The Researcher Emergent: I - Survival

Vance Powell working in Koobi Fora
By Vance Powell
November 19, 2014

Since beginning my doctorate at George Washington University, I’ve had no shortage of exciting, informative, and developmentally critical experiences. For instance, I had never before traveled beyond North America, conducted field work, or even been camping for consecutive nights, but during the summer of 2014 I found myself facing a nearly two-month camping trip as a sort of ‘staff-under-study’ member of the Koobi Fora Research Program (KFRP) in Kenya. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, though the academic life was something I desired prior to conducting graduate studies in paleoanthropology, I had limited experience to prepare me to become part of the rich and dynamic culture at its foundation. Last summer, however, I finally had the opportunity to become familiar with the various colorful nouns with which my previous experience had largely been limited to the maelstrom of then seemingly random phrases KFRP veterans used when reminiscing about their field experiences at social gatherings. More importantly, however, with the help of staff, fellow grad students, and the undergrads who worked with us, I gained invaluable experiences in working with a team to conduct human research, and I successfully collected the pilot data required from my dissertation as it was then formulated.

Of all of the amazing sights, interesting people, and informative lessons that summer, I think the most meaningful for my advancement as a researcher was the experience of working so closely with so many people on so many projects (many only indirectly related to research) so frequently! As I believe many can understand, group projects were something I made every effort to avoid during my undergraduate years. Realizing, however, that mastering this skill will be essential for a research-based academic career, I relished the chance to train. It was rarely easy work, but through everyone’s continued and staunch efforts, we all survived with data to boot!

I had requested to join the KFRP last summer to help with Dr. Richmond’s fossil footprint excavations, to assist in a fellow graduate student’s experiments, and to gather my own pilot data on plantar pressure distribution under different carrying conditions in habitually unshod and minimally shod adults. In addition to all of the standard equipment used to collect anthropometric data, my experiments required the use of two cameras, a laptop, a meter-long plantar pressure reader, and a heavy-duty car battery to power it—all of which, I learned, introduced so many opportunities for entropy that I was surely bound for trouble. It found me, two separate times, when my laptop suddenly stopped recognizing the pressure pad—a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. For days I tried everything I could think of on my own to troubleshoot the issue. When, after days, I found myself feeling uncharacteristically “Zen” with my defeat, Dr. Emmanuel Klmuma took only a quick look at the pressure pad, then recognized, and promptly resolved, the issue! In that moment, my embarrassment was outweighed by appreciation for my coworkers.

Though I believed myself to have been preparing, both mentally and materially, for field work for the preceding two years, I don’t believe that anything less than firsthand experience could have. I was stunned by the amount of preparation required for our endeavor, and by how well everyone pulled together to make it work. I was surprised by how well I adapted to several weeks living out of a tent. I had never known the frustration of essential equipment’s failure when there was so limited opportunity to collect data. Though some others who faced similar odds weren’t so fortunate, through teamwork, we overcame the most harrowing obstacles.

Since my return to the West, I’ve realized that while I can think of no shortage of mind-blowingly fantastic memories of my time in Kenya, some of the most memorable and tempering experiences were some of the most intensely stressful. Our obstacles proved to be not insurmountable, however, and I believe that I can speak for the staff, faculty, and students involved with the KFRP in saying that we all became stronger researchers, and more well-rounded people for the experience.