Time is slower here. There’s never a rush to do anything. I’ve been on the project now for a full week. I’m still learning the nuances of the place and people but I think I’ve adjusted pretty smoothly to living here. I really love the desert.
It truly is a remote, isolated research station. Every direction looking out from the farmhouse is shrubby desert. People rarely leave or come in to visit (though I did leave the reserve this week to go to the nearest town for lunch with a couple of the mole-ratters). It’s almost like we’re living in our own world – a world focused on the details of the lives of meerkats, mole-rats, and squirrels, as well as the people that form the community of course. I think I know everyone’s name at this point, but not quite where everyone is from. I know we have people from France, UK, Australia, US, Neatherlands, Spain, and South Africa. Ages range from 20 to 37 years old, with the exception of the project leaders who are probably in their 50s/60s.
I’m starting to get a routine here. I wake up around 6:45 AM when the meerkat team leaves for the field. There’s a small window when the kitchen is open around 7 AM to make tea and yogurt/peanut butter/granola for breakfast. I’m in the mole-rat lab by 7:30 AM and enjoy the banter of the mole-ratters before we start work. The rest of the mole-rat lab has a predictable daily schedule they follow of cleaning the animal rooms, feeding and observing the mole-rats, and noting any changes in the colonies of deaths or new dominant individuals. Mole-rats are pretty fascinating, especially their teeth. We have an x-ray machine to look at spinal elongation in pregnant females. With each pregnancy, the dominant female (since she’s the only one who breeds) will grow longer by growth in a couple of her vertebrate. There are also x-rays of the general skeletal structure of the mole-rats and I was amazed to see the profile of their teeth, which look more like a beak. They have enough force to break through bones. One girl got bit through the fingernail earlier this week…
The work for my position is less predictable and more sporadic. Basically, whenever there is a dominance change within any of the meerkat groups, blood is drawn from the new dominant individual as well as some subordinates for comparison. Some of the captures are scheduled (i.e. if a dominance change was observed and the vet or meerkat manager schedule a visit to sample blood) but some are opportunistic. If there is a capture, the cell lab is radio called from the field and the number of samples is relayed. “Cell team” (Mari and I right now, just me once Mari leaves) then prepares the hood and lab for the number of blood samples. Theoretically the blood could be stored in the fridge but ideally the samples will be processed immediately. Once the blood arrives, we spin it down (about 2 ml blood per meerkat) and collect serum for cytokine analysis. Then it takes about 2 hours to isolate PBMCs (peripheral blood mononuclear cells- basically white blood cells) from the blood. Once isolated, we count them using a hemacytometer, and calculate how many millions of PBMCs there are per milliliter. Yesterday one sample had more than 9 million PBMCs per ml! It was an individual that was dying of tuberculosis – oh that’s the main cause of death for the meerkats, TB. We then take the PBMCs and challenge them with different antigens and hormones for four hours in an incubator. Once the 4 hours is up, we collect the challenged cells, pellet them by spinning them down, and then lyse them with a nasty chemical, Beta-mercaptoethanol. This releases the genetic material in the cell. Immediately after, the samples are rushed into the -80 freezer for storage until future sequencing. The goal of the study is to look at how dominance changes affect the immune system of the meerkat by looking at gene expression.
So, some days I’m busy playing with blood and others, if there is not a capture, I occupy myself. We often help out the mole-rat team, I painted a mole-rat pup the other day with dye to tell it apart from the others, or general organization with transitioning the cell lab from Mari to me.
There’s no shortage of people to talk to and everyone has a colorful history of working in the field with wildlife or travel in general. I guess that should have been assumed if they ended up here as well. Lunch is taken very seriously and people get really creative with what they can make from the communal food stock. Dinner is cooked for us every weekday night by the cooks at the project and pairs of volunteers/workers sign up to make dinners on the weekends. Dinner is called “alta,” I think after one of the past cooks. There are a lot of variations of words: college is university, vacation is holiday, cookie is biscuit, and instead of thanks, cheers – mostly from the British. Everyone gathers for dinner and we sit at a long picnic table, large enough to sit all 30 or so of us.
If I don’t have cells to process, I try to take a walk around the reserve at sunset. I have to bring a radio and GPS – everyone does, but I especially don’t know the layout yet. So far I’ve explored a dried up riverbed where I saw an eland and a herd of springbok, and “the dune to nowhere” which is the highest point on the reserve and a perfect place to watch the sunset. The last night I was there I saw a group of elands (we eat them for our dinner meat) and heard a warthog. I still have yet to see a meerkat but I plan to start going out with the observation volunteers when I don’t have cell work. The sunsets are spectacular and as it’s nearing winter here, it sets at my favorite temperature. There’s always a slight breeze and golden hour truly is golden.
Sometimes after dinner we’ll hang out in the farmhouse and watch a film projected on the wall or play group games. It’s a very social environment. It has definitely been an adjustment for me and my expectation of a quiet desert station, but in general I like it and am getting more comfortable. If I want alone time, I can usually find solitude on the porch outside my room or, of course, on my walks. Which will be runs as soon as training is done! I realize I need to have a workout routine so I don’t get too soft here. There is also weekly yoga so I’ll finally get around to stretching, it’s only been about 3 years of me saying that.
The nights do get pretty chilly, the Australians are already having a hell of a time adjusting to it, but it warms up to 70s during the day. The showers are heated by a solar panel so the best time to do it is mid afternoon, though at best so far it has been luke warm. Winter here is so short though and I’m sure in the summer we will never be wishing for hot showers. I’ve been told hair grows really fast here because of the minerals in the water. I’m glad I didn’t try to tame the mane before getting here, it’ll be cool to see how long/full it gets… that is if I don’t chop it once it gets 100 degrees.
With all of the down time I’ve been drawing and writing a lot. I decorated a mug with mountains and the ocean to remind me of Washington. I’ve always tried to make my time be the most efficient and felt like life was a race. It feels like I have time to breath here.
Oh and the highlight of the week – watching a grass snake attack and eat a lizard!