In Search of Data: The Story of an Unconventional Summer

Jordan Miller
Jordan in the field.
By Jordan Miller
September 17, 2013

As the spring semester winds down and the oppressive heat of summer descends upon the city, the daily commotion of the academic year slows to a more manageable pace. Inboxes seems less flooded, offices less crowded, and the dull roar of a window air-conditioning unit replaces the lunchroom chatter typical of any weekday during the non-summer months. From June through August of every year, the students of CASHP trickle out one by one, leaving behind a seemingly desolate department in search of something greater. While some head into the lab and others into the field, one objective is shared by us all: data collection.

You see, having a “summer”, so to speak, does not equate to three months of care-free vacation. We may leave our desks, but we do so in exchange for long hours spent hunched over a microscope or camped in a desert in East Africa. Good data is a difficult thing to come by, but it is absolutely necessary for the completion of a successful dissertation. Good data can be especially hard to come by when your study subject is a 90-to-120 pound, highly mobile and often aggressive chimpanzee. And good data can be even harder to come by when you are a clumsy westerner trying to survive an African evergreen forest with nothing but a dilapidated fanny pack and a dwindling supply of Cliff Bars.

The learning curve at my field site (Gombe National Park, Tanzania) can be incredibly steep. Before data can be collected, researchers must learn to individually identify an entire community of chimpanzees. And before researchers can individually identify the chimpanzees, they must be able to make it through the hours of rough searching to find said chimpanzees. It’s no surprise that when I first arrived, data collection quickly fell to the bottom of my To-Do list, and that for the first two weeks, my top three looked something akin to the following:

  1. Climb peaks between valleys without severe muscle spasms in calves and serious thoughts regarding last will and testament.
  2. Learn how to use mysterious choo.
  3. Bathe in lake without stopping to run out of water and chase baboon who has stolen soap and towel.

“Ferdinand”, Gombe National Park, Tanzania

At first, the thought of collecting data seemed impossible. Recognizing the chimps was incredibly difficult, and keeping up with them was even harder. My only salvation came in the form of two wonderfully clever and resourceful field assistants, to whom I owe my entire summer. With their patience and expertise, I slowly came to understand the forest and its inhabitants. Finally, in June, I was able to complete my first full-day follow with fecal samples on the group’s alpha male, Ferdinand. As the day came to a close and I felt a certain bravado concerning my almost-accomplishment, Ferdinand charged in my direction and I was yanked out of the way just in time. It suffices to say that I am still working my way up that learning curve.

Now that that the semester is underway and the students have filed back into the department, the daily lunch hour is abuzz with stories of data collection. Brains, fossils, feces; what worked, what didn’t. At the end of the summer, we are all one step closer to our academic goals, and slightly more seasoned as researchers. Data collection has been crossed off of my to-do list for the time being in exchange for several more pressing items:

  1. Pass Population Genetics.
  2. Process samples from the summer.
  3. Order coffee at local shop without screaming like a chimpanzee when they bring me tea.

For more stories of summer fun at Gombe, check out the field blogs from fellow student Kaitlin Wellens and me!