Thursday, October 30, 2014

How to Gain Experience and Employment as an Ecology / Wildlife Biology Field Research Technician

Probably the most frequently-asked question I receive whenever I meet new people or discuss my employment is:

"Where do you find jobs like that?"

The question isn't so much where to find them-- more often than not, it's pretty easy to find job postings for international or domestic field research. The harder part (for most of the people asking, anyway), is getting the basic qualifications that get you in the door.

The primary things that help you get a field research job are:
  • Having already completed a field season of research
  • Good references (professional references that can speak to your experience and your enthusiasm and character are best)
  • Having training in the specific field techniques used in the project
  • Having or working towards a relevant degree (pretty much anything in the natural or environmental sciences, or even statistics or programming, will do as long as you have relevant courses that show your interest and perhaps some practical training)
Helpful attributes to get a position abroad include:
  • Having already lived or worked abroad in the region
  • Having participated in field research abroad
  • Demonstrated your ability to work in particularly harsh and unpredictable conditions
  • Foreign language skills
This is a pretty difficult field to break into for your first few projects-- no one wants to risk their personal research on a technician that might turn out to be moody, sloppy, indifferent, or generally hazardous! The best way to get your foot in the door is:

Volunteer on at least one project doing something that interests you.

If you are an undergraduate-level student, find a professor that does field research. Volunteer your time and effort for a summer. You may miss out on a paying summer job-- whether you can afford to do that is up to you (I couldn't, as an undergrad). If you can swing it, spend your summers helping professors out.

If you can't find a professor at your university (the personal touch is always a good one), try volunteering for a similar position found on a job board.

Study abroad

As an undergrad, I couldn't well afford to take summers off to work unpaid jobs. I could, however, swing a semester abroad where my financial aid still applied. Research your options, talk to your study abroad office. If you want to grow up to do international field research, find a program that specializes in giving undergraduates international field research experience.

I highly recommend Round River Conservation Studies for an immersive, hard-core, research-based study abroad experience. I was able to work on actual conservation projects (see below) in Namibia for a full semester. With the help of a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, it cost me and my family less than it would have to keep my at my home university, including airfare. School for Field Studies offers similar (but broader) programs.

Commit for a real period of time to a real project

I see plenty of "volunteer for two weeks and pay our research station $600/week in housing"-type positions. That sounds like a fine vacation if you have the time and money and just want to cuddle orangutans (who doesn't!?), but two weeks isn't going to convince anybody that you're a hard worker, and you could probably spend your money better. Remember that a typical field season lasts 3-4 months, often much longer.

It's quite understandable that a research station might want to recoup some of its expenses on volunteers, but I would expect that a project using me as a volunteer would recoup those costs through my labor and not my money. Be cautious about programs that seem to take volunteers on as a source of income: make sure that you will be trained in the skills you want to acquire and not just treated as a vacationer!

Take note of the skills required for jobs you'd like someday

If you want to work with large mammals, you will need handling and trapping experience, a course in chemical immobilization, possibly some tracking training, and probably some experience with radio telemetry. If you want to work with birds, you will likely need lots and lots of mist-netting extraction and handling experience, experience with visual and sound identification, etc. Pay attention to skills and techniques that you would like to acquire, and select projects where you can be trained in those methods.

List of Job Boards

Here are a list of my favorite sites for seeking jobs and volunteer opportunities in ecology and wildlife biology:
  • Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Job Board -- The biggest wildlife job board around
  • Society for Conservation Biology Job Board -- A lot of overlap with the TAMU job board, but with some preferential and exclusive posts and a more narrow focus
  • AZA Job Board -- Lots of animal husbandry internships, but a research-focused internship or job pops up every once in awhile
  • ECOLOG Listserve -- Academic ecology email list, with lots of graduate research opportunities and some research technician opportunities posted frequently.

Recommended Reading

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New Adventure on the Horizon

Hello all! It's been awhile since I last updated my poor travel log (which I admittedly neglected a bit during my last project). I'll make an effort to update with  my best photos-- sorting through them all and backing up my favorites has been a very time-consuming task!

My next project is working with herps, a term I'm already informed makes laypersons think of "herpes simplex" before "herpetile" or "herpetofauna." Same greek root, you guys!
Greek: ἑρπετόν, hereton, "creeping animal" [Wikipedia]
Most of my fieldwork thus far has focused on mammals and the herbaceous matrix we find them in, so this will be quite the treat to play with a new taxon! I grew up catching leopard frogs and shuttling garter snakes off the road, so I'll be tapping back into adolescent herp-hunting mode.

And most excitingly, this project is in...
Costa Rica!
Woohoo! This project is a great fit, considering my goals to conduct international fieldwork, work with many taxa, and progress with my passable Spanish skills.

I will be flying out next week (still need to pack and sort out a multitude of details!), and will be back by Christmas. I'm spending this week catching up with friends and family, reformatting and repairing my long-suffering travel netbook, sewing up the holes in my bags, cleaning the family homes, and finalizing my packing list. More updates to come!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Arkansan Adventures

I am presently working as a bat survey research technician— I am part of a crew hired by a local university which was hired by the Forest Service to look for federally and locally endangered bats. The Forest Service, in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, is obligated to (and probably wants to) find out whether there are any endangered species in a region before they do any controlled burns, logging, or other sorts of disruptions that could hurt any endangered populations.

That’s where we come in—as a crew of bat biologists and ecologists, we root around designated areas of the national forests to try to find the federally endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis). Because we are trying to find any M. sodalist that might be roosting in the area, we aren’t netting in a grid or other system with predetermined locations, as one might if looking for an unbiased sample of species in the area. Instead, we rely on our understanding of bat ecology, behavior, known populations, topography, and local weather conditions to get inside the bats’ heads and try to find sites where they will be. Bats love partly-covered “flyways” through the forest along trails or roads, and sometimes have to fly long distances to the nearest source of water to drink, for example.

Most of our surveys are two nights per site, so our work day can start as early as 3pm if we are out scouting for sites to set up, or as late as 7pm if we are continuing netting at a nearby site. We net for five hours after sunset, so we close our nets between 1 and 2am as the summer progresses. Quite a lifestyle shift from getting up at 5am to catch rodents in Chiapas!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Catching up

Hello readers! I have a bit of catching you up to do:

- After concluding our mammal / coffee work, we research techs traveled together to San Cristobal de Las Casas, a beautiful and cosmopolitan little hippy city in the mountains of the Sierra Madre. We hung around there for a week, bumming around youth hostels and seeing the sites with lots of new friends from around the world. Week done, my travel buddies flew out; I popped up to see the ruins of Palenque, down to see the regionally famous zoo in Tuxtla Guiterrez, back to San Cristobal, and then to the airport to fly home!

- I had almost four weeks to fit in some serious R&R, visits to friends and family, and then cleaning and packing up for my next adventure project! The weeks flew by, and as is usual for these short visits home, I was left in a hurry to see as many people as I could and to get everything on my to-do list done.

- I spent three days to drive the twenty-four hours from my family's home to the Arkansas Ozarks, a beautiful and hilly/mountainous region that greeted me with deluges of rain and a very chilly first night. I managed to set up my roomy living-out-of-my-car tent before sunset, had dinner with my colleagues who had arrived at the public campsite before I, and snuggled into my sleeping bag under several layers of clothing for a very, very early night.

More on what I'll be doing here in AR soon!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Fieldwork Blog: Seafood Wars, The Papaya Incident, and On Being Digested By A Jungle

We are well into our final session of mammal diversity surveys! It is a bittersweet but bustling period: everyone is rushing about, securing post-project employment and planning flights home and for travel within Mexico after we wrap things up at our home base.
For our past "weekend" between sessions, we headed to the beach! It was our first time heading east of Tapachula, the largest nearby city and our source of groceries and other supplies. After a half-hour's drive past the familiar neighborhoods, in which we passed scrubby fields full of construction projects, scorched grass, and one with an assortment of brown Shetland ponies, we ended up in lovely Playa Linda. It was the off-season, and our vehicle was immediately surrounded by waiters, trying to get the lone beach visitors on a winter Tuesday to visit their seafood restaurant. After promising to return and make a selection in a few hours, we headed to the beach. The sand was scorching and the water warm and heavenly. It was fantastic to get out into the open air and smell the ocean after so much time in the mountains; growing up in New England has spoiled me for prolonged inland living. After swimming, sunning, reading, and (in my case) getting moderately sunburnt despite sitting in the shade wearing sunscreen, we headed back to the main road for lunch. Fortunately a few tourists had rolled in, and a lot of the pressure from the eager waiters had abated. We lunched on refried beans, guac, tortillas, real-sugar coke, and a variety of very fresh seafoods; all very good! After lunch, stuffed to the gills with gilled creatures, we staggered to the nearest superstore to load up on the next week's groceries before heading home for naps.
The day after, we visited a nearby farm to scout for contiguous forest to serve as our control sites. The manager there greeted us warmly as we explained our project and what type of sites we were searching for. He sent for a truck to convey our team, our guide, the manager, and his assistants and guides from the farm up the mountain. A shaggy white dog napped under our car. Several nearly-identical shaggy white sheep grazed nearby. While we waited, the manager broke out a giant papaya. Our guide informed us, conversationally, that for a guest to refuse a gift was bad luck and would mean they might not return again. Our group exchanged glances. Several members had previously discussed their hatred of fresh papaya; I had only once tried a slice and wasn't impressed; none of us liked them. Of course, we enthusiastically accepted the heaping, dripping slices of papaya and each of us began to scarf down bites of segments larger than a liter water bottle and containing about as much liquid. The flesh was sweet, and as someone inconveniently pointed out, tasted strongly of cheddar cheese. Juice rolled down my arms and dripped off my elbows. Tim's beard was full of the orange pulp. Mandi looked sick.  Looking over at our guide Philippe, I saw that he and the other locals were eating the papaya as neatly as one would an apple. I studied them as they ate. No trick was apparent. I resigned to be a papaya slob. I am proud to say we all finished our massive slices; by the end, the taste was actually growing on me.
Our search at that farm for sites within contiguous forest was not successful; apparently all of the forests in the nearby area have been thoroughly fragmented by farms and development. We fell back to our original plan, sites in forest fragments relatively near our home base. The day after was spent hiking around, reestablishing our site selection within the forest fragments. It was slow and adventurous work, bushwhacking along invisible trails we originally bushwhacked two months ago. Burrs and thorns were abundant, as were well-camouflaged ditches and mysterious drop-offs. I was in my element, and had a lot of fun navigating the highly challenging terrain.
By the next day, we had ironed out a plan and placed and baited our traps in the forest. This, too, took some bushwhacking and adventurous vine avoidance. There is a particularly spiny vine shaped a lot like a churro that has become my nemesis. I love navigating through the forests, which involves a lot of ducking, dodging, backing up to unwrap branches from ankles, and getting hit in the face with branches that definitely weren't there a moment ago. It's a challenge that keeps each moment interesting. I compare all the getting ripped up, poked, prodded; climbing, sweating, squeezing, slipping, and getting very dirty in the oppressive heat to being digested by the jungle. I also maintain that by that the end of this session I will have passed these trials of the jungle, be at one with the forest, and be able to phase through its matter like a nymph and summon the small mammals to our traps with a song. I will report back on such developments, of course, for science.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More Mefloquine Dreams

Dream one:
I succeed in catching a chicken. Just as I remember, chickens are very warm and feathery and deceptively light. I am able to show coworker Stephen the amazing ability of chickens to keep their heads still, independent of their bodies' movements. All the chickens of the area hear that I am holding chickens. They crowd around and wait patiently at my feet for their turns to be held. We are all delighted.

Dream two:
I am eating an ice cream sunday at an airport bar. Anthony Bourdain slides onto the seat next to me. He orders a $3000 bacon-based cocktail. He says that it is fantastic and that I should order one, too. Unwilling to disclose my vegetarianism to such an outspoken stranger/celebrity, I instead disclose that I cannot possibly afford such a beverage. He laughs, downs his drink. "Tough cookies, kid," he says.