11 October 2019

The past two weeks have been a blur between writing, rewriting, and revising my applications to the Fulbright Student Program and National Geographic Early Career Grant. I finally submitted both earlier this week. I had applied for the Fulbright grant about 2 years ago for a study in Paraguay but my letters of affiliation did not make it in on time, and to be honest I don’t think it was a very well though-out idea. I’ve been brainstorming ideas since then and finally landed on one I thought might be strong enough to apply. I gave this proposal everything I had and feel it is at least a strong component given how well affiliations and potential collaborations arose from contacting people in Chile – researchers, sailors, and locals interested in the project. I won’t find out for a few months if I made the first cut, we’ll see. Now I’m wondering what I’ll do with the extra free time I have. Maybe it’s time to start writing stories from past adventures.

For some context on the proposal, below are the abstract and host country involvement sections:

Parks and protected areas are crucial for maintaining regional biodiversity and slowing the global loss of endangered species. Chile, specifically the protected areas of the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, contains pristine natural areas that so far lack a long-term surveillance method to monitor species invasions. Without an accurate account of where these species of concern inhabit, it will be difficult to ensure conservation efforts are targeted appropriately. Further, it will be beneficial to understand human impact on species distribution through actions such as tourism, human development on the landscape, and human translocation of nonnative animals to these pristine areas. Environmental DNA detection offers a sensitive, noninvasive method to track animals in the wild. As the future holds unknown impacts on sub-Antarctic wildlife, especially as ecotourism increases, a baseline evaluation of invasion hotspots for this ecosystem is critical for future conservation efforts. Environmental DNA techniques would provide an ideal approach for detection and surveillance of invasive species. Implementing this strategy would help establish a system of biosecurity and early warning as well as methods for preventing future invasions in this protected wild space.

A surveillance system benefits with community involvement, local knowledge, and cultural importance. Incorporating environmental DNA detection of invasive species into a long-term monitoring program would be logistically feasible and most efficient if local communities were involved in sample collection across the study area and trained in genetic processing. The Wankara Laboratory (University of Magallanes) has offered their facility, which will be fully equipped to analyze water samples and train pupils, university students, and conservation ambassadors. This laboratory also facilitates science programs for pupils in the community and would provide the opportunity to extend outreach to younger generations. Besides optimizing a method of robust detection of invasive species, an equally important goal in this project is to share this molecular technique of detection and engage the public in protecting pristine wild places. In return, I hope to gain insight into what conservation means in the sub-Antarctic culture and thoughts on preservation of wild places. Throughout the course of the project, my priority will be to involve the local community to ensure that this method can continue to be used as a tool of biosecurity into the future and serve as a model for potential national level monitoring.

My hands were incredibly sweaty when I finally hit submit. But it’s done! Mountains and sea are on my mind. It would be incredible. Fingers crossed!

Sometime last week, my friend Lena and I arranged a time to share photos on our packrafting trips (hers in Russia, mine in Alaska). Through the excitement in sharing our stories and photos, we came up with the idea that it would be pretty fun to arrange weekly presentations at the project for people to present on something, anything! I pegged a sign above the kitchen counter requesting storytellers, adventurers, and people excited about their research to sign up for post-dinner talks. We were pleased to find others were stoked about this idea as well. Last week we had our first talk given by one of the wild molerat researchers whose title slide was simply “How did I get here?” – which is probably a talk we could and should all give. Somehow, we all ended up in the middle of the desert following around small mammals and living in an alternate reality within the property lines of the project. I’m sure all of us have colorful histories of travel and research and some kind of drifter personality. Hanna’s talk confirmed my predictions with slides describing research with ostriches before molerats, traveling around Sweden and Africa, and making sure she got out to hike and sleep under the stars enough to stay sane as a PhD student. I gave my talk last night on Pre-Kalahari life and what I hope to do next (hard to get Chile off my mind). Putting together those slides made me reflect on pieces of my life I guess I sort of take for granted. If… I hadn’t volunteered in the genetics lab during my undergrad years and drive my (new to me 1990 something) pick-up truck around to different local taxidermists to collect antler measurements and tissue samples from deer heads for DNA analysis… I hadn’t decided to go to grad school instead of vet school and move out to Colorado to study environmental DNA… I hadn’t picked my life up to move to Washington and explore the Pacific Northwest… hadn’t said why not to helping with a caving workshop in Cyprus to look for novel bat and spider species and get a taste for international travel and research… hadn’t realized just how many opportunities there are in this field and that I can adventure and work at the same time… I wouldn’t have ended up here. It was almost as if I was telling myself this story as much as telling it to my peers. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment when life seems to be moving incredibly fast – but look back and reflect on what brought you to this moment in time. It’s pretty cool.

I escaped often into the desert the past couple of weeks to burn off energy and rejuvenate. I found a pretty sweet new spot to set up camp along the riverbed among giant camel thorn trees. The trees may even be big enough to string a hammock between – which would ease my mind of scorpions. The sunsets are stunning (I’m pretty sure I say that in just about every update). But this one has been hands down, 110%, off-the-chart amazing. We were out on the electric bikes after work, just past most of the bigger dunes, when the sky started to turn in to Trix yogurt so we plopped down in the sand and watched the show. I thought the shape and coloring of the clouds looked like an octopus.

We camped out at the same spot the next night. It’s a dam in the area called Phar Side, which is quite a walk through the hot flats but totally worth it. The dam feeds a watering hole so just after dark we crept up from where we set up the tent to look for wildlife. Despite our efforts of being quiet, we spooked the herd of wildebeest drinking. Later on we saw a springbok walking – I’ve always only seen them running for their lives. It must have been dazed by our headlamps because it ambled right up to us, circled cautiously, and took its time wandering around the sand flat near the watering hole. I’ve been trying different star gazing apps to learn the constellations in the southern hemisphere. There are so many stars it’s hard to trace out which constellation is which! On the way back the next morning, we came across the Hakuna Matata meerkat group foraging between the farmhouse and riverbed.

I’ve added to my collection of bones and shells with a new set of horns – hartebeest! Hartebeest are my favorite antelope on the reserve. They look like a mix between a mule, wildebeest, and a springbok. Typically they run in large herds around the reserve. I had finished my lab work early one afternoon and went along with the workers to look for a hole in the fence where the sheep were getting through. From the back of the bakkie I spotted the horns attached to a top chunk of a piece of the skull sitting in the sand on the other side of the fence. We found the hole in fence with tufts of sheep hair and blocked it. As soon as we returned to the farmhouse we hopped on the bikes to collect our find. It’s actually too good to be on my shoe rack, so instead it sits in my room on top of my shelf of clothes.

We had our “vollie weekend” last weekend at “bush camp” on a neighboring farm. This was the weekend we all were given half a day off on Saturday and the full day off on Sunday. There were a few tents but most of us slept in the back of the bakkies, on cots thrown in the sand, or on top of the roofs of the vehicles. That night the first big lightning storm swept through. I was sleeping on a mat in an area of the camp sort of fenced off with some big trees. For some reason, I had brought the rain fly to the junior adventure tent with me when I packed up my sleeping bag and sweater in my pack. When the thunder rolled through and it started to rain I was amused at being accidentally prepared as I wrapped up in the rain fly.

Storm season has arrived for sure as the Monday after vollie weekend brought a huge light show to the KMP. Our power to the entire project went out twice causing the massive tank size generator to kick on to keep our freezers and incubators running. The sky looked like one of those mad scientist electricity balls with bolts of lightning zigzagging throughout the sky. The winds kicked up sandblasting our eyeballs but it was too amazing and wild to go inside. And it actually rained a little bit! That little bit of rain cleared the skies of dust and for the first time I could see the outline of the mountains outside of Tswalu to the East of us. We were up on the firetower watching the sunset and scanning the horizon when I saw them – I nearly fell off the tower platform in excitement. Mountains?! The real rains won’t come until March/April but even the tiny bit of moisture sprung some green things to life.

There’s been some hot afternoons by the pool lately. Somehow even though it’s really just a big water tank, the water is clear and refreshing to lounge in. This weekend we will be having a Halloween/birthday party for some of the volunteers and workers. I’m not sure if I’ll dress up as a mad scientist in my lab coat (Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde style) or a hippy with some of the freshly bloomed yellow flowers in my hair.

Brewing supplies came in from Cape Town about a month after I ordered it and I’ve got a crew who is ready to brew. Life is good.

Today’s song: The Sea – Morcheeba

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