Friday, July 31, 2009

Ukenzagapia's only female taxi driver?

This is Violet. As far as she knows, she's the only female taxi driver
in Ukenzagapia. She hasn't met or heard of another in the two years
she's been driving. She only drives for foreigners because
Ukenzagapians (especially men, but women too) are discouraging of her
choice of profession. She's the same age as me, unmarried, no kids,
and putting herself through university. Eventually she wants to work
for some kind of NGO, but in the meantime she's a awesome taxi driver.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Summer days, driftin' away...

Oh, summer. I love summer. I was sad when I realized last year that I'd have to miss most of summer at home to be here in Ukenzagapia for field work. Don't get me wrong, Ukenzagapia is beautiful, sunny, and warm but it's not the same as summer back home. I'd just rather be here during the Northern Hemisphere winter. However, it's just one summer and I've come to terms with it. 

For all intents and purposes, this is my summer. It's hard to believe that my first field season is almost over and I'll be returning to the comfort of my home and husband in just two weeks. If I were to do this field season over again, there are definitely several things I'd do differently, but overall I'm satisfied with what I've been able to accomplish. I also got to explore some places other than Nyota when I wasn't collecting data which has helped broaden my perspective of African ecology, natural history, and conservation.

This is the point during summer when I usually think, Oh my gosh where did summer go? I still have so much to do- summer can't end yet!  Even in Ukenzagapia this is crunch time. I've got several days of data collection left, and I'm not sure yet exactly when I'll leave my field site. My last possible day in the field is August 11, but if I can wrap things up sooner I will. I'm also thinking ahead for what needs to be done this fall (my review paper, grant applications, data analysis...) and trying to get my ducks in a row for that to go smoothly.

I'm excited to return home. I hope I get to enjoy the spirit of summer for a while after I get back. Fall is already shaping up to be very busy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Expect the unexpected

I'd like to start this post by mentioning that I haven't freaked out
AT ALL about my project since before Jon returned home. This is in
spite of the fact that today is the first day in the past two weeks
that has gone generally as planned. The past two weeks have brought
late field assistants, motorbike mechanical problems, vain attempts to
catch critters, a minor motorbike wipeout, and unsuitable field sites.
In spite of those setbacks, we have managed to accomplish something
every single day.

Unexpected good things are also happening. The phenology of some major
life history events is turning out to be different than I expected. I
thought I'd have to be here in February or March to see it, but
instead it's happening right around now. As a result, I might get to
set up an experiment that I didn't think I'd be able to do yet. Just
as exciting if not more so, this week I made some observations that
contradict current knowledge of the system. I might get a small
natural history note out of it if I can get enough data.

Also, Herb just suggested I get a 12 gauge shotgun. I wonder how many
grants include a gun in the budget? Are there rules against that?

Life at the house hasn't been without its drama either. The cell tower
was out for a day because the generator ran out of fuel. The water
supply at the house is erratic for reasons unknown, and after several
days of nearly uninterrupted power we had a two and a half day
brownout. Thankfully, I'm still able to power my computer during a
brownout. The most exciting and unexpected domestic event: I
accidentally made cheese! And it was good! I left some milk sit too
long and it started to look curdley (is that a word?). I didn't want
to deal with it then so I left it until the next day and when I opened
it to give it to Mommy Dog, I thought it looked cheese-ish so I
decided to strain it instead. I poured it into a cloth and suspended
it for about 48 hours and then it really looked like cheese! It had a
consistency similar to feta but a milder flavor.

I'm trying to embrace the unexpected. After all, sometimes life gives
you cheese.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I finally submitted the NSF proposal that I intended to submit in
March. It feels so anticlimactic. The process just dragged on and on
for some reasons beyond my control.

After all that, I'm not very optimistic about this proposal being
funded. We'll see, but I'm not holding my breath. I expect to apply
again. This summer I'm trying out some of the methods I proposed and
I'm a little worried that they won't pan out. They aren't working yet.
This may be a case of me wimping out before I've really given
something the good old college try, which is something I'm going to
blog about soon.

Speaking of blogging and things that take forever to get submitted, I
decided that I need to spend as much time or more working on my review
paper as I do blogging. Now. Here in Ukenzagapia. Even while I'm
trying to finish out my first field season. Which is why I haven't
blogged much for the past few days. I've got a lot of posts kicking
around in my brain but I haven't let myself sit down and work them out
yet because I've absolutely got to get this review paper out this
fall, and it still needs major work. I have done basically nothing on
it for 6 months, and I am so horrified to realize that (and admit it).

Well, the timer is ticking so I'd better just post this now.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mommy dog

Rena and I have a dog- Mommy Dog. She adopted us. Isn't she cute? She
used to be really shy, but she's warmed up and lets us pet her now. We
feed her fish, milk, and whatever scraps she finds in the
aforementioned rubbish pile. She's on the skinny side but definitely a
lot happier than most dogs here. Look at that blurry tail wagging!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Plastic problem

Sometimes I think if I really want to make a difference in the world I should've gone into waste management, because we humans sure have made a heck of a lot of waste that needs to be managed. Most of the time though, we privileged people don't have to think about it. We (hopefully) sort the recycling, take out the trash once a week, and then it's out of sight and out of mind.

Not so here at Nyota.

I'm a tree-hugging, recycling, composting ecologist working a beautiful area that is home to numerous endemic species. Imagine my horror at realizing that ALL of the garbage from our house goes into a hole in the yard right there where I can see it and be reminded on a daily basis of the waste my life produces. Not just the food waste goes in the hole- everything. Dogs eat the food waste, glass is inert, metal will rust, and I'm not throwing away any batteries. But the plastic... oh the plastic pains me. It's not going to break down on any kind of time scale that we work on. As far as our human existence is concerned, plastic is basically forever.

I'm not sure what to do. If it can't be recycled, the best and least harmful thing we've come up with for plastic is to concentrate it in holes in the ground. What can I do with my plastic here?

-Separate the plastic from the other waste and bring it with me to the city where is will hopefully be thrown in a properly managed hole and then I can feel better about not polluting Nyota with my forever waste.
-Throw it in the yard hole with everything else. After all, when in Rome...
-Burn it. This is not a great solution because I'd be releasing more fossil-fuel derived carbon dioxide into the air along with many toxins, and I wouldn't even get any use out of the heat. Other than throwing it in a hole, this is the main way that waste is managed in Ukenzagapia.

I try to avoid plastic bags and water bottles, but many items here come in some kind of plastic, and many of the supplies brought from home have plastic packaging. I've decided to collect all of my plastic for the rest of my time at Nyota. I'll decide what to do with it when I have to leave. If I can take it with me to the city I think I will. I think the chances are better that it will end up in a landfill, though perhaps this is just wishful thinking. At the very least, having to look at all the plastic I use even when I try to avoid it should be an educational experience.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Featuring my research

Last week someone from UBC contacted me because they're writing a
piece about me for a newsletter. It's kind of a follow-up to the award
I got from them last year. I just read the rough draft and it's
pretty good but I'm concerned about the details of my research. See,
they're pitching the (arguably) most exciting part of my project, but
I haven't really begun that part yet. The stuff I'm actually doing
this summer is part of the bigger picture, but not very exciting to
write about (at least not compared to what they think I'm doing). To
what extent should I exact the details of my project and narrative?

They've also given me a "label" that I'm not sure I'm qualified to
have. Let's say they called me "Karina the Katydid Capturer" but I
haven't caught any katydids yet. Do I suggest something less catchy
but also more fitting?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Deforestation and alternative fuels

The causes and consequences of deforestation are something that I think about a fair bit here. I spoke with a visitor to Nyota who said that deforestation in Africa will continue until everyone has access to alternative fuel sources. I'd never thought about it in such terms, but I think he's probably right. People have to eat. They have to cook. To cook, they need fuel. For millions of people in Africa, the primary (or only) fuel source is wood.

The thing about deforestation for fuel wood is that it's insidious, subtle, and perhaps not noticeable at a glance. Fuel wood cutting doesn't usually take the big trees- other factors drive that cutting- but the small ones. The take the next generation of trees. What are the long-term consequences for these undercut forests? Probably relatively slow but steady degradation and associated loss of plant and animal diversity.

It's easy for Westerners to chastise cutting forests for fuel (charcoal comes from wood too) since we've long since switched to fossil fuels (i.e. natural gas) or electricity (likely powered by fossil fuels), but this simply distances us from the consequences of our resource use. Clearly our extensive use of fossil fuels has created a massive problem (global warming), so although it may preserve forests in the short term, encouraging a switch from wood to fossil fuels is not a viable long-term solution.

What are the options other than wood or charcoal? At Nyota we use a hot plate when we have electricity and kerosene when we don't. There are many initiatives in the villages to promote more fuel-efficient cookstoves to reduce the demand for firewood. Still, densely populated rural areas will continue to chip away at the forest. It seems that solar cookers should be a viable option here, but I haven't heard a peep about them. I wonder what the barriers are to widespread use of solar cookers?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Embracing my Ukenzagapian diet

In the past two days I've made an exciting realization: I can make
butter from raw milk.

Let me explain. Butter is basically nonexistent here. Even at nice
hotels they usually offer only margarine. Although it is very common
for people to drink tea with milk, other milk products such as cheese
are uncommon. This is probably in part because few people have
refrigerators. Still, I'm surprised there isn't more dairy. There is a
dairy cooperative at Nyota where we can buy raw milk for about 30
cents per liter or $1.20 per gallon. We've bought milk a few times but
had a hard time keeping it fresh without a refrigerator so some of it
went bad before we could use it.

All of a sudden, I realized that we could separate the cream from the
milk we buy and use that to make butter! I've made butter before
starting with cream, but never starting from raw milk. I did a bit of
research on the internet about how to separate cream from milk and how
to make it into butter. The whole process takes about a day and a half
by the time we buy the milk, wait for the cream to rise, skim the
cream, wait for it to sour a bit, and then shake it up to make butter.

Now, rather than lamenting the absence of butter, I can take matters
into my own hands and make it myself. For some inexplicable reason
this has increased my enthusiasm for food here tenfold. I'm excited
about bringing things for making yogurt (which I already do at home)
and maybe even cheese next time I return. I mean, the milk so so
inexpensive here I think it's definitely worth a shot and it gives me
a fun and delicious hobby.

The process of making my own butter made me realize that I am, in some
ways, effortlessly living a life that I find difficult in Big City.
Nearly all of my food is local and organic, grown by farmers not
industrial agriculture. I have access to local, fresh coconuts,
mangos, passion fruit, avocados, bananas, eggs, milk, tomatoes,
oranges, onions, potatoes, greens, and spices. The main things I eat
that aren't local are peanut butter, jam, chocolate, and probably the
rice (apparently a lot of rice is imported to Africa from Asia so it
might come quite far). Here though there's no feel-good eco-conscious
culture about eating this way- it's just the way it is. Most people
grow a lot of their own food, and what they don't grow themselves they
buy at the local market.

I took some photos of the butter process (see below). We boiled the
milk in the pot and let it sit for at least 12 hours, then I skimmed
the cream with the spoon and put it in the plastic container (it
actually doesn't seal properly). To make the butter I put the cream in
a jam container because it was the only container we had that didn't
leak when I shook it. The butter didn't get very solid so I think I
could've kept shaking but I only shook for about 10 minutes. I was
worried that it would take forever (or never turn) because the cream
wasn't chilled and all the instructions I read said to chill the cream.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Field season structure

Among biologists I know who do their Ph.D. research abroad, there are
two extremes for how field work gets done: one long trip or several
short ones. I think it's interesting to consider the merits of each of
these and why they might be chosen.

Sometimes it makes sense to collect all of your data in one long
stretch abroad. During the summer before I began grad school, I met a
woman who had recently completed her Ph.D. research in Africa so I was
eager to discuss logistical field work issues with her. She got all of
her classes done as quickly as possible, and then spent nearly two
years at her field site collecting data. Her fiance visited her for a
few months in the middle, but if I recall correctly she didn't go back
to the US during that time. The advantage of this was that she saved
money on the cost of flying to and from Africa (and also polluted less
by making the trip just once). She worked at a site where her advisor
had been working on the same organisms for many years, so she was
surrounded by people doing similar things for much of that time. One
long field season is advantageous if you need to collect data in all
months/seasons or your field site is exceedingly remote (hence very
lengthy travel time). This may also be the strategy of choice for
students with extremely limited budgets for whom the cost of getting
to their field site prohibits multiple trips.

However, one long field season can be difficult and frustrating if you
never (or rarely) see your advisor. This is entirely likely if your
research isn't directly under the umbrella of your advisor (i.e. not
in their grants unless you write one with them), which is fairly
common in ecology. (I, for example, do not expect Herb to visit Nyota
during my research). Even the best-laid plans can fail in the field,
and it may be difficult to recoup or change directions without someone
more experienced around to advise you. Internet may be nonexistent,
unreliable, slow, and/or expensive, making communication with advisors
as well as access to scientific literature very difficult. Also, it
may be difficult or impossible to have any kind of income if you
aren't on campus for months on end (this is why I doggedly pursued

Several short field trips allow time in between to discuss ideas and
findings with advisors, classmates, and colleagues. If a project is a
total disaster, you can make a new plan before the next field season
begins. It also gives you another chance in the field after you think,
"If only I'd measured this/brought that/looked there/read these
papers!" I think the greatest advantage is basically the ability to
synthesize and reflect between trips and then try again. Depending on
how you are supported, several shorter trips to the field can make it
possible to keep a teaching assistant position if that is your only
means of income.

The disadvantage is that multiple field trips can really add up. How
much time, money, and emissions are you willing or able to spend
getting back and forth? Also, permitting issues may add financial and
logistical considerations. If you've had to pay a lot of money for a
year-long permit, it might make sense to try to get everything done in
one year rather than pay more money and go through the hassle of
getting approval for another year.

Ultimately, I think the most important factors to consider are:
-Your research question (this will put the first and most important
constraints on field season structure)
-Intellectual isolation of your site (will your advisor or other
scientists be there?)
-Budget (how much can you afford to travel? how will you support
yourself while you're gone if you normally TA?)
-Permits and other logistics
-Your life outside of science (are all of your friends or family
members getting married or having babies? or are you?)

Given that my greatest fear is coming back to Big City to find out
that all of my data are total garbage, I'm glad that this isn't my
only trip to Ukenzagapia. If it's all junk or missing important
pieces, hey, it was only my first field season! I'll fill in the
blanks when I return. I'll have time in Big City to think about what
exactly I need accomplish during my next field season, and discuss
these things with my advisors and committee members. I'll probably
tend more towards the several-short-seasons end of the spectrum,
though at this point I have only a rough idea of when my next field
trips will be. I'm hoping to return in January-February 2010, and then
for a long field season winter 2010-2011. But who knows? First I have
to finish this season and see what the data look like.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Change of scene

As the soil changes color, so do the houses.

Having Jon here was a great excuse to explore places other than Nyota. Traveling around the region also helps me gain perspective on the issues faced in Nyota and elsewhere in Ukenzagapia. I want to know Nyota in depth, but I need to know what other places are like as well. I tried to capture a few of the different places we passed, though these photos hardly do it justice.

I love watching landscapes change as I travel. I think I could've easily been a geologist if I'd had some influential geology teachers as a kid or even if I'd taken geology earlier in my college career. I find geology fascinating for the same reason I love biology- it explains so much of why things are the way they are in the world around us. I still don't know much about geology though and I often wish I had my own personal geologist guide to travel with. Any volunteers?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I am not a bad person...

...even if my bank blacklisted me forever and closed all of my accounts.

This is my mantra. I will not let my bank make me feel like a bad

So, I'm looking for a new bank. Any recommendations for banks with
debit cards with low international transaction fees?

In other news, I'm back at Nyota, Jon is on his way back to Big City,
and I've got several blog posts in the works.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Money problems

Managing money for my research this summer just got a new wrench in the works.

Jon and I returned to the city from our trip to find that my bank account balance was NEGATIVE when it was supposed to have about $2000. I spent 40 minutes trying to log into ING to figure out what was going on but the ING site is so bandwidth intensive that the slow internet just couldn't handle it.

It turns out I was a victim of widespread ATM fraud plaguing US bank accounts here. My mom logged into ING for me to find out what happened (NINE separate fraudulent withdrawals) and reported all of them. My ING debit card is now canceled. I might be able to use my other account, but I probably shouldn't use any ATMs until they straighten this ATM fraud mess out.

We used Jon's debit card at the ATM because we literally had only $2 cash, but we'll be keeping a close eye on his account from now until he goes home on Tuesday. We can use some money from his account to tide me over, but before I return to Nyota I need over $1000 in hand because I won't have access to a bank again until just before I leave in August.

On the positive side, I'm confident that I'll get my money back, though it may be a while. We'll push some money around from different accounts and straighten it all out when the money is returned. This just makes it all a fews steps more complicated.

I haven't figured out exactly how to handle this yet, but at least I'll be in the city for a few days. I hope I can get this straightened out (i.e. enough cash in hand) by Tuesday evening so I can get back to Nyota on Wednesday.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Copious cables

I have a ridiculous number of adapters and cables with me. Here's a photo of (almost) all of the adapters, cables, and USB cords that I have here.

Top row: USB cables and other misc cables
Middle row: universal power strip
Bottom row: Adapters for powering and/or charging batteries for a variety of electronics, including my computer.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My parents are worried

Most of my posts lately have been downers, so much so that my parents
(who read my blog) sent me an email suggesting Jon try to change his
ticket to stay longer or that I change my ticket to come home sooner.
Things really aren't that bad, so Jon suggested that I write a post
emphasizing the good things. So, in this post I'm going to highlight
all of the things that are going well.

We made some significant improvements to the house at Nyota. I have a
bed (with three mattresses), cotton sheets, pillows, and a mosquito
net. My room has a new lock on the door, curtains, a light bulb, and
no broken windows. Soon I'll be able to lock the closet. We have an
electric kettle and a hot plate for the kitchen. We have a cook and
cleaner who does laundry and cooks 3 meals per day for us. All of the
sockets now have light bulbs. The electric outlets were changed so I
can plug in my power strip without an adapter. We rearranged the
furniture in the living room and it's more inviting. The water has
been running every day for at least part of the day, and we have a
shower now (albeit a cold one). Two friendly dogs like to hang out
around the house.

In spite of my anxiety about it, my data collection is going well. My
field assistants are finishing data collection at a handful of sites
while I'm gone. When I return, we'll start on some new sites. I should
be able to finish all of my data collection with 7-10 days to spare.
I'm excited about this because it means I should definitely have time
to try some lower-priority things.

Not very much is known about the life history or phenology of many
organisms here, which can make it difficult to plan fieldwork. I
thought that one of my organisms would be doin' its thing in January
or February, but it turns out it might actually do it in the next
month or so. This presents an opportunity that I hadn't expected to
have. I might be able to try even more of the new methods than I
originally thought, and may even be able to set up an experiment that
I didn't think I could.

I haven't had any significant weight loss or gain. This is good. I was
pretty sure that I'd put on about 10 pounds here because I tend to
gain weight when I travel, but I'm walking so much here that then I
was a little worried about losing weight. I'm eating a lot, though, so
I seem to be holding steady. My pants feel about the same as they did
when I got here.

I haven't had any significant poison tree rash breakouts in weeks now.
The worst was definitely the week before and after Jon arrived. Jon
got just scratch-shaped rash on his arm. I had some on my face, but it
was very mild and didn't itch (it was red and bumpy though). I think
the IvyBlock is really working, and I'm being careful about covering
up in field, washing up after, and washing my hands if I touch my gear
after I get home. I've just had a few little spots here and there.

On a much broader positive note, it's great to be an American
traveling abroad with Barack Obama as president. People here love to
talk about him. There are quite a few Obama campaign stickers on cars
here, and more than a few buses named for him. Today we even saw "Yes
we can" translated into Ukenzagapese on a bus. When I studied abroad
in college, my classmates and I often lied to people on the street
about where we were from. Americans weren't very popular in many
places during Bush's tenure. It's refreshing to have a president that
I'm proud of.

Jon and I left Nyota and are traveling for a week before he returns to
Big City. It's exciting to see some other places in the region. It's
beautiful and we're having a great time traveling, even when it takes
longer than it's supposed to. I'm going to queue up a few posts
because I'm not sure how much I'll be online for the next few days.

Jon is leaving in a week and then I'll have one month left in
Ukenzagapia before returning to Big City on August 14. I'm more than
halfway through my first field season. Time flies!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Weekly freakout

Yesterday I freaked out. Again. For like the bazillionth time. About
my project. I almost started crying in the field because I was afraid
my sites were too close together and that all the data I've already
collected is actually useless. Jon wasn't in the field with me and I
couldn't talk about my concerns in a meaningful with my field
assistants, so I told the guys I needed to think a bit and I sat down
and thought for a few minutes and pulled myself together, for the most

Also, I had to come to terms yesterday with the fact that I've
probably lost one of my notebooks forever. It's my notebook with all
of the site characteristics, and I haven't seen it now since just
before Jon arrived*. I had to tell my guys that I can't find it so we
need to re-collect some of the data. This blows, but is not a complete
disaster. I've known for several days now that this was probably true
but haven't wanted to tell them. I feel like a fool. I'm already
insecure about working here because I'm totally dependent on them to
identify things quickly and my project would be basically impossible
without them, so I feel like an idiot for losing the first data we

Thankfully, Jon is my unrelenting cheerleader. When I got back
yesterday he reassured me for the thousandth time that my efforts are
not worthless. We've talked at length about my project and what data
I'll have at the end of the summer. He told me to stop second-guessing
myself every day. He reminded me that no one expects my first field
season to be perfect and flawless (except for me). He said I probably
will get back to Big City and think, "If only I'd also done X!" but
that I can't possibly expect myself to think of everything. Jon has
suggested that I not even think about how to analyze my data until I
leave, because such thoughts tend to send me into a helpless,
unproductive panic. We made a timeline for how I'll collect the rest
of my data, with priorities. I should have 7-10 extra days beyond what
I need to collect my high-priority data that I can use to work on
testing some of the new methods and do the stuff that Leo thinks I
should be doing. There's also a possibility that I'll be able to spend
some time in the field with my Ukenzagapian advisor (Dr. K) or maybe
even Sam if he makes it here before I leave this summer. Jon reminded
me also that even if I can't publish anything from this summer, I'll
be much, much better prepared for next time. This isn't my last field
season, just my first.

* The last time I know I had it was the night before I left Nyota to
go meet Jon. I didn't leave it with my field assistants. I thought I
left it here at Nyota, but perhaps I thought "I'll bring this along so
I can enter data!" but then lost it somewhere before actually entering
any data. I've searched all of the places here that it could be. I
think it's gone.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bulleted thoughts from the field

-The power came back on this afternoon, thankfully.
-Today my data collection was cut a bit short by an encounter with a
dangerous animal. My field assistant scared the bejeezus out of me
when he spotted it. We decided to call it a day and leave the site.
-The weather has been oppressive.
-I made a small friend (see photo).
-I've eaten a lot of ants today. They came with the food.
-I need to become fluent in Ukenzagapese.
-I think I'm getting more poison tree rash on my arm. I definitely
have it on my face.
-Do any of my readers have a dbh tape that they just LOVE? If so,
where can I get one like yours? Do they make small diameter tapes
(like for trees under 15 cm dbh)? The crap is getting beat out of mine
and we aren't even using it that much. I'm going to need a new one,
and they aren't cheap so I'd rather just get an awesome one next time.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I got the wrong critters

Wrong critters: 3
Right critters: 0

Well, I haven't been able to capture any of the right critters yet at
all. I got three of the wrong ones though. Maybe I should be studying
those instead.

On the bright side, the IvyBlock that Jon brought seems to be working.
Jon has gotten a few spots of rash from poison tree but nothing
compared to what would be expected considering how much of it we walk

On the other hand, I have broken out in a mild rash on my FACE. I
think I touched my backpack and then put on sunscreen or something. It
isn't bad though and I don't think it's going to weep, just be bumpy.

Also a bummer- we're out of power for the second time in 3 days. It's
been super windy here. I'm on my very last bit of battery power.
Hopefully I'll be able to charge the computer this afternoon if
they're running the generator at the field station (or if they get the
power back on). But who knows? Jon says I should invest in my own
solar panels.