Lonely Conservationists

Natasha (the Forever Field Assistant)

Story written by Natasha Bartolotta

With my shirt sticking to my back and muddy water spilling into my boots, I trudged through the swamp forest of Sumatra deciding, once again, to extend my time at an orangutan research field station. I had been there for 15 hot, humid months and had already extended my stay twice. First, I didn’t want to leave because I loved it so much and asked to stay. Then, I offered to again stay longer because the project I was working for could use more data. Now, I was asked to remain just a tad longer to help train new volunteers. I always thought, “Why not?” This thinking is what turned my post-undergraduate gap year into three. Two of those years have been spent as a volunteer research assistant collecting data on great apes.

At some unknown point during my childhood, chimpanzees became my favourite animals. I specifically remember watching “George of the Jungle” and hearing a giant, talking ape (naturally) say this quote: “Madam, I knew Jane Goodall, and you are no Jane Goodall.” Mini-me wondered, who is this Jane Goodall? Learning her story blew my little child mind. I was amazed that a woman had actually gone on her own to study these animals. I didn’t know a person could do this as a career, but now the seed had been planted in my brain and begun to take root.

Following my own unique path full of wild field biology experiences, I eventually achieved my dream of seeing chimpanzees. I had just graduated college with my biology degree and now I was off to Uganda for my first extended volunteer research position. My glorious purpose here was to catch chimp urine and take faecal temperatures. As I got inadvertently peed on by a chimp for the 50th time (not to mention a few times pooped on), I wondered if this is what Jane felt like all those years ago.

Unfortunately, my time there ended a few months early because of a personal mistake I made. Something that (without going into the details) left me deeply embarrassed and discouraged. I saw this as a very personal failure and that I had ruined a rare opportunity. However, the most important part of every life lesson is to move forward and better ourselves with each step we take. So, move forward I did.

As fate turns out, leaving the chimp site early allowed me to travel to Indonesia. I really thought I would apply to grad schools when I came home from Uganda, but then I saw a posting for another volunteer field assistant position and again thought, “Why not?” Little did I know, I would end up falling in love with everything about this place: the orangutans, the community of people I met, the research, and even the itchy, swampy forest. My life goal so far had been to become Jane Goodall. I thought I wanted to study chimpanzees, not orangutans. Now what? Maybe I will just have to do for orangutans what Jane Goodall did for chimpanzees.

This wasn’t the only identity crisis I faced. Coming back home, I felt a bit as though I spent the last three years of my life stuck in a perpetual “in-between” phase. I’ve seen my friends and undergrad peers move forward with their lives, get paying jobs, get their own places, get into grad schools, and start working on their own research projects. I too, am hoping for the day I can call a research project my own. I met many master’s students my own age in Indonesia and I couldn’t help but feel a little behind them as I continued to collect data for someone else. But you know what? Everyone moves at their own pace and walks their own path.

I am planning to go to graduate school in the fall for a master’s within the orangutan research project I was just volunteering for. So, I may finally be moving forward in my education, but I’m still looking forward to the day I have a research project that is entirely my own creation from start to finish. When I think about what I want to research, I am also conflicted. Should I choose a topic that will reveal something about great apes just for the sake of knowing it? Or should I strive for my research to have specific conservation implications? Nonetheless, the better we understand a species, including all aspects of its ecology, behaviour, and life history, the better we can implement successful conservation strategies. Thus, all researchers are conservationists.

Even more, scientists who share their research and their passion for their study species can raise awareness and spark empathy for endangered wildlife. This is why I am now getting into the science communication world through creating my blog, sharing my research experiences on Instagram, and speaking to high school students. I even second guessed myself when I had to put a label on my Instagram account. Can I call myself a scientist? Officially? Yes. I’ve done everything a field biologist does, just as a volunteer. I am a field biologist. I am a researcher. And I am a conservationist. Most importantly, I am also myself. Perhaps, I should no longer focus so much on becoming the “orangutan Jane” as I should on being wholeheartedly Naturalist Natasha.

For more of Natasha, follow @naturalistnatasha on Instagram

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