Week 8 – Farewell

About a month ago, when my homesick meter was at an all-time high, I didn’t think this day would come. Now I’m surprised how fast the time has gone. My bags are mostly packed, and just a few gifts left to pick up for family and friends. Our host family threw us a joint Festa Junina/going away party that was so much fun. Festa Junina celebrates the beginning of harvest season. People wear traditional bright costumes and, of course, and prepare a feast (mostly corn-based).

We danced the quadrilha, drank mulled cachaça, ate a ton of food, and sang bad karaoke. It was a great time and I’m glad we got a chance to celebrate with the many people that helped to make our work here so enjoyable.

What I have enjoyed most about this internship in Brazil is having time to just think and focus on what I’ve learned in my wildlife and ecology classes, as well as mull on questions that might be interesting to research. My time in school has always been chaotic – a full schedule of classes combined with a full-time work schedule and trying to cram lab and field experience into the margins. Having two months to focus just on wildlife research, read scientific papers, and make linkages to potential research has been a great luxury.

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In between dreaming of Squirrel’s burgers and microbrews and spicy Thai food, you think about the forest around you and see how the systems work and how disturbance can change everything. You think about how when you’re sitting comfortably in America, it’s easy to say that countries like Brazil should conserve their forests. When you’re actually here, you see how desperate poverty can be, and how economic growth is an imperative to improve these citizens’ lives, and how balancing that with conservation is extremely difficult.

P1010491I was astounded at the amount of wildlife that we saw on the edges of fragmented forest. Based on what I’ve learned in my classes, I expected these areas would be ghost towns. Perhaps more wildlife thrive here than would be expected (and if so, why?). Perhaps the relative abundance I see is a small portion of what used to live here. And, of course, as an American living in a pretty developed area, seeing wild mammals larger than a squirrel just doesn’t happen on a regular basis, so my perception of what’s normal probably isn’t a great measure.

P1010992It has been an incredibly interesting time to be in Brazil. The country is in the midst of a devastating economic recession and shattering corruption allegations as Brazil’s first female President, Dilma Rousseff, awaits an impeachment trial. I found Brazilians’ political apathy to be similar to Americans’. They feel the corruption is so entrenched that they feel helpless to stop it. So they move forward as best as they can. They attend college in hopes of making a better life. They work hard in hopes that it will gain them financial security one day. They go home to their families, and hope that their children will be prosperous. Just like Americans.

To wrap up – I am so grateful that I had the chance to do field work here, in a biodiversity hotspot that is undergoing rapid land use change. I am excited to see what our data shows us and the questions that it might answer about the linkage between deforestation and disease, as well as what is living in these forests.

My sincere gratitude goes to Roberta and Domingos Bronzoni for allowing us to stay in their beautiful home while we did our research. Without the financial support of the Oregon State University CAS Global Experience Fund, the Fisheries and Wildlife Department International Experience Scholarship, and the Izma Bailey Conser Memorial Scholarship, this internship would not have been possible. Finally, a huge thanks to Aimee Massey for taking me under her wing and being an awesome science mentor, and Taal Levi for extending me so many great opportunities and being such a responsive, helpful advisor.

Week 7 – Last Time in the Field

This week marks the last of our field sampling. It has been a whirlwind, and I can’t believe it’s almost time to go home. We were gifted with an unusual, glorious bout of cool(ish) temperatures, overcast skies, and even a bit of rain.

Before Brazil, I never had a strong opinion about ants. I admired their industriousness and related to their love of picnic food, but didn’t think much about them. In the field, that changed. They are the reason I had to bring two rolls of industrial-strength duct tape from America (very hard to get in Brazil). This is what happens when you don’t adequately protect your traps with layers of duct tape (or even if you do, as I experienced this week).

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They will eat all the insects inside your trap and then they will rip your trap to shreds, as well as the ropes holding it on the tree. Aimee learned quickly in her first season here that leaf cutter ants are the enemy. Nothing makes you swear in the forest quite like seeing a trap down on the ground, hard work and valuable data lost. (Though, there isn’t a much more relaxing meditation session than just sitting and watching a line of leaf cutter ants march back and forth to the nest, balancing what seems like gargantuan loads.)

One of our sites this week had a large stream run through it, so we had some fun tromping through the marshy areas surrounding the streams.

We also found the farm where they grow all the Chia Pets.

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This last field week is both a relief and also kind of sad. I’m not sure if I will ever again have a troop of howler monkeys greet me in the morning as I start work (and by greet I mean scream, shake trees, and try to pee on me). Or if I’ll experience the adrenaline that comes with smelling the distinct musk of peccaries and scoping out which trees I might be able to climb if I happen upon a pack of them.

I do wish I had made more of an effort to learn Portuguese. We have been spoiled by being surrounded with Brazilians that know English and are eager to practice. While I learned some basic phrases, I know I’ve missed out on making some connections due to the language barrier. That’s probably my only regret about my visit here. Next time.

 

Week 6 – And Back to the Lab

This week, we are back in the lab processing our specimens and waiting for our next cluster’s trails to be opened and prepped for sampling. I had the opportunity to help my fellow research assistant, Carla, with the English translation of a presentation on her undergraduate research project, which she’ll be presenting at a medical conference in Sao Paulo. Carla is from Brazil, and on her way to becoming fluent in English. She spent a year in Australia as part of a Brazilian program that pays for college students to study abroad. Unfortunately, that program was suspended this year due to Brazil’s economic troubles, so Carla was lucky to be able to take advantage of the program.

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Carla does a practice run of her presentation

Carla’s research is related to our project. She analyzed DNA from blood samples of patients diagnosed with common Alphavirus and Flavivirus arboviruses in Sinop, and found that not only were many patients misdiagnosed, there is a silent outbreak of Mayoro virus in the area. DNA viral analysis is cost- and time-prohibitive for many patients in Sinop, so many times diagnoses are made based upon symptoms. Carla has tied these arbovirus outbreaks to the premise made in our study, that deforestation due to urbanization and agricultural growth has led to an increase in small mammal vectors, prolific hosts for mosquito and sand fly-borne disease. It was a fun experience to be able to collaborate with Carla on the translation, help her to improve her English, and get her presentation in great shape for the conference.

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More sorting sorting sorting and more sorting

Weeks with lab work means we have a bit more energy to take in some of the cultural events around town. The corn harvest is starting, and that means Festa de Milho, or the Corn Harvest Festival. It is much like any small-town festival, with booths selling crafts, but with a large focus on selling food made from corn and other Brazilian staples like rice and beans, churrascaria, pastels, and capirinhias. But most importantly, there were churros, delicious churros filled with dulce de leche.

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Proceeds from the festival benefit the UFMT Agricultural School, and students from the school work in the booths, competing with each other for the most cleverly named and well-designed stations. It was fun to go to an event that reflects the town’s heritage and future so well. Without agricultural development, especially corn and soybeans, Sinop likely wouldn’t exist. The standard of living in Sinop is much greater than in surrounding areas that have not found an economic niche.

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Aimee and David, one of the Brazilian research assistants, enjoying the festival

I’ve been in Brazil a bit over a month now. Homesickness has hit in a big way, especially as summer is ramping up in the United States. Facebook is full of pictures on the lake and backyard barbecues. I’m enjoying my time in Brazil, but I miss my friends, family, daily routines, and familiar foods and products at home. I just keep reminding myself that this experience will be over before I know it, and that I need to take advantage of each minute that I’m here to make memories.

Week 5 – Wet and Wild Sampling

A new week, and a new cluster to sample. One of our sites this week included something new for us – a large stream to cross. Luckily, Carla has taken on that adventure on this site as my log balancing skills are pretty rough, especially with a pack full of equipment. We hoped that sampling by a stream would produce an abundance of mosquito samples. (I also hoped that the stream was a watering hole for wildlife).

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Carla making her way across the stream

I did get to see some new and interesting insects at this site, due in part to its proximity to the Rio Teles Pires and adjacent wetlands. The most striking was the large and intricately patterned dobsonfly with its impressive (but harmless) pincers. These are distributed worldwide, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen one. They are aquatic and typically found near streams. They are some of the largest insects outside of the moth and butterfly order.

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Dobsonfly, photo courtesy of whatsthatbug.com

On the way to our cluster one groggy and early morning, I saw this striking bird, a jabiru, doing some morning stretches in a small pond on the side of the road. Jabirus are in the stork family.

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Jabiru, photo courtesy of Stanford University

But, the most exciting moment of the week occurred when I met this fellow while going to check one of my traps (also at the site with the large stream). I tend to daydream a bit while hiking through my transects, and I’m a little embarrassed to say I nearly tripped over him (or her – can’t say I’m skilled at sexing reptiles). Luckily, I was about a foot short (and wearing thick snake guards) when I noticed the red, gold, and black-striped pattern moving in front of me.

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A little fuzzy, probably because I was shaking.

In hindsight, I think meeting this snake was a pivotal moment for me as an aspiring wildlife biologist. I am not one of those people that always knew this is what they wanted to do, that has spent a lifetime camping and hiking through the forest. Even though I grew up in Colorado with the Rocky Mountains and incredible wilderness in my backyard, I never went camping or even hiking until I was in college. And when I did it then, well, I can’t say I really liked it much.

I developed a fascination with ecology and the outdoors after falling in love with a geologist. After a few years of hiking and camping with him in some incredible spots throughout the United States, I knew I had a new calling in life. But, I can’t say I am totally confident and fearless in the forest. Running into a snake was probably the #1 fear I had about doing field work in Brazil.

And here I was, alone, and facing one down. Once my heart moved from my throat back down to my chest, I realized my worst fear had happened, and I was still alive. So I did what any responsible person would do – I broke out my camera to capture the moment. I clicked a picture, then I had to figure out how to proceed.

I could have turned around, left my last trap unchecked, and Aimee would have understood. I decided that no data should be left behind. While at a good distance back, I managed to scare the snake well off my path (thanks downed wood). I creeped to my trap, traded it out quickly, and got the heck out of there.

Surviving the encounter with the snake gave me some confidence. I was braver than I gave myself credit for. After doing some research, it’s possible that it was a coral snake, but it also could have been a king snake. In any case, with a pair of durable snake guards, I wasn’t in danger.

But still – may it be the last snake I encounter in Brazil.

Week 4 – And Back to the Lab

When you think of deadly animals of the Amazon, you probably think of jaguars, anacondas, piranhas, or maybe a poison dart frog. But the deadliest animal in the Amazon weighs in at only 2.5mg.

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An Aedes aegypti mosquito prepares for lunch. Photo courtesy bajainsider.com.

In America, mosquitoes are a nuisance that you swat in the summer, but in tropical countries, they are responsible for a number of devastating and potentially deadly illnesses. Malaria, yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya, and (as you’ve probably seen non-stop lately on the news) zika are the primary diseases of concern in Brazil.

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A baby in Brazil with encephalitis suspected to be caused by the Zika virus. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

Our study is examining whether the rampant deforestation in the Sinop area, due to urbanization and agricultural industry growth, has resulted in an increase in small mammal disease vectors and thus incidence of mosquito and sand fly-borne disease in human populations.

In the lab, we have been sorting through the insects that we have collected in the field. By the end of our field season, we will have collected 720 cups of insects. From the vast array of entomological diversity we get in our collection cups, we isolate the sand flies and mosquitoes – specifically from the Culicinae subfamily, which we identify by its tell-tale proboscis.

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A typical collection cup’s worth of insects to sort.

Public enemy #1 – Aedes aegypti, pictured above, is the dirtiest of the culicides, responsible for transmitting yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya, and zika. Only the females will bite you (the blood is needed to mature her eggs). You can tell an Aedes aegypti by its black-and-white striped “stockings.” A sweating, breathing mammal is what attracts her the most.

Sand flies are responsible for a particularly nasty parasite that causes leishmania. Peruse Google Images for it at your own peril. Suffice to say, it causes terrible skin ulcerations if not treated.

Isolating sand flies is a wonderful exercise in patience and attention to detail. When I was first trained, I thought, “There is absolutely no way I am going to be able to identify these things.” They are tiny – measuring 3mm at their largest. They have a triangular, hairy shape with stilt-like, long legs. After a bit of practice, they start sticking out. After much practice, you start seeing them everywhere – in specks on the ground, in your dreams, and especially out of the corner of your eye at night when everything seems to be out looking for a delicious bloodmeal.

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The red arrow are pointing to some “large” sand flies. Quite a few in this sample.

Getting our sand flies and mosquitoes back to the United States for genetic analysis – the lynchpin of our project – is proving to be a nail biter. We must receive permits from the CDC to transport our specimens back to the United States. Even though our bugs are long dead, frozen, and (presumably) incapable of reanimating and spreading disease, they are still considered a biohazard that must be treated accordingly.

However, the American bureaucratic hoops are a relative cake walk compared to what we are facing on the Brazilian side. Recent legislation is threatening our ability to transport the insects out of the country for processing. The biodiversity law, signed May 20, provides a framework for researchers to access Brazilian “information of genetic origin resulting from plant, animal, microbial species or species of other nature, including substances derived from the metabolism of these living beings.”

The new law requires that researchers and other institutions request access to Brazilian biodiversity resources through an electronic registry in a database, but that database has not yet been created nor regulated. And, much like American bureaucracy, Brazilian bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace. Given Brazil’s recent political upheaval with the impeachment of their President, Dilma Rousseff, and a large corruption scandal, this law is likely not on any politician’s priority list.

So, for now, our specimens will remain in freezers in Sinop. If it is not possible to send our specimens to the United States for genetic analysis, that means another trip for Aimee (and perhaps a lucky research assistant) back to Brazil to do the genetic analysis.

Week Three – New Field Sites, Now with Jaguars!

Sampling in this week’s cluster went much smoother than last week’s cluster, which we have christened “clusterf#$%.” No trips to the mechanic, no bouts of food poisoning, and a town nearby where we could have traditional Brazilian lunches (almoço – equivalent to the dinner meal in the US) at a luncheonette instead of eating lukewarm spaghetti in a hot car swarming with corn bees. It’s the little comforts that can make tough field work a bit more tolerable.

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Typical Brazilian luncheonette fare – enough to feed a typical construction worker. The meat, pasta, and manioc are served on top of a huge pile of rice and beans. No lunch is complete without rice and beans!

Most of the forested sites in this cluster are pretty trashy – they have been logged, with vestiges of logging roads now overgrown with tangled vegetation and covered in downed wood and course woody debris. Empty motor oil bottles scattered here and there indicate that these areas were logged in the fairly recent past. Termites and large ants abound. We line our traps with a pretty generous dose of duct tape to catch leaf cutter ants before they can get inside the trap, obliterate our insects and shred the mesh.

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The driveway to Fazenda Horizonte and our canine welcoming committee

One site is an exception. When you arrive at Fazenda Horizonte, you see a lush grazing patch for the cattle herd and a few beautiful horses, and a meticulously landscaped long driveway. The gaggle of “guard” dogs run to greet you, letting the family know that visitors have arrived. We were lucky to be sampling at this fazenda, as the family was very kind and interested in our research. Their property included some very healthy forest.

On our second sampling day, as we drove up to the house, the fazenda owner waved us over to talk. Our Brazilian field tech, Carla, translated for us – a jaguar had taken one of their cattle the previous evening, and he told us to be careful out in the forest. We had heard some strange noises while sampling the previous day, which sounded similar to jaguar cubs mewling. So, this news was exciting and terrifying. Exciting that jaguars and other species might be thriving even in fragmented habitats, but terrifying that we might stumble across one (especially a mother with cubs) during sampling. I think we all moved much faster that day.

The next day, the fazenda owner’s daughter-in-law excitedly told us that they had placed the cow carcass next to a trail camera in hopes of luring the jaguar. It worked. The pictures clearly showed a beautiful, sleek jaguar tugging at the carcass, reclaiming its kill. No cubs, though.

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One of the fazenda residents (and her adorable daughter) show us some of the trail camera wildlife photos they have captured over the years, including the jaguar that killed one of their cattle that week

We asked if they planned to hunt the jaguar as it had killed one of their cattle. While jaguars are protected from hunting in Brazil, some ranchers will still shoot or poison them after livestock kills. Their response was an emphatic no. They told us that in the past, they had offered to pay other nearby ranchers for their lost livestock if they agreed not to hunt the jaguars. This was obviously a family of wildlife enthusiasts.

They shared numerous trail camera images from the forest around their farm that they had captured over the years. Tapirs, peccaries, jaguars, but the one that caught our attention the most – an animal that looked like a dog. Just last year, a scientist studying vultures accidentally captured an extremely rare short-eared dog on video in the Amazon. While it’s possible that the animal at the fazenda was a short-eared dog, it could have also been the much more common bush dog. Unfortunately, we didn’t a jump drive with us to copy the pictures. We’re hoping to get them soon so we can take a closer look.

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A short-eared dog in the Amazon (courtesy of iquitostimes.com)

In our study, we are using novel DNA metabarcoding methods on biting insects to catalog biodiversity in our sampling sites. But by developing a good relationship with the fazenda owner, we received additional valuable data. It was a good reminder that while it’s important to develop new and non-invasive approaches for wildlife sampling, it’s also beneficial to engage the community where you are sampling. You never know when a trail camera video with a threatened species might emerge.

Week Two: Starting in the Field

The field work has begun! It has been great to put on our gear, get out in the forest, and start working. The crucial things I have learned about the Brazilian outdoors:

  • It’s beautiful,
  • It’s full of wildlife,
  • It’s hot – no, REALLY hot (and humid),
  • It’s buggy.

I am still adjusting to this whole new level of thermoregulation, and I am pretty sure that I’m drinking my body weight in water every day. You get used to being covered in a layer of sweat. We leave the house at 5:15am, but even that early, you sweat. I sleep with a freezer pack. This experience has definitely made me appreciate temperate Pacific Northwest forests.

Back to the science.

Our sampling is set up in what we call clusters. Each cluster has four sites, and each site has three transects with four UV LCD insect traps set along each transect (designed to lure sand flies and mosquitoes). So, each cluster has 48 individual sampling points.

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After setting up the traps, we visit each point twice a day for three days. In the morning, we collect the trapped insects and change out the battery pack on the traps, but leave the battery unplugged. We go back to each site in the afternoon to plug in the battery. If there are any engineers out there – please make a light, inexpensive, long-lasting field battery for the field and distribute it in Brazil so future field biologists can be saved from an extra (sweaty) afternoon trip. Thank you.

At each site, we also have three carrion fly traps. These were invented last year by Aimee and a Brazilian project member named David. They are made from old soda bottles, gauze, tape, and string. Limited budgets are the engine of creativity. A piece of rotting meat is set in the bottom of the trap, carrion flies enter, cannot get out, and then we gather them. I have seen maggots so large that no amount of brain bleach can erase the image from my shuddering mind.

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If only the internet could convey the smell of the sweet rotting meat.

Driving to our clusters from Sinop has been an adventure in itself. Our field vehicle is a Fiat hatchback – comparable to a VW Golf. It is stuffed to the gills with three people and our equipment, doesn’t have much clearance, and will probably be lucky to make it out of this project alive. In our two weeks of field work, we have visited the mechanic four times. A faulty cigarette lighter (we use a mobile freezer to preserve our insect specimens and need to plug it in there), then a faulty battery, then a leaking gas tank (that was definitely not caused by driving in to a rather large rut), then a no-really-it’s-still-leaking gas tank.

Driving is when we seem to spot the most wildlife, and I have been excited to see so many animals I’ve never seen before. We have seen a surprising amount of animals along the edges, something I did not expect. So far, we have seen a number of rheas, especially in the bean fields. Howler and capuchin monkeys sneak in to the corn fields and steal snacks to bring back in to the forest (the edges are littered with naked corn cobs).

We have learned that lowland tapirs don’t really understand (or don’t care) that a car can hit them. We have seen a few agoutis zooming in to the forest as well as a red-brocket deer. Finally, we saw a pack of peccaries crossing the road. Given their territorial behavior and terrifying teeth, I’m glad we haven’t met these guys walking in the forest.

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Nice end to our first week of sampling!

Arrived!

Brazil is Carnaval, samba, the Amazon, the rainforest, the most biodiversity on earth and beautiful people. It is also deforestation and a wide variety of fascinating yet terrible diseases.

My first week in Brazil was a whirlwind. It took about 24 hours to get from Portland to Brasilia, Brazil’s capital and one of its largest cities. From Brasilia, I took a propeller plane to Sinop, a rapidly growing city in Mato Grosso state. Sinop was established in 1972, and in a mere 45 years, has grown to a population of more than 130,000.

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Welcome to Sinop!

This growth has been fueled by the agricultural industry, especially soybean farming. This has come at a cost to the dry, temperate forest that used to cover the area – now patchy, fragmented, and losing area each year. Landowners are required to preserve a portion forest on their farms, called fazendas. The transition areas from cropland to forest are the focus of the research in which I’ll be participating for my internship.

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We are studying the forest edges along cropland areas.

There has been much debate among disease ecologists and conservation scientists about whether biodiversity loss increases the risk of contracting zoonotic disease. This study examines the hypothesis that deforestation and forest fragmentation increase the population density of mammalian reservoir hosts and disease vectors in Amazonia, thus increasing the risk of contracting Chagas disease and leishmaniasis. This collaborative study involves scientists from the United States, Brazil, and the UK.

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A phlebotomine sand fly biting a human arm, possibly transmitting leishmaniasis. Source: CSC/Frank Collins

My internship role involves working in the field, setting and checking insect traps in the forest, and in the lab, identifying specimens and preparing them for DNA processing. We will be using a technique called DNA metabarcoding in this study. DNA metabarcoding is fascinating (but, I’m biased). To put it simply, it is a way to assess biodiversity by identifying DNA found in the environment.

Aimee (the PhD student running the project) and I are staying with a wonderful family here in Sinop. Roberta and Domingos both work for UFMT, one of the universities collaborating with us on the study. Roberta is working on our project, and runs the immunology lab for UFMT’s veterinary school. She is particularly interested in mosquito-bourne disease. Their daughter, Mariana, is celebrating her 16th birthday today in a fashion not much different than teenagers in the West. She is dancing and singing along to pop music and laughing with her friends, and eating birthday cake while her father and grandmother make a huge churrascaria (Brazilian barbeque) feast.

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Janina (left), a Brazilian researcher, and Aimee (right) at the UFMT immunology lab at the veterinary medicine school.

While my experiences during my first week here have been overwhelmingly positive, I also experienced one of the most difficult parts of biological field work – distance. Yesterday, my beloved dog Molly passed away after battling cancer since last year. Not being there to say goodbye and to grieve with family has been incredibly difficult. I think one of the hardest lessons I will learn here is how to balance life with work that sometimes cannot be paused.