We are Mini and Gideon, wildlife biologists, who take our toddlers with us to work in remote rainforests: Ask Us Anything!
My short bio: We are Mrinalini and Gideon Erkenswick Watsa, and we are wildlife biologists who do research for several months a year in the Peruvian Amazon. 17 months ago, we had twin boys, and we were faced with a choice - keep being wildlife biologists with intensive fieldwork requirements or to give it all up and keep the boys home. We chose to keep going! Our twins have been to two field seasons, their first at 7 months and their second by age 1. They've taken over 20 airplane rides and have visited 3 countries. They've spent 2 weeks in the Indian Western Ghats and 5 weeks at a remote site in the Peruvian Amazon. Just after they turn two, they will have completed two more field station visits. Can you be a field scientist and a parent simultaneously? We think so. Ask Us Anything!
Field Station Amenities: No electricity, except for 3 hours a night via generator, but we did have mosquitoes, botflies and chiggers. Laundry done by hand, but help with basic meals provided. The twins were still on formula at the time.
1:00 PM Update: Thank you all for your incredible questions and interest and support. That was a little scary! I'm tuning out for the moment (the twins await) but I'll be back to check these questions later today, so keep them coming if you have them!
My Proof: See our professional websites: https://miniwatsa.com:Mini's website and https://gideonerkenswick.com: Gideon's website. We both work for https://fieldprojects.org: Field Projects International as instructors and senior research scientists (see our bios at: https://fieldprojects.org/faculty/mini-watsa/ and https://fieldprojects.org/faculty/gideon-erkenswick), taking our children with us to the following remote field stations so far: https://fieldprojects.org/field-site/cicra-2/: Los Amigos Biological Field Station, Peru and https://fieldprojects.org/field-site/fringe-ford/: Fringe Ford, India. One of the twins is napping, so here is our IAMA proof picture with the other twin! https://fieldprojects.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/84f7cf82-041f-4cf9-b938-34f32d2dd29b.jpg
I've also got a real passion for rescues - so I would have to throw in a dog and 5 cats. Did the Thornberrys do that? Can any RV handle that? Can an RV even make it on some of the roads I've seen? Where would be park the RV while taking the boat up to our field site? So many questions, but worth looking into for sure:)
The thornberries' RV could turn INTO a boat.
It was frankly like the batsuit of RVs with all the stuff in it
Oh my God. I want one now.
What is your plan for when they need to start school? Are they currently able to interact with other kids?
Absolutely, they are actually quite a bit more friendly with others than a lot of kids their age. They got used to being at a field station with about 20-30 researchers around, and made friends with a lot of them. So that actually helped with their socialisation. When they begin school, I think it would depend how our field seasons are planned: I think so long as they remain primarily in the winter and summer school breaks, we won't have to disrupt school too much. But if that changes for some really good reason, they might spend some semesters out of school in the early years, with us covering their education ourselves.
How does a 1 year old make friends with adults? It seems awfully selfish of both of you to put your own interests ahead of that of your children. I can understand doing this until they're about 3 but anything after that is detrimental to children. I've seem many kids who grow up in this type of atmosphere and they usually have some kind of social deficiency
Edit: i was under the notion you planned to raise your children through adulthood in the rain forest. I was wrong and now don't see anything wrong with having them there until they start school
Let's check back in a few years to see then shall we? It seems to be your experience vs. mine, so we'll have to see. Incidentally, all parents who work and thus put their children in a day care are also being selfish by your definition. Everyone's job causes them to make some sacrifices - I try to enrich my child's life with my job, which is the most any parent can do.
How you know a 1 year old has adult friends: they know their name, they recognise them even on Facetime, they ask for them when they are not around, they run to them when they see them again, and they play and laugh around them a lot when they are together.
I agree that it’s best to check back in a few years, but your logic for a 1 year old having adult friends is seriously flawed.
No 1 year old can gain the social interaction they need to grow by being around only adults.
Before everyone flies off on even more tangents - these kids are away in the rainforest for 4 months a year. Also, they are twins - so they do interact with each other. Keep it calm folks, it's ok. There are many ways to raise children - all ways are not for everyone. Thank you again for your comments.
A daycare is made for children, with lots of other children around to play with. A base camp is not. And most people's sacrifice is their job in order to provide for their children. I'm sorry but you can't really consider your work peers friends with your 1 year olds. Best of luck to you and your family though!
Again, we'll see. Children learn from adults and from other children. Thank you again for your comments!
Babies make friends with whoever they spend their time with- they're too young to think "oh, this person is older and it would be hard to connect with them since we have different like experiences." Sure, it would definitely be beneficial to also socialize with children their own age but remember that they are twins and have each other. It's a much better alternative than the babies being home all the time and not interacting with anyone outside the immediate family until they start school around 5.
No the alternative is a normal life. You people are delusional
What's your definition of a normal life?
Not living in a rain forest with only adults when you were born in a developed country
But from what op has said, when they become school aged they plan on mostly taking them in the field during school breaks. This seems like they're getting to go on kick ass vacations. It really seems that this wouldn't be something you'd enjoy so you're projecting it onto some infants that seem to have an interesting life ahead of them
Thank you - that's exactly what this is.
The idea that those born outside of your "developed" countries as not being normal is utterly ridiculous. Note: my kids only do this during field seasons, which are essentially a fraction of the year, but again, thank you for your comments!
How do you keep all the bitey things off your kids?
What are your and their favorite wildlife (s)?
Great questions! We actually didn't love using DEET based products but at a field station where leishmaniasis is present, it's far preferable to use DEET than to get the disease, specially from the perspective of a child. So we would spray car seats, shoes, and clothed areas with that kind of repellent, and use a citronella based spray for exposed areas. They still got a lot of bites - everybody did. The worst, of course, were the chiggers. Those really itch (the kids didn't really itch any of the mosquito bites), so at first we were really desperate about what to do - then we did what the locals do, which is to use a sulfa-based soap (which you can't find in the US!) and it was miraculous. We just soaped them at their evening baths and pretty much nixed all the chiggers after that point!
As for your second question: I really am not sure. Their parents work with the primates but since we primarily kept the kids at camp at both sites, my guess is that they love the insects they met indoors the most.
There's a lot of chiggers in Texas and I frequently go there to visit my father. I know you said this soap isn't available in the USA but do you know if there is a way to get it online? Would love to have this for when we go visit Texas for my baby and 4 year old!
I wish I could find the exact thing, and I really can't vouch for this one, but this is the closest thing I could find on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Sulphur-Soap-Premium-Sulfur-Advanced/dp/B00CST4AS4). This was a bar of soap made locally in Peru..I've no idea if the soap I just cited will work as well ...sorry:( One thing though, I was totally used to non-stinging stuff for my kids up till then, but this does sting if it gets in their eyes, so you've got to do the scrubbing really quick and keep their hands soap free during the process. Good luck to you. Chiggers are no fun!
Pretty much - the contrast to days without it was stark. Am so grateful to the person who recommended that. (Why do I get the feeling you think chiggers mean something quite different than the biting midges I'm talking about?)
Chiggers are biting mites. Flying midges are usually called noseeums in the US.
Good to know!:) Thank you!
What would you do if your kids said they didn’t want to do this anymore? i mean a lifestyle like this must be tremendously stressful for a kid
Do you really think so? I'm not sure I agree. They're learning to cope with plane rides at an early age, which basically now involves a lot of sleeping, book reading, stories and colouring. They're unafraid of domestic animals - dogs, cats, llamas, sheep. Eventually we'll teach them which things to be wary of, but for now, they are having a wonderful time exploring new places and new situations. I write this, mind you, knowing that they will read this some day:) If they really decided they never wanted to go to the field again, I'd consider that very seriously, but in my experience - most kids love the adventure of it all. I'm far more worried they will never want to go to school in a city than I am that they will hate their summers and winters. Here's the story of another primate researcher who has blended family and work life perfectly: http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/26/postcards-from-borneo-my-rainforest-family/. Fingers crossed for us!
What kinds of vaccinations do your kids get? Do they need extra inoculations depending on where you'll be visiting? Oh, and how do you keep them from eating poisonus plants and insects?
We live in a city with our almost two year old son and we're constantly supervising him, can't imagine how you two do it with two kiddos in the wilderness, mad parent respect, yo 😂
They get everything that's recommended in a regular schedule and a few extra ones. They've had the yellow fever vaccine, and by the next field season, since they will be two, we'll be able to give them typhoid too. Other than that, the only one we have they they don't will be the rabies vaccine - but since I don't think they'll be handling wild bats or primates till they turn...well, not for a long time, that's not important for them now I think.
We are very watchful of them while they are in the field. Far worse than insects, in my opinion, are plants. We are careful what they bring to their mouths at all times, because so very little is known about the secondary compounds in these plants. Insects have thus far been able to out run them at every step:)
Thanks for the respect:) I think you should join us some time - we never really knew we could do it till we did!
We would if we could, but my husband's a software engineer and I'm an illustrator; we've been to a lot of places, but our careers haven't taken us to anywhere quite as untamed as you guys (yet!)
Thanks for doing this AMA, please continue being amazing people :D
Thank you:) Still, if you decide to try that unusual vacation, I'm always open to hosting folks at our site. Might be equally fun to try to illustrate some of the more unusual wildlife, not to mention the final state of the researchers by the end of the field season:)
Have there been any moments where you were worried about the kids’ safety?
Absolutely. However, not really more worry per se in the field than in an urban setting. In a city you think of frightening things like cars, roads, someone making off with your kid. In the field you think of checking the ground for snakes, and keeping them indoors and out of sight of potential predators. In both places you worry about illness. Our pediatrician is kind of awesome in that we can use a sat phone to call her when we are on our international adventures no matter what, even from the jungle. Both of us are pretty well trained in administering meds, so we trust in that. But in general you know, as a parent you simply never quit worrying any way - no matter where you are!
Have you noticed any changes in your kids that may not have occurred otherwise, like preferring different foods or picking up foreign words?
Yes - mostly for the better. I speak about 7 languages, having grown up in India where every state has it's own language, but I am really fluent at 3 of those - English, Spanish and Kannada. Their dad speaks the first two, and is picking up a smattering of Kannada. The two field stations we work in have locals speaking primarily Spanish and Malayalam (which I understand but butcher). So we've been trying to make them trilingual. The field station stays taught them mostly Spanish, but so many other cool things. They learned to walk atop the dining tables at the site, with herpetologists being their side-guards. They learned to dance from Mexican and Brazilian primate researchers. They took "walks" in their pram on the boardwalk each day, visiting the different labs in which all the researchers started to keep little "activities" for them for these visits. They practiced their drawing using crayon on pelican cases for really expensive field equipment. And when it comes to food - these two pretty much will eat anything. We followed baby-led weaning, transitioning almost directly from only milk to solid foods.
I wish this was my childhood. Growing up travelling and learning languages and Exploring. They are very fortunate.
Thank you. I hope they'll learn to cherish their childhood. But you know, 'cos life is funny like that, they'll probably want desk jobs that earn them beaucoup bucks or something and be mortified of their adventures (and this iama session).
What do you do about childcare? Do you alternate between each other, hire caretakers, or some mix?
We actually did a sort of unusual thing. We had a student who was willing to help us out with the kids, so we basically had her take over while the kids were still asleep at 4 am and our day began, and she took care of them till just after lunch, when one of us would return from the rainforest duties of the morning. Then, she took up her next job, which was to manage the field laboratory at the site. We then alternated with the twins all evening, with one of us doing the night time routine every other night.
I am 17 years old and am going to study forestry. Your job sounds absolutely incredible! If I am completely willing to live in a third world country and study nature (which I am), how difficult will it be to get a job like that? Does everyone in your profession aim to land a job like that?
By the way, it's great that you take your children with you on your travels. My family went to Ethiopia 5 years ago, and we met a British couple who were afraid to have kids because they travelled so much. My family actually made them change their mind, after they saw us.
You are starting out at just the right age! Congratulations on having figured all of this out already. I would say that getting a job as a wildlife biologist is not difficult - keeping them is probably harder. There are lots of places that advertise internships and training programs. The organisation that we work with (Field Projects International) organises both field courses (https://fieldprojects.org/participate/courses-2/) and research assistantships (https://fieldprojects.org/research/) that help people figure out if field work in the tropics is really right for them. Getting in AS MUCH FIELD EXPERIENCE as you can is key though - working in temperate areas is totally different from the tropics, and nine months into living in those conditions, you really might decide this sort of thing is not for you - or at least, not to this extent. So try everything, keep your mind open, and just go for it! Spend every break away, and if you can't get abroad then go to the "field" nearby. Finally, I'd say the one thing that makes people really successful in this field is their love for natural history. If you can be as fascinated with a beetle as you would be if you saw a jaguar or tiger in the wild, fieldwork will never, ever, ever grow old!
Thanks for the story about your family too. It is definitely daunting to try to have it all - and this year in the field was probably harder than any other field season I've done - but to watch the kids learn their first bit of natural history with a baby clelia (an incredible snake), that was just priceless to me.
Wow, thanks for the positive answer! I really do love all things nature. I've travelled and lived in the tropics quite a bit, so I know what I'd be getting myself into.
Go for it! I think you're well set to get some field experience! If you decide primates in the Peruvian rainforest is your thing, contact us:)
The Peruvian jungle has a beautiful roach species.
I only got to spend a week in April in the jungle and the mosquitos didn't bother me all that much, I've had them worse on the Texas coast.
Just keep the anacondas away from me.
Ah, but they are sort of the cows of the snake species. Wonderful, slow, and really kind of just not that into us. We have a 19-footer at our field site:)
Well that's good to know. I only saw two and they were being handled and not at all pleased about it.
Unfortunately I was too close to Iquitos to see much outside of the animal sanctuary? Had a number of monkeys running around, few parrots, toucan and a sloth. They brought out a 4m I believe anaconda but not sure how it was kept. Everything else was free to move around. Would love to go further out and see the jungle with less human influence. I miss the ayamama calls
Next time aim for beyond the rehab center - check out our site if you are planning a trip. Would love to show you our little patches of forest:)
Does everyone in your profession aim to land a job like that?
Nope, some of us like working in our cosy offices and try to minimise fieldwork as much as possible.
And there's nothing wrong with that at all!
I'm considering going into biology, and I'm currently researching different fields, but I know for sure I want to be in science and research. I'm more interested in evolutionary/molecular biology, but the idea of working on the field as a large part of my job is attractive. What do you actually do as a wildlife biologist? What's your favorite and least favorite part of the job? What scientific acomplishment are you the most proud of?
So my life at the moment is split between working on field courses and research programs with FPI (https://fieldprojects.org) and actually doing research in the field for them. So I spend my days helping to run this NPO, and getting to plan and conduct annual research programs with large teams of people (25 or so) each year. Our annual mark-recapture program with tamarins, for example, draws about 25 students each year who intern with us, many even leaving their home countries for the first time. I really love teaching in the field. I think that by combining teaching with field research, I pretty much have the best of both worlds.
What I do for research: Check it out here: https://fieldprojects.org/aboutus/research3/
My favourite part: The travel, being removed from politics/news/internet for 4 months a year, and teaching some of the most incredible students possible (from 11 countries and counting!)
My least favourite part: Politics at field stations. I guess you can't really escape that.
Scientific accomplishments?: Hands down, establishing and running a long-term health screening and life history monitoring project on wild tamarins.
All of this sounds so damn cool, wow. Congratulations on finding a job you love. I can't wait to be a scientist.
You probably already are a scientist:) Good luck with the future!
The one gripe I have, making babysitters out of students who are there to learn, and are paying money for this. I think that takes advantage of students to benefit yourself
No one was coerced into this. That student could never have afforded the flight ticket or the room and board - these field sites are pretty expensive to be at, since every single thing from TP to the wood used to make beds has to be laboriously brought up river to the site from towns quite far away. Since she had visited us often at our home, and we'd hosted her for an extended stay away from her folks while she did research in my lab, she knew the twins from when they were maybe 4 months old? She's basically one of their favourite people of all time. So when she expressed an interest to see the rainforest, we worked out a way for us to cover all her expenses, in return for the morning's help with the kids. Now no matter how crazy that might sound to you, or even if you never ever would do that, you cannot insult her intelligence and her choices. She is an incredible student, a close friend, and the closest thing to a godmother our kids have - we were very lucky to have her help us, but trust me, she was never taken advantage of. I know, because she's basically rearing to help over our winter field season and just texted me saying so:)
I'd assume this was a paid babysitting gig.
It wasn't, see response above, but I'm guessing that most of the people we would ask for help from would be paid. This particular year, a close friend offered to help. And since my husband and I are not fortunate enough to have parents who are able (health-wise) to travel with us or to take the twins while we work abroad, we really were fortunate to have this friend volunteer to help.
Serious question: Are you concerned about yourselves or your child contracting a rare and/or deadly disease from from rain forest? Do you get special innoculations to prevent that?
Since one of the main areas of our research is conducting health screenings for wild primates, I am definitely very very cognizant of the fact that I do not want to be patient zero. We take a LOT of precautions though - lots of personal protective equipment during handling, things like that. I like to shower and scrub off after each day before meeting the kids again too. Unfortunately, rare and deadly diseases rarely have inoculations. All the diseases against which we inoculate today are actually fairly common, or once were. It is a sad and nasty truth that unless large populations of the "right" people are dying from something, pharmaceutical companies do not invest in producing inoculations to certain diseases. Case in point, Ebola (we have known about it for decades, but efforts to create an inoculation were only after the most recent large outbreak). So keeping that in mind, what we do is never ever ignore a symptom. You always talk about it to someone on site, and our collective knowledge is large, allowing us to know when you need to exit and find a doctor. Despite being remote and only accessible by boat, it is possible to find help quickly. I think I worry more about physical accidents than diseases...accidents that you would need an ambulance to come by for. For that we have some medical training, but it would be nice to have more for sure.
How do you deal with the times between expeditions? Is it hard to switch back to a more normal, maybe mundane life?
What do you do if one of your boys develops a serious medical condition while you're on your fieldwork?
Ah, the most important question so far. It's frustrating, but our menagerie waiting for us at home always helps. I find that reading the news is possibly the most depressing thing about being back. But this is always enlivened by moments of which we know nothing about (for the last decade, we've skipped important events that have happened within a 4-5 month stretch of time) so in the middle of some conversation, we'll be like Kate Middleton had a BABY!? What?
Mostly though, the second we get back, we enjoy warm showers, ice cream and cold beers - preferably all at once;) and then we get down to planning the next adventure:)
As to your second question: That's any parent's nightmare. So what we have is a rapid exit strategy for anywhere that we go. We are by no means as remote as one can possibly be. The other thing I always think of is that we are really only sort of unusual in that we try to live in both these worlds at once. There are people who live, give birth, and raise their children in ALL of the sites we only visit. They aren't weird or remarkable for doing that - they are simply living their lives. They probably think that living in the US for 8 months a year with winters thrown in is MAD. So...keeping all of that in mind helps. Both of us have some medical training, both academically and through experience from being in the field, and we trust our gut - we now have a good sense for when something feels like it's really urgent, so we know exactly how to bolt and get help.
With being so dedicated to rainforests, do you all follow a plant based diet as well? If so, is it viable in remote locations? Do you depend on self foraged food at times, and what is your unexpectedly favorite foraged food
No, I do not. I also recognise that this is a pretty controversial thing to say. How can you be a wildlife biologist or conservationist who is not vegetarian? Without getting into the throes of this moralistic argument too much, I'll simply say that I've lived my life with a variety of dietary choices. For 8 years, I was vegetarian. Then, I decided to be an anthropologist and everything I'd read had made me realise that in the field, you just can't be super picky about your food. When local guards offered Robert Sapolsky a zebra leg, it would have been highly impolite and detrimental to his relationship with those people to have refused it. I decided to start slowly back with chicken. So now, it's a eat meat if you have to thing with me. When I do eat it, I am typically either in the field, or buying from a farm locally that I know treats its animals well during their lives. I don't view nonvegetarians as being any worse than a carnivore. I do view all humans that do not consider where their food (of any kind) is coming from as being people in need of a reality check of sorts.
So if you were really dedicated, you could make it work with a lot of canned foods, etc. In fact, if you were cooking for yourself at a site that did not allow you to forage off the land, then chances are you would only eat vegetarian plus maybe some animal fat because of the fact that you can't refrigerate any meat and it would probably go bad. If you could forage off the land, and some of my colleagues have, then again, sustainable harvesting is more important than your exact food choices falling into one label or another.
Somewhat fortunately, all the field sites I've worked at have forbidden us from foraging beyond trying out the fruits all the primates eat (usually that's a really safe bet). So I don't self-forage. I do love Rollinia mucosa though, and some of the wilder Rollinia species too. They're called anona locally in Peru and are wonderful.
How did you two meet each other?
We met in college in Grinnell, Iowa. I (Mini) had just finished cleaning out a bonobo enclosure when one of the bonobos, knowing of course that I had a big first date in a moment, decided to pee liberally all over me. With no spare clothes, I simply dried off as best as I could and went on the date. I don't think he even noticed! Or maybe he was just surprised at how different I smelled by the second date.
This is super cute damn i
Bonobos are the apes of love
This is true. I suppose that might have had something to do with it. Pheromones?:)
What (if anything) inspired you to become biologists? Also, will you continue to take them with you as they grow up?
First, the answer to your second question: yes! I can't wait for them to really be able to interact with their environments and learn some cool skills.
I began early in terms of loving biology. I started by reading the Childcraft Encyclopedia series, where I knew about photosynthesis (depicted by gnomes who collected sunlight and water and cooked up ATP on a stove in each leaf) well before I learned about it in school. My father, who was an incredible animal lover with a serious green thumb, taught me to value all life as if it were my own, and to never be afraid of Latin names. Ficus benjamina was the first Latin name I learned, a plant in our living room. My parents did the (then) unthinkable thing and moved us waaaay outside the city of Bangalore when we were kids. So my sister and I had literally ZERO neighbors our age. Instead, we spent weekends exploring the 5 lakes in the vicinity with our two dogs. It was incredible and magical and sadly the area is entirely built up today. We had jackals howling outside our bedroom window at night, deer in the garden, learned how not to let your idiot dog bite a cobra, and we read books most of the time up a Singapore Cherry tree in the yard. Summers were spent digging ponds. It was magical. Then, to top it all off, I discovered Gerald Durrell. I read every book, and am still yearning to visit the Jersey Zoo. It seemed inevitable for me really.
My husband's story is a bit different. He was raised in Evanston, with two pet cats, but no particular bend towards biology. In fact, he majored in Sociology. Then, we started dating and I had to go on a 10-month trip to Peru for my PhD dissertation. I bought one of those giant sticky poster pads and started making lists of everything I would need - covered the apartment with them. I think I subliminally thus successfully influenced him to quit his job and join me in the rainforest. He took to it like a fish to water. There's no one I know whom I'd rather have on my field team. So from there, he came back and eventually, got his PhD in evolutionary biology too. He did an AMA recently, if you want that story: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/76k3l4/im_gideon_erkenswick_i_got_my_first_job_serving/
I personally view pay to play field work as becoming a large problem for maintaining a diverse researcher pool in wildlife conservation.
Did you guys catch this article? If so I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.
I also wanted to add that to anyone potentially considering a career in wildlife or forestry that you should never feel like you have to pay someone to do field work. Start your search at USAJOBS or the Texas A&M wildlife jobs board where you can find all sorts of job postings with varying level of back ground requirements.
This article resonates a great deal with us. It's incredibly difficult to get started in the field for this reason and I'd absolutely second your suggestion to begin closer to home or with organisations that can afford to pay for you to learn the field work. At our site, field expenses are really high - and it's all connected isn't it? If you compare finances available for conservation projects to say, public health (for humans), the disparity is enormous. There simply isn't the funding available for people to take on volunteers and trainees at every site and to fund their expenses. Are there groups out there focused on making a large amount of money off these kinds of programs - yes, probably. But if you want to evaluate an organisation that is a non profit, check its guidestar profile, download it's tax information, and see exactly where the money goes. In the case of FPI, I can guarantee that no one is making an enormous salary off the programs we offer. We have never even had a full-time employee.
But you are absolutely right - thoroughly check out who you are working for and why they do what they do. Look to see if they offer scholarship options, or financial aid to help out. Talk directly to them and look for the impact of their work and research. Ask them about expenses. An organisation that can tell you exactly where you fee goes is one you can then evaluate yourself to see if the fee is justified.
So yes, you don't have to feel like you have to pay someone to do field work if you are living in the US and can start doing field work in that country, but if you want to go abroad to a different country, or you already live outside of the US, there might be legitimate expenses associated with your training programs. Research your sources, compare them with other programs, compare them with college fees you already pay - then make your decision.
Thank you for replying at length and with great honesty. I hope my comment didn't come across as accusatory. From looking at your organization's publication record you all look like you are doing a great job. I just think that it's a conversation that needs to be had when an organization runs off of pay-to-volunteer (PTV) workers.
Some organizations do a good job of compensating students/volunteers with a combination of university credit, connections, and in some cases publication credit. However, there are also some that are little more than for-profit ecotourism companies that are borderline predatory.
Like you said, in conservation there are extremely limited resources available. One of the most valuable resources being the upcoming generation of biologists and wildlife managers. As such, it is important that this resource be managed in a sustainable way instead of disposable labor.
The PTV model of funding is largely new to conservation and I hope as your organizations grows, you continue to have these kinds of conversations.
Thank you. We are distinctly cognizant of this and we will, I hope, never forget to have those conversations and push to making this as affordable and easy for everyone to participate in as possible. Again, thank you for your comments. I appreciate them very much - and your honesty and concern.
I see this all the time in my international work and what really stands out to me is the lack of opportunities for minorities (or even locals). Minorities (and locals from the hose country) should have these opportunities as well. Perhaps your NPO could offer scholarships or maybe seek funds for getting students from varying backgrounds? Just a thought.
Great points! We do. Our scholarships are divided evenly at the moment. For every program, one goes to a local student and one to a student from anywhere in the world. The local students can actually apply to both and win in both categories, and some times they do. We don't look at prior experience, and we don't ask for letters of reference, precisely because all of those things are dictated largely by the privileges a child had growing up. We also don't dock points for writing quality and English per se - we basically look for really innovative essays and give those students the chance to win. My dream is that we will be able to really make the bulk of our field programs scholarship based. Still working on that.
Do you ever feel like a live action version of The Wild Thornberrys?
So not having grown up with Nickleodeon, I actually have never seen the Thornberrys. Eeeks. This is now a must-watch. I shall have to get back to you on this. Do we look like we might be?
Just in that they worked on site locations with animals and brought the whole family along.
Sounds pretty wonderful:)
Have you ever had to fight off a yeti or Sasquatch that was trying to steal your trail mix?
No, not yet, but I am eternally hopeful that this might yet come to pass.
Since you worked in the Western Ghats, what's you assessment of the state of overall biodiversity in the Ghats? What do you see as the main threat to the environment besides population and urbanization?
The Western Ghats are seriously an incredible place to work. Only for some taxonomic groups has biodiversity been assessed fully - people are still discovering new species there regularly. What is so remarkable to me about this place is how different it is compared to the Amazon, which is where my other field site is located. Even though there is plenty that threatens the Amazon, it has one giant advantage and that is, it's size. It can be resilient because we have not decimated it to the extent of so many other forests. The Ghats, on the other hand are boxed in, fragmented, and surrounded by some of the most population-dense places in the world. So that is what is terrifying when you think about protecting these incredible mountain ranges. That there is an unusually high level of biodiversity for the size of the area is unquestionable.
What I would be most worried about given the fragmented nature of the forests, and the way they are cut off on all sides by human encampments is disease. Many of the animals in the Ghats are endemic to the Ghats. Much of the Ghats are also traversable - by road. So that means that no matter what you do, you still see people stop to feed animals (specially the primates), and being close relatives of our own, they can catch diseases from us easily. From them, these could spread to other taxa and endemic species without a resilience to them can be entirely wiped out in one round of disease.
A secondary worry is about invasive species. Already lantana is completely changing successional forests in road and river-side areas. Animals can hardly even break through it.
This is a gloomy answer:(
Hi! I am a female masters student currently training in tropical ecology. I really hope to have kids one day and continue with my field research career. I really admire that you have been able to do this with your kids. I met another couple with a toddler when I was in Madagascar for a field season, and he was the brightest kid that I have ever met in that age group. I hope you don't mind if I bombard you with questions! I have read all about Jane Goodall and Meg Lowman and how they managed to raise their kids while still becoming scientific greats, but I have always wanted to ask someone more about the particulars:
(1) Do you have pets and who takes care of them when you are in the field? (2) Are there ever times where only one of you is in the field? Who stays home with the kids? (3) With Zika being a big issue now in South America, did you have to stay home during your pregnancy? (4) (this might be a little personal) I know that I have family and friends who think that I am a little nutty for taking myself places with vector-borne diseases and venomous snakes. I can almost guarantee the push-back would be bigger if I was taking a child. Have you had anyone be critical of your choice to take the kids, and how did you deal with it?
I know that is quite a lot of questions, so please feel free to pick ones to answer! Thank you!
Hey there! Super questions, I'll answer them one by one, and try to give you the best answers I can. First off though, thank you for your support - it means a great deal and Jane always inspired me too, so I'm hoping my kids grow up loving their childhoods.
1) This is one of the hardest things to do. We do have pets! We have a dog and five rescued cats (a mum and her four kittens). We typically get a housesitter, so their routines are not disrupted at all, and that's who watches them when we have to travel.
2) At the moment, we have not split up yet for field work. But I expect it will happen in the future. It would probably mean that one of us goes, and the other one has both kids, but as the kids get older, perhaps we'll be more comfortable splitting up entirely. I'm not sure, they're pretty close to each other as twins at the moment, and I wouldn't want to disrupt that.
3) Whew Zika. I actually struggled to get pregnant for a long time...about 3.5 years of trying later, plus a few miscarriages, and we were at the IVF door. My first round didn't work, which was devastating because we live in one of the States in the US where in vitro treatments are not covered by insurance. The second round I did all the preliminary injections while in the field. I first spent a month in the field, when Zika had just really kicked off in Brazil, which is about 50 km from our site. Then I went home for a month and returned for the third month with all the IVF paraphernalia. One time I took shots in one day in three different city airports. So when that round worked, we told our doctors that we were in Zika positive zones. This was early days yet, so there was some confusion about how to even go about monitoring it. It turns out that all they could do was to make a more intensive monitoring schedule during a pregnancy ( more ultrasounds, etc.). But it also turns out that that schedule is exactly what you get when you carry twins anyway. I did not have any signs of the disease and nor do the kids appear to have any.
4) Great question. I do an iama so everyone on the internet can take a pot shot at my lifestyle and parenting choices:)
Seriously though, it's a little crazy to act like the only safe space for a child to grow up is in a city. SO MANY things in a city you simply don't have to worry about in the field. No one is running off with your child if you take your eyes off them, no continuous colds from other kids, NO CARS! So if I were you, I'd simply stay focused on your work and career and in finding the thing that you love to do. If you end up doing a bunch of field work, and have a baby, reach out to others in the same situation. Some field sites can host kids, and in others it simply might be too dangerous until they are a certain age. It really depends. As a parent - people will be judgemental of you no matter what you do. So hit me up if this happens and we'll be friends:)
I think your kids are amazing, smart and very lovable, and I envy their childhood, it's awesome!! (I cannot wait for them to be able to chat) Are the boys still dancing to colombian reggaeton? Have they started talking more?? (what words??) If you had to choose one thing that is absolutely neccessary to bring to the field stations for your kids, what would it be?
Thank you! I have some suspicions about who you are but am not entirely sure - nevertheless, thanks for chipping in!
They are now saying really important things like baby (we're trying to make that "hey, baby") and they know how to sit and stand in Kannada (but only if you say it endlessly in a loop). Colombian reggaeton you say? Their tastes are super diverse now. They rock out to Sinatra and Bon Jovi too, but despacito is the all-time favourite. However, the vaccuum cleaner is the BEST soundtrack of all time - that's pretty much ALL they want to dance to.
So I'd have to say, the one thing I'd bring is a battery-operated vaccuum cleaner. A caregiver could just sit back and relax at that point. Hours of entertainment:)
How do they do in traveling? My daughter travels with me a lot and has always been patient with it, whether it be 4-5 hour plane rides or 18 hour drives. But I can’t imagine the distance and the fact that there are two!
It's very random. Sometimes a 14 hour plane ride will be a breeze and then a 47 minute one to the next city over will feel like 20 in purgatory. Lately, I think it's all about whether one of them is teething or not, but honestly, just about when I think I've figured them out, they grow up. Two means we can't sit near each other in an airplane (since they are still lap infants) - so we get two aisle seats and basically try to help the other one, if our twin is asleep. I've poured what feels like a million milk bottles with one hand, while my husband assists across the aisle. I think we'd tear our hair out on an 18 hour car ride though - so kudos to you. That sounds like a miracle to me - your daughter must be wonderful!:) Or you have some kind of magical skills. In any case, teach me?
Hi just wanna say super cool to see someone in your field post on Reddit, it's super exciting!
I'm currently a freshman in college right now majoring in wildlife/conservation biology. My dream is to work for the WWF and be able to travel the world working with and researching animals. I'd like to know is there any advice you would have for me in terms of courses I should take, organizations to get involved with, and how realistic my dream is? I know people in our field don't tend to make much but if I'm able to travel the world and do conservation work that'd make me one of the happiest people in the world.
Hey! Thank you! This required about as much courage as getting the twins to the jungle:)
First off, I'd say you should keep the WWF in mind, but also expand your repertoire of cool peeps to work for. There's a LOT out there, and sometimes the smaller organisations are where you can make the most impact.
In terms of which courses to take, I'd say think in terms of skill sets and not courses per se. You want to have field experience, both to equip you for the rigors of a life in the field and to test if this is what you actually want to do. Plenty of students who volunteer for me realise that this was nice, but hey, not for the rest of their lives. It's important to test yourself early and see where your limits lie. There's absolutely nothing wrong with realising you want to work in more captive animal situations instead, for example; the important thing is to accept that this could be you, and to learn if it is early. Skill sets to acquire: GPS/off-trail navigation, tree-climbing, caving, high-altitude hiking, tying knots!, small equipment construction out of basic materials, wilderness medicine (this is course-based, take one of these if you can!). On the more academic side, learn to enjoy reading about research, don't be shy with statistics, and try your hand at programming in R. Learn as many pieces of software as possible (coding would be a plus). If you want to work in research or environmental policy, learn to write. I am one of those people who really does believe that you can learn this skill - you needn't rule yourself out as a good writer. Get someone to evaluate you on this front, and take English major classes to get your writing skills up. It's one of the most useful things you can possibly acquire.
You don't have to travel too far to get involved with conservation either - so start local, then expand. Always chat with people about your interests - on the plane, in the grocery store - be unafraid of meeting new people. And continue to do exactly what you are doing - asking the important questions of people already in the field.
Good luck! I really wish you the very best going forward! PS: come visit us with FPI if that takes your fancy!
Thanks for the reply! I'll take you up on your offer, if you see someone named Liam apply for an internship at FPI you'll know it's me haha!
I won't forget:)
What did you study in college? Any advise for others following this career path? What are the pros and cons of this lifestyle?
I got a liberal arts degree with biology as my major (Gideon had a sociology major at the same school). I then got a PhD in biological anthropology, while Gideon got one in ecology and evolution. So it doesn't really have to be an out-and-out biology major to do wildlife-based research. You can also come at it directly through willdife biology or zoology PhD programs. You can do research without a PhD of course, but I think that having one allows you to rise up the ladder in some cases where that is required. It also tests your limits a great deal. You are perpetually broke, always feel like an idiot, and can't believe why anyone would call you Dr. anything at the end.
Pros: Flexible timings, loving what you do, never stagnating, and travel+animals
Cons: Not really a money-heavy industry, missing your pets + plants, jet lag and some gastrointestinal issues that never might be resolved.
I'll look this up a little after, but thought I'd ask here anyways. Following your PhD education, how did get into field work like this? Was it through an existing research group? Did you have to secure your own funding (through what funding agencies?) Do you think there's any kind of fieldwork possible for a recently minted plant biochemistry PhD (hooray!)? Going off into wilds to do research is something I've always thought about, just not sure how to get to that point. Thanks!
I got into field work because in the field of primatology, that's almost the norm. So I looked around for field sites, and I did have the option of joining people who were already working with these animals, but my advisor encouraged me to strike out on my own. His rationale was that there could never be too much replication of a study or a test of ideas. All data points are good data points. As a result, I found this field station and no one was really studying the tamarins there. My research questions were answerable at this site....so I kind of went for it. Boy did I have to secure my own funding! I wrote 29 grants over the space of about 15 months, winning 14 of them, which sounds really a LOT better than it was. My grant writing year coincided with the recession, yes, The Recession, so granting agencies were having palpitations all around. I'd apply for a $5000 grant and they'd say "hurrah, you won, but we are only able to spare $1500 this year." It was my least favourite thing about the PhD.
As a plant biochemist there's a LOT out there for you to do!My advice would be to reach out to botanists in biodiverse areas and look to see if their research overlaps with yours. I think we have mined a tiny fraction of the incredible compounds produced by plants in tropical rainforests...there's a lot of incredible science out there, just waiting to happen!
Other ways to get involved are really sort of basic, but effective. I used to read papers, not for their content but for their methods sections. Then I made a sort of geographical map of who was working where and on what. That helped me understand the field better, and know whom to reach out to with my ideas.
Good luck going forward! I wish you the very best!
Don't indigenous tribes live in those forests and have for thousands of years? They would have to live with their children there all the time, right? I suppose it is mildly interesting you take your toddlers with you but it smacks of smugness to me.
Please see my answer from above. Absolutely I agree. It's not remarkable that I live there with my toddlers. It's remarkable to do both (if it is remarkable at all). The goal with this AMA was to encourage people to normalise both behaviors and to NOT view this as something they couldn't possibly do, precisely for the reason that people are doing it all of the time. So I'm definitely not guilty of that smugness - I respect that I, untrained and inexperienced compared to any one who has lived in the area (indigenous or not), am trying to do something I really struggle a lot more to do than they would. Bridging the gap between the two groups of people by opening ourselves up to these questions was the goal here. Thank you for pointing this out - you are absolutely right. There's NOTHING special about it. Only perhaps that we're ill-equipped to do it, knowing so little of how to survive in a rainforest.
I meant no disrespect, although rereading my comment, it comes across that way. There is a group known as Wycliffe Bible Translators that has been sending inexperienced individuals into all sorts of remote environments for decades. No matter where you are on the religious spectrum, you have to respect some uninitiated couple moving to the jungle, or other similar austere places, and essentially trying to learn to live there. Of course their people have died, albeit infrequently. As a Mom, does that not scare the crap out of you?
No, it doesn't. It's kind of a spectrum. Do I know everything about the rainforest, like someone who has lived there their whole life? No. But am I entirely uninitiated, no. I worked at these sites for about 8 years before having kids - so there's familiarity with the staff, the forest, the wildlife, everything. It's not perfect - and I wouldn't claim to know it all. But as I search myself for the honest answer, no, I'm generally not really afraid of dying out there more than I am afraid of dying in general. In fact, I know that piece of rainforest better than I know my home-city here in the States:) Life is...simpler.
Not really related to your children, but what degrees did you both do that brought you to this kind of career?
I'm doing a bachelor's in wildlife conservation biology at the moment and considering whether post-graduate study or practical work/volunteer experience is best as my next course of action!
Answered this one in detail earlier, if you don't mind checking those? Thank you for your comment though. It's a great one!
We are city slickers with the love for outdoors and take our toddler in the backpacks on long hikes in national parks. Now my kid is older and can communicate but especially at the nine month mark if we delayed a meal because we were in a not so convenient area, he would go insane crying like a banshee suddenly refusing to eat even though he was hungry. I guess how do you deal with tantrums when in the jungle away from base camp?
It's really difficult - you can anticipate a meal, but basically, they are crap on a trail. I think it might be too dangerous to keep them out there long actually. In most sites, predators are attracted to that kind of noise and while I don't think in South Am. they would jump you, in India, they could - the tiger is not to be trifled with. So we keep our kids off the trail systems when we can. The flip side is also true - they scare the crap out of everything when they get loud, and you won't see much.
You mentioned over 20 (!) airplane rides (and I guess lots of rides on ground/water too). What are the logistics of traveling like? You're going to remote locations, not staying too long at one place, carrying two babies/toddlers and tending to all their needs. Where do you get child care items from?
You and your husband are amazing. Someone else talked about the lack of socialization for your kids, but since there's two of them they have each other. Have you also met any young children at the field stations?
The logistics aren't as bad as you'd imagine, if you can relax some of the rules. Our kids are barefoot a lot, and have a pretty free reign of airport lobbies, gate, etc. Sure, those places are giant petridishes for germs, but we are relaxed about that aspect. Allows the kids to burn off a LOT of steam before the flight, which helps. I've also given up on hand sanitizer - there isn't enough in the world to protect them completely, so why try? We travel with two pack n plays and a light stroller, but we might drop those pack n plays in the future - they simply are not as comfy as beds, and kids figure that out soon. So generally, buying things locally and keeping "things" to a minimum is the way to go. One of our field sites has 256 stairs from the port to the camp - straight up. You toughen up and trim your baggage down in the face of that:)
We haven't met young children at the field stations since these guys were born BUT my greatest inspiration has always been this incredible couple who directed my field station for five years, raising their two daughters there. They were incredible - and doing research in that environment was also wonderful. The girls are now teenagers I think, and there's not a thing wrong with their socialisation that I can tell:) It definitely helps to have a sibling out there I think. Thank you again for your comments!
Why do you take them with you?
Where would you rather I leave them instead?:)
They're my kids - I love them and want them to have the best life I can give them. At the moment, that's with me and my husband, and it does involve some traveling.
Thanks for responding.
It makes sense and im not against you or your husband. Sorry if i implied that. I just question how its possible to do what you do and have toddler twin boys right there the whole time? I mean at some point it must become overwhelming? And is having someone watch them out of the question? A granny of someone? Since you asked :)
It is sort of overwhelming. They both decided, for example, that they hated their pack and plays. So they wanted to sleep in bed with us, which was actually easier than it is in the US because the mosquito net sort of forms a kind of protective giant bouncy gym like thing with the bed. But we were severely lacking sleep. By the end of the stay, when we'd learned a lot more coping strategies, we had to leave to come back. I think we'll get better over time.
Sadly, our family (the older generation) isn't really in the right frame of health to help out. Also, most anyone finds twice as many babies at one time kind of a larger and more exhausting challenge. I'm always looking out for that distant cousin/aunt to help out. Or ways to blackmail my sisters into doing it. Thus far, no such luck:)
I understand where you're coming from. I have twin daughters that are 6 now. When they were toddlers? Omg they were impossible to deal with at times, nobody would babysit them. I appreciate you and your husbands dedication to your work and your family. You obviously are doing a great job! Just keep it up. Nobody helped me and my gf now wife. It kind of sucked. But now i couldnt happier because we as a family survived that.
I kind of know what you mean really. You guys sound amazing! I can't imagine these guys even being six...that's SOOO far away!:) Thank you for the kind words - means a whole lot. With my family in India, and no other family really that close to us, we are pretty much doing it on our own too. So definitely some sucky moments, but it creates a bond and a shared experience that's pretty much unbreakable. Kudos to you guys!
PS: Never thought you were against us at all:) Thank you though!!!
How much bug spray would you say is normal to venture into the jungle with? 55 gallon drum of pure deet?
Hah, good guess, but you're maybe overstating that just a little. I've personally had a helluva difficult time finishing even one 3 oz spray of Ben's 100% DEET. Which is probably an excellent thing, since it can melt my watch strap and erase the lettering on my GPS. The prime reason to not venture into the jungle with a 55 gallon drum of anything is that in the jungle, you carry everything you bring with you yourself. It'd literally be a real drag:)
What do you do with all your rescues while you’re away? My ideal future involves animals and travel both but it seems nearly impossible sometimes!
We find house sitters. We also aim to get another dog to keep the first company (my husband doesn't know that this is his intention yet). We adopted this cat and her kitten once, and she was pregnant and suddenly we had 4 more kittens and after finding one a home, we ended up kind of forgetting to get the other ones adopted. But the BEST part other than the fact that I love them all, is that they are super into each other. That really helps when you leave your pets to a house sitter.
Seriously though, when we first got the whole menagerie together, we were kind of terrified about the field. I realised soon that I could spend 4 months freaking out about this, or just 1 month freaking out about it. Either way, we found a house sitter we liked. So luckily, house sitting our brood seems not to turn too many people off - so my advice is that it's likely the same for you. So just don't stress it too much, and just start searching about a month out, and the world is full of people who love animals and will be able to help out while you travel. One thing though, it's a sunk cost for us. We simply make it another line item in the expenses of a trip. So it does end up costing a bit...but, for the best cause.
Can you be our Unidan?
Only for the months in the year when I have an internet connection. Honestly though, you are your own Unidan:)
I'm interested in ecology but I'm not sure which careers to pursue. What advice can you give me?
Ooh, the world is your oyster! You can be a professor, a researcher, a teacher in high school, a conservation biologist, a wildlife biologist, an environmental policy analyst, an environmental impact assessment specialist, a consultant, park ranger - really - an interest in ecology sets you up for a lot of different things!
Why not invest in an off-road RV and just become the Wild Thornberrys already?
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