All posts by Mauna

Grief

This is an obvious departure from my normal biology, but it is now, more than ever, important to showcase our diversity and vulnerability through our individual stories. I had been meaning to write a piece about my road to a career in science, so take this as a precursor for a later post.


I went to bed on Tuesday night numb. Pennsylvania and Arizona hadn’t yet been called. There was technically still some hope, but a miraculous turnaround wouldn’t have filled the pit in my stomach. Despite having spent the evening watching the election coverage in a room full of fellow ecologists and of some of my best friends in Indiana, I felt very alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a competitive person and I hate being on the losing team. But this was different, it was personal. The closeness of the race showed that the country I was born in, that I call home, was attempting to elect a xenophobe, a racist, a misogynist, a climate change denier. As a child of immigrants, as a person of color, as a woman, as a scientist, I felt rejected on the most fundamental level. Whether or not Clinton could win at that point, I was broken.

Like many of my fellow Americans, I slept fitfully that night. Wednesday morning, I saw the BBC and NPR alerts on the lock screen and wept. I was afraid for myself and my family. I could only think about the surge in hate crimes that would accompany this day, and about all the struggles that each of my identities have suffered through to make it in America. I thought about my parents and their journey to Detroit from South India, and wondered if they had any idea the sort of blatant racism they would face there. I thought about my dad at 25. He managed to support both his and my mother’s educations by working as a parking lot monitor, by collecting extra cans to turn in for the recycling money, and by getting a job as a seasonal tax-preparer (and fact-checking Clint Eastwood’s 1988 tax returns!), all while completing a Master’s thesis in artificial intelligence as a mechanical engineer. I thought about my mother’s trials leaving her extensive familial support network in India to become an OB-GYN and family practitioner, as well as the physical tolls that that career path would inflict on her.

Thinking about their struggle to achieve the American Dream makes me cry on a normal day…as does that one episode of Master of None. But it also puts my current Midwest struggles dealing with subtle microaggressions (like my parents in the 80s, I still don’t get served in a timely manner in restaurants) and outright racism (having someone explain why colonialism made Indians so much better than the Chinese) in perspective. Once the initial inspiration fueled tears have passed, I then think about why my parents chose to move to California. My dad was driving my mom to an interview and stopped into Burger King for lunch. The cashier smiled at him while she took his order. That was literally it. My dad decided to raise us in Fairfield, CA, because that was the first place a stranger exhibited a base level of common decency for him as a human being. We would go on to thrive in California, with my mom successfully running a private practice for over 20 years and my dad finally pursuing his lifelong dream – becoming a [walnut] farmer.

Ultimately, they came to the US knowing they would be outsiders and knowing it would be the hardest transition they had ever experienced. They knew that my sister and I would have the greatest opportunity here, that we could do anything. Little did they know that I would be so much like them and how frustrating that would be for them: apparently when you combine my dad’s pragmatism and ambition with my mom’s overwhelming sense of empathy and compassion you get an passionate anthropologically-oriented microbiologist, not a quiet cardiologist.

At this point in my life, at the same age that my parents immigrated to the US, we are very different people. We voted for the same party, but my dad still rolls with the punches much easier. Ever business-minded, he acknowledged the tax breaks as a positive of the new presidency. He understands that things will be bad, but they’ve, honestly, always been pretty bad.

The country was just once again making it clear that it didn’t want us here. The key difference is that I don’t have another country to go back to. I am American, and I’m here to stay, whether it likes it or not. And it’s just a matter of time before we are the collective majority.

Maybe part of him recognizes my anguish and knows it’ll fuel change. I’m going to keep telling myself that, in any case. While the next few days, months, years, will be difficult, I don’t plan on backing down. I won’t hide. I don’t plan on just sitting around and waiting for 2042. I will continue my work on my science, but I will also continue to reach out to anyone and everyone about conservation biology, about climate change, about the inextricable link between social justice and natural resources. I will continue to educate my community at every opportunity.

As I got ready for school, a steady stream of tears would obscure each part of the routine. In an effort to externalize my resolve and passion, I wore my brightest, happiest colored clothing. In a more pragmatic moment, I forewent my normal eye makeup.

My First Predator

On my first real day out in the field, I had some incredible luck.

We had found the baboons and had been observing them about an hour. The group was just starting to casually forage amongst the trees and bushes at the edge of their sleeping grove, the next stop apparently being a large flat plain with scarce vegetation. I was pestering Raf, our senior observer, with the incessant questions that are implicit with your first day in the field, when we heard a tentative, loud bark from a baboon high up on a trunk of an acacia – an alarm call. Young baboons and females with infants began running towards us, back towards their sleeping quarters and away from the alarm calling baboon. A few baboons unburdened by offspring climbed adjacent acacia to assess the scene and began calling as well. Scanning the horizon with my binoculars, I saw…nothing. It was my first day, after all. After a few minutes, Raf motioned for Ben to bring the truck around so we could investigate.

Ben and I remaining clueless to the location of the alarm call, Raf directed us to the cause of the commotion – as we arrived, the cheetah still had its teeth in the neck of a large male grant’s gazelle. And there were three other cheetahs waiting patiently for her to finish the hunt.

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I got to see not one, but 4 cheetahs, in the wild. Why was this so exciting?

Cheetahs are primarily solitary animals once they’ve reached adulthood, only coming together to mate. This group was a family of nearly grown cheetahs still learning how to hunt/consume a carcass. Based on their physical appearance, presence, and overall lack of ability to consume a carcass, the younger cheetahs were probably a little less than a year and a half old.

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Cheetah cubs also have an incredibly high rate of mortality, with around 70-80% of offspring dying in the first three months. This is primarily due to predation (upwards of 70% of cubs are killed by other large carnivores while the mother is hunting), but reduced genetic diversity has also resulted in high levels of recessive genes and thereby weak cheetah cubs.

We’re going to come back to predation in a little bit, since that’s the more important cause of cub mortality, and talk a little bit about genetic diversity, since I think it’s got fascinating implications for conservation efforts down the line. Low genetic diversity in cheetahs isn’t entirely the fault of humans – around 12,000 years ago a mass mammalian extinction created a bottleneck in 75% of mammal species. Everyone that survived recovered, but cheetahs in particular seemed to have recovered in quantity but not quality, with cheetahs suffering from susceptibility to the same infectious diseases, low sperm quality, and kinked tails.  This information is coming from the Genetic Diversity section of the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s (CCF) website, as opposed to specific papers looking at the genetics of cheetahs.

I mention that specifically because more recent bottlenecks are far greater cause for alarm than this ancient one, and the CCF is likely being diplomatic. The recent bottleneck, by the CCF’s estimates, brought down the population from around 100,000 in 1900 to about 10,000 today. Today’s cheetahs to have such low genetic diversity that (as of 1985) they can accept skin grafts from unrelated cheetahs. In order for this to be possible, the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) needs to be near identical on a genetic level, as the MHC complex the body whether a cell is part of the self or whether that cell is something else entirely. Population wide MHC diversity serves a protective function as pathogens that can get past one MHC combination may not be able to get past another combination. This is one of the important immune factors in preventing the spread of the disease throughout the entire population. The global cheetah population is already very low, so managing these levels of genetic diversity will be paramount for future cheetah well-being. Despite that, calling to attention these low levels of genetic diversity was a little bit controversial and the authors were called out for not seeing to the real conservation problems at hand – high levels of predation and human conflict.

Now, hyenas and lions have always been beating up on the little cheetah. It’s easy to do – they aren’t bred to fight, they’re bred to run. And when they do run, they need a 20-30 minute break after so their insane heart rate can return to cheetah-normal. This makes their catch (if they caught anything, with that 50% success rate) easy pickings for anyone bigger. What makes now so different? Well, there’s the already basally low population density of cheetahs (discussed next), but there’s also an increased density of their predators in national parks and wildlife reserves, since that’s the only place to go now. This means that cheetahs are likely to move out of these protected areas with high predator densities and into non-protected land (private farmland).

Over 90% of cheetahs live outside protected management areas, despite translocation efforts. Between 1978 and 1994 alone, this led to a perceived wildlife-livestock conflict produced a literal open season on cheetah hunting. Between livestock and game farmers, an estimated 9,588 cheetahs were “removed” in Namibia. I say “perceived” because cheetahs are diurnal hunters, in contrast to many African predators, and may be blamed for other predator’s kills.

To ease these human-wildlife conflicts, the CCF has helped implement an innovative measure: the livestock guarding dog program! They give the farmers dogs that have literally been bred to save livestock from wolves and bears in Turkey, the Anatolian shepherd and the Kangal dog. Because cheetahs are the lowest on the predator totem pole, they are unlikely to see a goat herd guarded by a large dog as easy prey. This has reduced livestock loss from predators by over 80%. Additionally, the CCF trains farmers in other predator-friendly livestock farming methods and fighting the illegal wildlife trade on their own as well as in conjunction with the US Department of State through the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking.

Check out all the cool research the CCF does and what you can do to help. Of course, here are more pictures from my chance cheetah encounter!

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Mom takes a step back for the wee babes. Once a cheetah has hunted, they need to rest for 20-30 minutes before they can actually eat. While a cheetah is only successful in a hunt about 50% of the time, this remission period is when other predators can easily swoop in and steal the kill.

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Baby 1 is going for it!

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hahahahahaha we are terrible at this
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Bruh, that thing is not opening
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I guess we wait for mom now?

Mom is the back left cheetah.

DSC_0027 (2)Everyone is relatively relaxed because we were on a large, open flood plain. It would be easy to see anyone coming to take the kill. Also, this is ten minutes later, as we’re leaving, and the babes still haven’t opened the gazelle up.


References

Caro TM and Laurenson MK. (1994) “Ecological and Genetic Factors in Conservation: A Cautionary Tale.” Science 263(5146): 485-486. 

Caughley G. (1994) “Directions in Conservation Biology.” Journal of Animal Ecology 63(2): 215-244.

Cheetah Conservation Fund

Coalition for Wildlife Trafficking

May RM. (1995) “The cheetah controversy.” Nature 374: 309-310.

O’Brien SJ, et al. (1985) “Genetic basis for species vulnerability in the cheetah.” Science 227(4693): 1428-34.

Sanjayan MA and Crooks K. (1996) “Skins grafts and cheetahs.” Nature 381: 566.

Weise FJ et al. (2015) “Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) running the gauntlet: an evaluation of translocations into free-range environments in Namibia.” PeerJ 3(e1346). 

 

How to: Sex a Baboon

Our observers can almost immediately identify any of our several hundred baboons by sight. I knew in a few weeks I could only be hope to be able to identify a select few baboons by sight. In pursuit of this itty bitty goal, the first thing I learned to do in the field was sex a baboon. It is a lot easier to tell who someone is with a baseline after all.

It’s also super easy.

And requires looking at a lot of baboon behinds.

The baboon butt has ~three main parts. The ischial callosity (their sitting butt pads), the paracallosal skin (PCS), and the sex skin. For baboon boys, the only one that matters is the ischial callosity. There’s just one continuous butt pad, and it’s kind of heart shaped (in little ones, at least).

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Lady baboons are more complicated, because the PCS (the grey part surrounding the callosity in the male above) and the sex skin (not a thing in males?) help you determine whether the lady is with child or is optimally ready to be with child. For example, this lady’s sex skin says she’s ready to go.

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Because of the sex skin, there are two distinct callosities on lady baboons. So, to figure out if you’re looking at a male or female baboon, check if there’s a split in the callosity. Here’s a bunch of baboon patoots to practice on.

This is for the Instagrammers and Wannabe Obamas: Part 1, Elephant Orphanage

Today I arrived in Nairobi and visited the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the Nairobi National Museum! Part 1 will focus on the Elephant Orphanage, and Part 2 (if I get it together) will focus on the museum.

Sheldrick Elephant OrphanageThis wildlife trust raises orphaned and abandoned baby elephants and rhinos brought from all over Kenya. Once a baby has been reported orphaned, it is airlifted into the nursery section of Nairobi National Park, where the caretakers can monitor it constantly.

They are open to the public for a single feeding (11-12 pm) everyday. The final group was a mix of tourists and very young local school children (definitely all under 10) on field trips.

Readying the milk

Here are the caretakers and their wheelbarrow full of giant baby bottles!

Here they come!

Here are the first babies!

Let's go!

These are the youngest two, aged at about 10 months.

#keepup

#keepup

noms

It took Dr. Sheldrick 28 years to perfect the baby formula these elephants are being given.

close up noms

The babies can’t be fed cow milk because the fat content is way too high – elephants can’t process foods that high in fat.

The milk these elephants are fed is actually nearly human baby formula, but with extra fat emulsifiers added in.

More hungry mouths coming around!

After everyone has been fed, one of the nursery attendants talks to the crowd about the reasons for these elephants’ predicaments (overwhelmingly due to human impact), as well as introduces all the different elephants. This first group is made up of 11 younger and smaller babies, aged between 10 months and 2.5 years. There are currently 25 in total, with 6 being too young or shy to come to such a public feeding.

While the attendant speaks, the babies play!

At a certain point the younger group just leaves and the larger babies come out!DSC_0068

There are 8 elephants in this group, and they are aged 2-4 years. They are noticeably larger.

The baby elephants are fed a total of 24 L of milk a day with a feeding every three hours. In the wild, baby elephants nurse for a minimum of two years. At the nursery, they are formula fed up until 4 years. The 3-4 year olds are in the process of being weaned.

Once they turn four, the elephants are moved to a different location to improve their elephant social skills. The keepers actually move out with them (rotating keepers switch back and forth between nursery and park) and help them integrate into a wild herd. This process of rewilding is variable according to each elephant, but by they are generally fairly well integrated by the time they turn 8.

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Bye babies! Check out more about the Sheldrick Trust Orphans Project, and perhaps adopt a baby? The project runs entirely on donations, so stay tuned for updates on Alec’s new baby elephant, Tusuja!

This is for the Instagrammers and Wannabe Obamas: Part 2, Nairobi National Museum

This is part 2 of my first day in Nairobi! After seeing all the baby elephants, I went to the Nairobi National Museum for a few hours. The bottom floor is a great overview of both the natural history of Kenya and an overview of mammalian evolution, and the top floor focuses on the history of Kenya (precolonial to present) and the stages of human life, as told through contemporary Kenyan tribal artifacts. Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the museum.

Special mention needs to be given to the “Girls Design the World” exhibition, which was created through a partnership between the National Museums of Kenya and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota. With the guidance of artists, designers, and environmentalists, female high school students from the two cities looked at local environmental challenges and used design thinking to create prototype solutions for their problems. These solutions were as simple as the separation of waste types to the manufacturing of oil from non-biodegradable waste.

The exhibition hall
The exhibition hall

The best part of the museum was actually the number of high schoolers present. While I was walking around, a number of girls would just randomly say hello to me. Eventually, a group of 5 girls stopped me (To practice their English? To play with my hair? Unclear.) and I got to tell them about the research I was doing in Kenya as well as the steps to graduate school in the US. Very strange, but I had a good time.

 

Writtens

“You’re about to take your writtens? This is the smartest you’ll ever be!” – Jason

Since I just took my written exams, I’m expound on what I know (or didn’t).

Writtens encompass the major topics relevant to your preliminary research proposal and tend to be taken during the second year of the Ph.D. program, so that you have the necessary background classes to use as a springboard for ideas.

Before we can do our writtens, we have to assemble a committee of 4-5 professors (including your PI). These people are signing up to mentor you in their areas of expertise, as it pertains to your research area. Since Notre Dame has a relatively small department and I have a very specific research topic, it was fairly clear who should be on my committee, but make sure to ask other grad students about how professors actually are on committees. Some are very involved and give great feedback, and others don’t bother to write a new test for you or even look at you during committee meetings.

Once you’ve picked your group, herd your professor-cats into one room (somehow) and present your potential research ideas for them to poke full of holes. Since my committee all knew me but didn’t necessarily know my post Ph.D. goals, I also spent some time telling them about my background (I like gibbons), why I want a Ph.D. (more letters for this BadAss BullShitter), and what I want to do (play with gibbons in the US). After about an hour of (hopefully constructive) criticism, you’ll have finished your first committee meeting!

Post committee meeting, you then go visit each professor’s lair individually and ask them what they think you should know, based on what you presented at the meeting. As I met with each of them individually, I also told them why I had chosen them and what specifically I was looking to learn from them, which helped most of them guide my writtens material. This need not be one-way either, having a continuing dialogue with your committee members while you are studying can be a great way to bounce ideas around. Ask if you can see copies of exam questions given to other graduate students and clarify early on whether the exam is open book or not. With a stack of papers in hand and a bunch of textbooks in your bag, you now get to embark on a lovely month long journey of despair and discovery, depending on the textbooks.

The exams themselves are almost a relief, since they signal that you can stop breathing in nothing but science for a few days (it’s all spent on expulsion!). Ours are three hours a professor and parceled out over two to three days with two professors a day. Your PI sets the order of the exams, so she asked if I had a preference for order – ask about that so you know exactly what’s coming when! All of mine were due by electronic submission, so that was 12 hours (!!) of furious essay question typing. I didn’t study on the evening between the exams because I was honestly too burnt out after the first 6 hours. Have a beer and lay in the grass, because exam fatigue is very real. My last exam was my PI’s, and exam fatigue made the very last question all but impossible to do in a timely manner. Luckily, since it was her exam, it was the most well defined in my head as well as the one I could autopilot answer the best.

That feeling of being done though…that was amazing. The euphoria lasted for at least a day. 10/10 but would not do again. It was strange to know that at that moment right before the exam, you really are the most knowledgeable about all the things, and then you just deflate into a pile of euphoric mush, i.e. the dumbest you’ll ever be.

Reflections of a First Year

Last week I spent over 40 hours in a small room with the same 18 people. As the instructors pointed out, you would think that that would mean we would all hate one another by the end of the week. On the other hand, I hadn’t ever met 13 of them outside of a professional context before, which means that this Social Responsibilities of Researchers boot camp was the quickest way to learn how to meet and tolerate and become incredibly comfortable with a relatively large group of people in the shortest amount of time possible. While I was going to write a blog post solely reflecting on this boot camp experience, I thought it might be more worthwhile to expand out to reflections on my first year (or 9 months, I guess) of graduate school.


I started this by writing out a long winded sad-sack post about how terrible that first few months of grad school was – the ones were I felt like I was in a free float, both in terms of not having a network of friends and of not having anything concrete (like wet lab work) to research. Instead, I think this is best structured as a handy table of do and do nots.

DO NOT DO
Skip out on orientation events, even if it’s raining Really, just fucking bring an umbrella, I know you hate humidity but there will probably be cookies.
Hide while your roommate is having a dinner party Go to happy hours and meet said roommate’s friend network and steal them for your own
Compare yourself to the other first year graduate students, they are both in wet labs and doing rotations so stop freaking out that you just funneled poop and read papers for the entire semester Enjoy Duke despite the literal mountain of shit you have to process. Keep working on whatever you can find obsessively (looking at you, GRFP).
Sign up for literally all the talks Just kidding, you should totally do that. Free snacks and facial recognition by the heads of the professional development departments.
Try to keep track of all your commitments on random loose bits of paper and iPhone notes Use an electronic calendar – set up events in a series
Put up with racist bullshit microaggressions Chug that hard cider and tell that drunk idiot where he can shove his justifications for colonialism
Avoid getting involved in social event planning Plan that Halloween party and also come up with an awesome award winning group costume
Have the same amount of Jell-O shots as someone who is literally twice your size (verified) Aim for the window/toilet/trash can. Sleep on tile floor for easy clean up.
Freak out that someone in your group is useless Just do the work, those people always exist and are also doing grad school all wrong.
Worry about grades Do the work, learn the material – there isn’t a curve anymore. This is grad school, where the classes are made up and the grades don’t matter.
Sign up for literally all the outreach Just kidding, you’ll sleep when you graduate. Go tell those children about biomes right meow!
Freak out about being wrong Let the shame roll off your back and learn from it.
Freak out about your project being in constant flux PIs are like cats – you will never know what they’re thinking or why they seem to cause chaos at regular intervals
Only stick to meeting people in your department Sign up for things that let you interact with less poop obsessed people.
Get too flustered by next week’s commitments. Take grad school one small garbage fire at a time. “You can stand anything for ten seconds, and then another ten seconds, and then another…”
Take for granted how much you do actually know Try to explain your project to anyone unfamiliar with your specific field and realize just how much background and jargon you already have.

In summary, my first year was like a garbage fire that keeps flaring up whenever you thought it was under control. Stop panicking, back up, and roast marshmallows.