of crows.

What is your earliest memory of being hooked by science?

When I was in 3rd grade I designed an experiment to test if goldfish had memory.  

Was there any one person that inspired you?

Jane Goodall

What do you want to achieve in your career? What is your big dream?

When we think of the most famous contemporary faces of science, the people who have made careers out of translating science for the public, the reality is that they  are still (mostly) white men.  Women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, are all an increasing (albeit still minority) presence in the highest levels of academia and I want to be part of the force normalizing their faces as the faces of science.  I love talking about my research, and science more broadly, with the public and I’d love to turn that passion into a career.  To do so at the level of someone like Neil Degrasse Tyson or Bill Nye would be the ultimate goal.   

Photo credit: Michael Werner.

Has your work allowed you to travel? If so, where have you gone and what were you doing there?

I’ve been to Australia to do a 3 month tech job looking at sexual selection in Satin bowerbirds. It was the hardest physical job I’ve ever had, but it was by far the most beautiful and exciting. Then I went to IN for the private sector job. It was the exact opposite of the Aussie job in every way.  

Tell about your experiences working in different sectors?

I’ve worked in academia and the private sector (I worked for 2 seasons with biological consulting firm). The private sector stuff paid BANK but there was also a nagging discomfort in knowing my bosses were paid by people who had very vested interests in the outcomes of our research. That being said I never witnessed anything that looked suspicious or like bad science. They treated us well, safety was taken seriously, and there were serious financial perks. Academia on the other hand is a bit more wild west. The pay is often meager, people hardly ever talk seriously about safety in the field, but there’s so much more freedom to ask crazy interesting questions.

What were or currently are some big compromises or struggles you’ve experienced making a career for yourself in the science world?

Temporary field work was always tough before grad school because I was in a relationship. My husband and I have spent most every year apart, at first because of my job and more recently because of his. That was hard. Now, being a grad student, it feels like all our friends are growing up and moving on with their lives (buying homes, earning a decent wage, starting families) and we’re living the same life we did 10 years ago in college.  

What keeps you motivated when you’re feeling the drudgery? 

Sharing stories with my colleagues or engaging with my study animal in a non scientific way. Oh, and of course doing public talks. They’re maybe the biggest pick me up. They’re a great opportunity to recognize how much stuff you do actually know (grad school has a way of becoming Ygritte –Game of Thrones reference), be supported by kind strangers, and take your academia hat off and just tell people about all the best/most interesting aspects of your field.

What are some key points you remind yourself of during your science career journey?

That other people have the same doubts that I do. Doubts about their path, their qualifications, and their achievements.  

What are some inspirational materials you’ve used along the way?

TED talks are great! Also, Dogs Days Raven Nights by John and Colleen Marzluff is a great look at the post-doc experience.

dodays

Thank you for the doing this interview Kaeli! 

I know Kaeli’s story ended too soon and you’re probably hooked on wanting to hear more about her research with crows. Well, you can!

Be sure to follow Kaeli on Instagram, Twitter, and via her engaging blog posts!

If you liked this interview, please share it!  And if you’re a Woman Scientist doing work out in the field, or know someone who is, we’d love to hear your career journey. Please fill out the interview by clicking here.

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Second Month of Graduate Life

Did you like the video? Please share!

To see more photos from our time on Catalina Island click here.

To hear about the first month of graduate school, click here.

And here is another awesome video of a green turtle swimming off the coast of La Jolla Shores.

Don’t forget to follow Woman Scientist for more inspiration on Facebook and Instagram.

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The Story of Texas Wild’s Jessie Story

If you haven’t heard of Texas Wild make sure to watch this clip now:

 

Ray and Jessie’s work with Texas Wild is produced at West Texas A&M University in cooperation with Panhandle PBS KACV and reaches viewers in over 250,000 homes. In 2016, Jessie was awarded the Dan A. Klepper Memorial Scholarship from Texas Outdoors Writer’s Association for her work merging wildlife education and improving science literacy with the public through social media and television.

I first learned of Texas Wild via Instagram when Jessie Story introduced herself and shared a stunning photograph of her holding her first bobcat as a field assistant on a carnivore research project. I shared the image with all of you on Woman Scientist’s Instagram account and immediately asked Jessie to do an interview. She gladly agreed!

Jessie Story with Bobcat

Those who work with Jessie Story in the field describe her as being a “tough-as-nails outdoors person that will sleep anywhere, work in any conditions, fears nothing (except heights a little), and is low maintenance. She can handle venomous snakes, canoes and kayaks, snorkels and films underwater, and is a capable spelunker.”

Her partner, Ray Matlack, describes her as the energy that keeps Texas Wild going.

She describes herself as a bit of a fashionista. “I like my handbags, a bi-weekly trip to the nail salon and wearing my sandals to lunch. Leather jackets, scarfs and all black attire are my go-to’s. Equally, I enjoy catching animals, swamps, camping, getting lost and getting dirt on my face. Don’t let my appearance fool you!”

Let’s hear more from Jessie:

Jessie in Canyon Square 5

What is your earliest memory of being hooked by science?

Sharks.

As far back as I can remember I was fascinated by sharks. Since I was a child, reading has been a central pastime in my family. My mother is an avid reader which led to weekly trips to the library where she would swap out her bag of books. Some of my fondest memories are tagging along with my mother on her weekly Library trips where I would position myself in the aisle that held, on the bottom shelf, books about sharks. I would sit and flip through the pages while my mother browsed (as a child and young adult, I battled a severe speech impediment). Aside from sitting in the library aisle, I attended storytelling session in the library. I remember Native American stories as well as “Stellaluna,” an experience that shaped my love of bats.


Growing up I inhaled a large amount of nature and science documentaries, from sharks to Bill Nye. I watched as biologists explained their research and the tracking methods of specimens. I then would try to replicate the monitoring and data techniques. I would measure, weigh and sketch the patterns and morphological characteristics (such as lack of toe in Woodhouse’s toad) before releasing them. I was always fascinated by the animals themselves and this was just another way for me to handle wildlife.

Has your work allowed you to travel?

Man, I’ve been everywhere. My primary home range has been Texas–every inch of her–for the past 3 years during the creation of Texas Wild. Born in Amarillo, I reside in Canyon and consider Bastrop TX, a second home. Other activities have carried me outside of my home range from sleeping in the back of a Toyota truck on top of tripods in below-freezing temperatures at Bosque del Apache to the Sandhills of Nebraska and traversing large portions of the Great Plains. I’ve traveled from my hometown, Amarillo to Key West, scouting locations for future filming.

During the past three years working in the field for both research and film purposes, I travel the majority of the year often missing family holidays, celebrations and birthdays. This past Thanksgiving was the first holiday I’ve been home for in those 3 years

Did you have any preconceived notions about science, or scientists, and did that change once you explored your career in science?

Starting my academic career I really had no preconceived notions or expectations. One observation I quickly made was that there has been a separation between the scientific community and the public for far too long. The media has been an influencing factor in the creation of that gap. With that said, as members of the scientific community we can ill afford to not stand behind a proactive movement propelled within the realm of social media. Social networks are being used as tools to bridge this gap and to further connect the public with those in the scientific community.

KD1A2930 Filming bats in a cave

What is the big dream for your career?

To continue on my current path, traveling, filming and learning. As long as there is a camera in my hand, miles to cover and an intellectually stimulating environment, I’ll be content.

Was there any one person that inspired you?

Truthfully, there isn’t just one person who has influenced me. My drive is the result of books, music, plays, people I’ve meet along the way, childhood experiences and hockey (it sounds strange, I know but life is the place we spend in between hockey games). My parents have been a pivotal force for me; they have been married for 50 year now and have always been travelers.

What are your go-to inspirational materials?

Find what moves you whether that aligns with your path or not. Enjoy it, break it down and examine the pieces. Find out what parts reached out and grabbed you in the first place. Understanding why this “thing” lead to you become so enamored with it, will reveal what paths you should follow in your future.

Filming underwater

What were, or currently are, some big compromises or struggles you’ve experienced making a career for yourself?

The first struggle I’ve faced is “colleague conflict,” a little phrase I use that embodies the backlash one can experience as a result of their ideas, accomplishments, research or other academic endeavors. I experienced this as an undergrad at West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) when I beat out a graduate student for a position on a project. The following years introduced me intimately to “colleague conflict” as the grudge was carried by the student. As I continue my work, there is a realization that “colleague conflict” is an element that will always exist.

Another memorable experience that I get to hold close to me is being told my work holds no purpose or merit. In the aforementioned story, the very person I out-competed, told me that my work didn’t matter and “to compare you to me is like comparing apples to oranges!” Nothing woos me more. There has been a small crowd of people throughout my life and more recently, during my college career, who have lamented similar opinions and have tried to discredit the efforts that Ray and I have put forth in our time creating Texas Wild. It helps having someone like Ray in your corner during these times; he’s an optimist who never says die. As fate would have it, opposing forces have become powerful and motivating force.

Personal struggles include battling a speech impediment as a child and throughout my young adulthood. It took years of extensive speech therapy to get to the point I am today. I remember trying to learn how to say the phrase “the squirrel squatted in the square.” My speech impediment has made college that much more challenging to me. Family and friends keep me going.

What are some key points you wish you knew or that you remind yourself of during your science career journey?

Safety, safety first. Then teamwork.

What keeps you motivated when you’re feeling the drudgery?  

The experiences you gain as a result of this lifestyle. I have a Patagonia hat I picked up in Florida a few years back. This hat is one of a few valued treasures of mine that I take on the road. The hat alone has traveled seven states, bares the ink stains from an octopus (bikini as well), was lost in Lake Jessup FL, which has 421 alligators/mile of shoreline (a childhood hangout for Ray), worn during an encounter with an 2.5ft nurse shark and has been envenomed by a broad-banded copperhead.

I had the fortunate of filming the largest bat colony, Bracken Cave, home to 15 million free-tailed bats and carry a scar on my left hand from a water snake which certainly puts a dent on my career as a hand model and experienced parasites.

Ray and I rediscovered the endangered Houston toads calling and filmed several other endangered species, flipped out of truck windows, broken equipment, missed the best shots, been hypothermic and seen parts of Texas, most never will. It’s the excitement of what comes next.

Another motivating factor is the impact this effort is making. I too often forget to reflect on how far this team of two has come, something Ray has taught me to do more of. We are self-taught and have been fortunate enough to gain a following of people who genuinely care about the cause. Most rewarding is when you see this passion being instilled in the next generation.

The End

A huge thank you to Jessie for sharing your inspirational journey with us and thank you to all reading!  

Share

Did you like this interview? Share it with your friends to inspire the next generation of women to build science careers that get them out in the field!

Keep in Touch with Texas Wild

Media from Texas Wild has aired on the Red Steagall Show and The Daytripper. Social media posts have been researched by many conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy-Texas and even groups as far as Australia. They’ve paired with schools around Texas so teachers can use their media in alignment with education curriculum to encourage and teach appreciation and conservation for wildlife.

Be sure to follow them on PBS, the Web, the blog, Instagram, and Facebook.  

All media was provided courtesy of the Texas Wild team!

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First Month of Graduate Life

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