Monkeys Forest Tales: Working in field sites outside of your own country: challenges

In today’s post we are going to talk abut working in field sites outside of your own country, especially some of the challenges of working in a different culture and in a different language…

Fieldwork is always challenging, even when you are in your country and speaking in your own language. Why is that? May be because it usually means that you leave the comfort of your house, sometimes for camping, or to live in a place far from all the things and people you are used to.

When doing fieldwork outside of your own country those challenges increase if you go to places where another language is spoken. Some of those challenges are related with the language, but also with the culture in which you are working, additional to the challenges of the terrain in which you work, weather conditions and the specific challenges of the species or group of species that you are studying.

So, one of the things that usually helps is to be flexible and open minded to face uncertainties and to adapt yourself to the conditions surrounding you. But probably the most important skill you will need to develop is to be patience, with others but especially with yourself…Things probably never will be as you planned, there is always something that goes wrong, or slower than you expected. So be patience, have one or two back up plans, try to learn the local language and culture, be respectful of local people believes and try to have fun.

Fieldwork should be fun as well as hard work, enjoy the animals and all the opportunities that travelling and visiting other cultures offers you. Be aware of the risk you can face due to different believes, especially if you are a woman. Be safe and careful and enjoy all the opportunities that life is giving you just for being in the field, surrounded by nature and in a country that is not yours. You are lucky, that is something not all people can do or have the opportunity to do…

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Monkey Forest Tales: What means to be a good supervisor?

On past days I came across a twitter that make me thing about supervisors and how influential they are in our lives during and after we finish working with them. This twitter said: “It’s very important for grad students and postdocs to work with advisors who know when to say: that’s enough for today. Be sure to take time for yourself. Research is endless, but our lives are not. Sleep, exercise, cook a good meal, have some down time”. In all my time in academia, I only have one supervisor telling me similar words on our weekly meetings. He always asks me to socialize more and to participate not only on social activities in the lab but also to spent time with friends. To have time off. He even takes time off and sometimes didn’t went to conferences or academic events to put his family first… something that at that time I wasn’t sure I understood well, but that today I see as one of his best qualities as a human and a supervisor. So Jonathan thank you for had been my supervisor and an excellent person while I was learning…

I was formed by different supervisors from undergrad to postdoc, all of them from different countries, cultures, ages and ways to see life. From all of them I learned something (good and/or bad), and they all impacted the way I perceive and feel academia life. On the way I also interacted with other supervisors that even if they were not directly connected with my work, take time to talk about life and balance while doing research. However, it was only until I met a really bad supervisor that I start to understand what really means to have a supervisor that put you first as a person and really help you grow as a person and a researcher. Unfortunately good supervisors seems to not be that common, something that seems to be incentivized by a system that prioritize egos and publications over human quality and collaboration.

Although today I don’t supervise many students as I used to. I always try to stop myself when I push too hard students that show a real effort on keep their lives while doing a good job. I had tried to be as honest as possible about my own experiences with my students so they can learn from my experiences as well as from their own. Not so sure how successful I had been on that but there is always space for improvement…  

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Monkey Forest tales: Celebrating World Primate Day!!!

Yesterday was a special day for all of us that love primates. It was World Primate Day!! Every year we celebrate a special day dedicated to all primate (monkeys, apes, lemurs and loris) species around the world. It is a day to raise awareness about primates, their threats, threat to their habitats and the importance of primates in their habitats.

Over 75 % of primate species around the world are threatened by human activities which make their habitats (temperate forest, tropical forest, woodlands, mangroves, and savannas). Many species adapt themselves to live so close to people that they enter in conflict with human communities, riding crops and robbing food from houses. However, one thing we used to forget is that they were on those places before us, so the ones who invade their habitats are us not them and it is with a bit of respect that we should see the situations in which we enter in conflict with them.

Also, we should remember that we are primates like them. They are our closest relatives in the animal world and their beauty and smartness reflect us even when we continue forgetting that we can be as smart as they are.

They care for their babies is the same that we have for ours and they spent the same amount of energy and love to care for their babies as we do with ours. So, let’s celebrate their amazing beauty, how smart they are and do our best to protect them and their homes (habitats)… At least that’s what we try to do in Zocay Project with the species we work with every day

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News from the field: new project started

In today’s post we are going to talk about a new exciting project that we started with our collaborators from Onca Foundation. A nacional foundation which works for the conservation of Colombian biodiversity (https://www.facebook.com/OncaFundacion/).

Over the past years due to climate change as well as changes in the local land uses in many parts around our study area, we had seen a change in the precipitation patterns. Therefore, last year we put a couple of camera traps on water sources made for livestock in one of the cattle ranches we work with so see if wildlife were using those water sources during the dry season. As you may read in the post I did about what we found, we observe several mammals, including squirrel monkeys!!! Drinking water from those sources. On this new project we want to know what the frequency of use of those water sources is and if there is difference in the use of different water sources (natural and human-made lakes, and water containers) used for livestock. This month we started this exciting new project by installing the camera traps near to those water sources. So, stay tuned for our updates in November when we will review our camera traps.

But why is this important, well during dry months in the study area most of the streams dried and there are very few places where wildlife can find water to drink. This is also true for livestock in general, so as part of the management that cattle ranches do in the area, they made artificial lakes and put water container in different part of the property. Those places are also accessible for the wildlife living in the are and they actually use them, at least during dry months. But what happens on rainy months. Is wildlife also using those water sources during rainy season?

Well, we hope to answer those questions by using camera trap methods over a year. This project is possible to the generous support of Re:wild through “The Little Chalcraft Fund”. Thank you for supporting our research and conservation is this beautiful, fragmented area of Colombian Llanos

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Monkey Forest Tales: What worked for my PhD?

In today’s post, we will talk about PhDs again, the reason for this is because I felt there is still a lot of things that I can said to help others who are doing their doctorate now or are thinking of doing it. In other post in which we mention this topic we had talk about work-life balance but are there any tips and advice you can have in mind while doing your PhD.There were several things that worked for me and others around me at that time.

When planning your PhD project for me was important to read about all the topics I was including in my thesis: landscape ecology, conservation planning and primates. But it was also important to write down the main ideas of what I was reading, kind of small abstracts as well as do conceptual maps around my research questions.

When planning my fieldwork, it was important and probably an advantage that I did it in the study area of this project and I already knew most of the logistics that was necessary for doing it. But if you don’t have that advantage, ask questions to people who had work in the area before and don’t be afraid of asking even those questions you think are silly or not important, all of them can help you at some point to deal with challenges in your fieldwork.

When writing your thesis, it is important you understand the times in which your ideas flow more fluid, when you write better: are you a morning person or do you prefer to work at night. Do you have a productive hour? Remember writing and editing is different, editing is not writing. Some of my friend used to block periods of time for just writing and others for editing and adding references. Writing time means time to put your ideas in a document without thinking on references, grammatical errors and style. Be aware of your deadlines and break down your big task in small ones, don’t be afraid of asking for help when you are stuck…

And probably the best advice someone give me was to stop when your document is around 80 – 90 % complete in your mind and send it to others for feedback. There isn’t a perfect thesis!!

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Monkey Forest Tales: Fieldwork: some additional things to have in mind

In today’s post we are going to continue talking about fieldwork. For a large part of biologist, anthropologist, and many other disciplines, fieldwork is an important part of their job and life and what to take with you on your field trips as well as how to mentally prepare for unexpended situations is an important part of that life too. So based on my own experience of over 27 years of fieldwork trips of different duration and to different ecosystems and places around the world.

For me fieldwork has been a big part of my personal and professional life, which means that I had expend a huge part of my professional life in the field, mostly working with monkeys but also volunteering in projects with other animals such as koalas and whales. Each experience had taught me different things about what to bring or not to the field. Also, it had taught me about my own skills and what my body is really able to do or not and how much I can push my own health.

As I mention in other post I have asthma, which means that there is certain thing that my body just cannot do because I can breathe properly. However, that doesn’t mean I cannot prepare myself to enjoy and do the best with my own capabilities and to choose the place where I can give the best of me to do a great job. From my early experiences during my biology studies, I noticed that cold places (mainly mountain areas in my country) I learned that cold weather was a challenge for my body and although there are interesting topics to study on those parts my body cannot function properly at high altitudes and cold weather. So, the first thing to know when you do fieldwork is to recognize your own limitations and learn to accept them.

It is also important when going to the field to know what to bring or not. This is especially important in terms of weight as you may need to carry your own bags for a few hours or several kilometers. This was a lesson that I learned a bit late in life and could have save me some back pain now, but sometimes you are stubborn on certain things. So be wise when packing, travel with clothes that are easy to wash and dry by hand. Don’t pack too many pants and t-shirts. If you are going to tropical forest with lots of mosquitos take with you a mosquito repellents and long sleeve shirts and long pants. Long pants that can be converted to short pants are practical. Always pack at least one warm clothing as even in tropical forest can be cold at night. Take enough socks and underwear. Leave your fancy underwear at home and use cotton underwear in the field. You will feel more comfortable while working. So, be aware of what you pack and its weight. Pack for the time you will expend in the field and not be afraid to wash your clothes. It is usually better than carry more than you will use.

If you love to read and want to read during your fieldtrip, take advantage of the technology we have available now, when I started 27 years ago, we need to carry printed book and sometimes humidity damage them at the end of our fieldtrip. Now we have tablets and phones that reduce some of the weight of carrying printed books. However, humidity can be an issue in some tropical forest. So use silica gel to protect your electronic devices and pack them in waterproof containers or bags.

Therefore, if you are planning a field trip have in mind your own health and skill, be aware of your bag’s weight when doing your packing. Think about the weather you will be experiencing during your field trip and pack accordingly. And finally, if you are taking your electronic devices plan your packing to reduce any adverse effects of humidity on them.

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Monkeys Forest Tales: What to know about remote fieldwork?

In today’s post we are going to talk about the challenges and opportunities that remote fieldwork can give you. The reason why I want to explore this topic in my blog is because over the years I not only had experienced different types of fieldwork but also found that this kind of different types of remote fieldwork are understood differently in different settings. This is particularly important to understand when you are applying to PhDs, Post Docs and jobs.

When we talk about remote fieldwork in this blog we mean fieldwork in areas of difficult access with very basic conditions of accommodation. Usually with intermittent or null internet connection. Usually in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Although it can al apply to some remote areas in Australian outback where some of the same conditions apply.

When looking for positions that offers remote fieldwork it is ok to ask what the meaning is of remote as in different cultures that can mean different things. In Colombia, for example, remote means that you will be several days by bus or river in very isolated communities or forest with not potable water, letrines but not necessarily a proper toilet, usually without any internet connection or intermittent connections in certain areas.

In Australia, for example this usually means places far from towns by several hours by car, where there are few houses, probably staying in camping sites. Intermittent internet connection or sometimes none. Near to the central dessert in some cases. In Africa, this usually means areas where you need to travel by car and/ or river for several days, similar to remote areas in Colombia.

But why is important to understand this? Because if you are at different stages of your career that means you will probably accept different conditions in different ways. Usually, if you are younger, you will like some adventure and you won’t mind long travel hours to get there and out. Probably it will be ok for you to not have any internet connection for several weeks or months. This is also important when you have other responsibilities such as kids or family who depends on you.

It is also important to understand these conditions to prepare your bags and how to pack for those areas, always ask questions about what to pack, for what kind of weather, if you need to take additional medicines or food. It is always better to take medicines for stomach problems as it is a common problem when working in remote areas without potable water. Also try to not carry to much, especially if the travel you will do implies that you will have to walk carrying your own bags. Don’t pack too much, be aware of your own waste.

During your preparations ask questions about how easy it will be to get emergency attention and how fast you can be taken out of those remote areas. Prepare an emergency plan and leave instructions with family or friends about emergency plans. While working in remote areas be aware of your own skills and don’t put yourself at risk just because you want to show off. Do your work well done but having your security and others in mind…And enjoy as much as you can as it is possible that at other stages of your life that won’t be possible to do it…

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Monkeys Forest Tales: News from the field: new babies and babies growing

In today’s post I want to give a quick update of the monkey’s life in our study area. First, I want to apologize with all of you for my lack of posting two weeks ago. Unfortunately, in Colombia there are still some areas in which internet connection is not continuous and make some aspects of our current life difficult. So, basically, we had some internet issues in the part of Colombia where we are at the moment that didn’t allow us to share with you our regular post.

As you may recall from past post from February this year, we have new babies in several of the Colombian squirrel monkey’s groups. In our last visit we count them again and we found the same number of babies, although more independent than before and in some cases moving along their mothers for short distances.

Some of the red howler monkey’s babies are now older and playful juveniles. At this time of the year, we observed some of them with botflies in their necks and abdomen. Adults also have botflies at this time, may be due to the increase in rain.

We also detected a new baby in one of the dusky titi monkey groups that we didn’t see in our last visit. The forest has some fruit although this year although the rainy season started a bit later than in other years. In this fieldtrip we also found a Brumback night monkey group in a nest we thought they abandon completely, as we didn’t see them using it for more than a year.

This time we didn’t see any trace of coatis as in other visits, but it could be that they are using other forest fragments as it seems their home ranges includes more than one forest fragment in this highly transformed landscape.

Heavy rains are usual at this time and some parts of the forest as well as small fragments are flooded at the moment, making the forest more humid and noisy (more frog are singing)…

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Monkeys Forest Tales: Considering career changes? What to ask yourself?

Lately I had a lot of thoughts about career changes and how to decide when you want or need a change in your career. A topic that is not easy and it doesn’t have only one answer. So, in today’s post we will explore this topic and some considerations you should have in mind before deciding.

Usually when you think about a career change, it is because there is something in your work you are not enjoying, or you are not feeling happy with your job and/or career. Deciding to change your career is not an easy decision because it also means life changes.

Some years ago, a friend told me that sometimes after your 40’s you evaluate your life and even think about changing your career. Because I make my decision of studying biology and never though about changing it, in my case it has not been about changing my career, but about changing my job or at some points changing my study object.

But what do you need to ponder if you are thinking about changing your career or even your job? First ask yourself the current reason why you are thinking about making that change. Second, for how long you want a change, it is a long-term change, or you are just tired of a specific routine and want to change specific situations. Both considerations are important to decide if you just talk with your boss and make some arrangements in your goals and routines. Or if what you need to do is to start a job search towards something that make you happier.

In today’s job market there are many options and with the increase of remote jobs, there is a more flexible environment to make those career changes as well as changing your job conditions, even when your job is a traditional job.

Therefore, when you are deciding about career changes, don’t forget to ask yourself about the true reasons why you want a change and what exactly is making you unhappy with your current job/ career.

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Monkey Forest Tales: What to do before choosing a PhD, Post Doc and even a new job?

In today’s post we are going to talk about some of things I learned of what is best to do before choosing a PhD, Post Doc and even a new job. Of course, I’m talking from my own experience mainly, and from the experiences of people around me.

Choosing a PhD is an important part of an academic career and usually you don’t know where to start and how to look for it. You see opportunities promoted by others and some others have an ideal of what kind of project or university they want. For me was a search that started by looking with who I want to work with. In my undergrad and master, I have two very good researchers with different teaching styles. For my doctorate I also want it a good supervisor and especially I wanted to work in a topic I liked, preferably in my own country… and with monkeys of course!!!

My other requirement was that I want to have a fellowship to do my doctorate. I did my master at the same time I was working, and it took me double of time because of that. So, this time I didn’t want to be worried about money. I was lucky enough to get both an excellent supervisor that was not only worried about my work but also about me as a person. And I got my doctorate funded.

So, my first piece of advice is to look for a supervisor who not only is interested in your work and give you the opportunities to growth as a professional but also someone who ask about your work-life balance and who is a good person and give you time to solve questions. Also, if you are doing a doctorate, especially if it is outside of your own country, it is important that your supervisor understand that and know about the difficulties that living in a foreign country implies. Additionally, I recommend doing a doctorate completely funded, it will reduce your stress and you will enjoy more the whole process.

When choosing a Post Doc and even a new job, my recommendations follow a similar patter in terms of choosing a good supervisor for your Post Doc and a good boss. Sometimes that is not so easy to know before hand, but it is important for your own professional development and for your mental health. Both are professional positions and in both you should be able to develop your professional skills and increase your experiences in a healthy environment. I wasn’t that lucky with my post doc position but get better after that with some of my job positions…

Although it is not always easy to decide to end a post doc or a job, especially if you have responsibilities and the economic part is restricted. No job or post doc position will give you back your mental health once you lose it because of a toxic job environment. This is especially true when you are living in a foreign country and work in your second or third language.

So, my second piece of advice is to choose carefully and if you are in a toxic job environment prioritize your mental health first. Plan carefully and keep as much as possible a good saving fund that give you the freedom to change jobs if you choose a wrong job or post doc position…

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