Friday, June 29, 2007

The Assistant to the Research Assistant

Last year, I switched careers. I pressed the ‘pause’ button in my pursuit of a life long dream. I stopped to re-think my career aspirations. And in doing so, I started a journey backward – reminiscing over what had led me to where I was. I found myself remembering the people, the places and the events that had shaped me into who I am today. I think perhaps what left the biggest impression on me as I trudged my way toward building a career was the experience of my very first job.

For many people, first jobs are often measly, low income positions or even volunteer or unpaid internship positions taken up for the sole purpose of gaining some hands on experience. They’re often filled with endless tedious/boring/monotonous tasks that are grudgingly performed in the hired intern’s quest to climb the career ladder. For me, though, I think I struck gold when I was searching for my first job.

I was fresh out of high school, trying to sketch out a career in Conservation Biology/Environmental Science with barely a clue as to what it all entailed other than the fact that I was big on recycling and subscribed to the National Geographic magazines (yeah, I was a nerdy kid :| ). A local WWF (Erm...the World Wildlife Fund, though working at the World Wrestling Federation too would have been a job to boast about!) branch in my hometown of Nakuru, was looking for a student intern to assist with data collection out in the field (Lake Nakuru National Park - LNNP), and since nobody else had applied for the job, it was mine to keep.

Technically speaking, I was an assistant to a research assistant whose job duties entailed "assisting the assistant with the assistant's jobs". Out in the field, I was a little kid in a candy shop who just couldn’t get enough of being out in the field, being up and close to wildlife and who was out on the biggest adventure of her boring little life. Over the course of the one year I worked there, I helped around with everything from collecting water and mud samples from the lake, analyzing the water and mud samples, collecting meteorological data from a weather station out in the field, assisting in conducting flamingo censuses, collecting macro-invertebrate specimens from the lake and the rivers emptying into the lake, and some less adventurous days filled with plain old data entry into a computer. It ended up becoming the most memorable year of my life.

Now, almost a decade later, I look back and think fondly of those days. It inspired me enough to compile a list of the various memories from that one year – the highlights of my days as an assistant-to-a-research-assistant:

• The daily visits to the lonely weather station that stood in the middle of the vast, open grassland. I remember the resident baboon (Curious George, I named him) that had for the longest time made up its mind that the weather station was the coolest place to hang around, until we had had enough of broken rain gauges and scattered instruments and finally put up an electric fence around the station. I remember the occasional stray gazelle that would sneak up on me ever-so-softly and startle me out of my wits. I remember the day I saw a Cape Buffalo
Cape Buffalo. Photo source:
off a short distance from the weather station, and panicked over how I was going to make my way back from the weather station to the car. I remember gathering up the courage to run madly back to the car, only to find the buffalo rolling its eyes at me as if to say “What IS up with her?”.

• The time we saw two male White rhinos White rhinos in LNNP. Photo source:
battling it out smack in the middle of the road. There we were driving the car back to the office after a long day out in the field and suddenly out of nowhere came these two massive males charging at each other, fighting over a territory right in the middle of the road. I remember thinking about how incredibly lucky I was to see one of the most endangered mammals on the planet ever so casually living out its day to day existence right in front of me.

• The first time I participated in conducting a flamingoFlamingoes in LNNP. Photo source: census. There are absolutely zillions of Greater and Lesser flamingoes out on the lake during peak season – from atop a cliff, the viewView of Lake Nakuru from Baboon Cliffs. Photo source: is that of a pink mat atop a carpet of blue water. I was baffled by how anyone could possibly estimate how many flamingoes were out on the lake at any given time. Until I realized that there were more than 20 people involved in the effort and that each person would be counting the number of flamingoes on a small segment of the lake, and that there would be repeated trials, and that all it took was a little bit of math and extrapolation. Duh!

• The day we almost got mauled by a lioness. Okay, so I’m being a bit dramatic. But just a tad bit. It was the day we (the research assistant and I) had been obtaining water samples from a river on the inside of the park that drains into the lake. For the record, the rules and regulations of the national park discourage (or is it prohibit?) visitors from getting out of their car while they are in the national park. For good reasons. But as employees of WWF, we were exceptions to the rule. We were out of the car, walking a short distance upstream with our high tech looking water quality analysis gadgets, totally focused on our job, and occasionally cracking jokes and talking and laughing loudly, when a KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) car drove close up to us, and a game warden rolled down the car window and hissed loudly at us to “Get into the car, NOW!”. We had no idea what all the fuss was about until we were safely packed into the car. Then he broke the news to us – there was a lioness snoozing on a branch of a tree right above us, and she’d been watching us the whole time. We were just darn lucky the KWS car happened to be patrolling when it did and saw the lioness on the branch and saw us right under it. Brrrrrrr!

• The opportunity to get to know and work with a world renowned entomologist, who would eventually become a very close friend and a much cherished mentor. I remember burrowing arm deep in soft mud from the various rivers emptying into the lake in search for Chironomid larvae
Chironomid larvae. Photo source:
- a wriggly, sometimes red, sometimes white worm that acts as a bio-indicator of water quality. I remember having the most meaningful conversations about science and about life in general with her. I remember the 80 something year old lady chasing butterflies along with me, sharing the same exuberance as the 18 year old me, imparting everything she knew about butterflies and insects to my impressionable young mind.

• The day we waded halfway into the middle of the lake in overall-like, heavy waders, to obtain mud samples. I remember turning around to head back to shore to see a herd of wild buffaloes waiting for us back on dry land. And waiting and waiting, soaked above knee high in mud and water reeking of blue-green algae, wishing and hoping and praying that the buffaloes would move on, and we could get back into the safety of the car.

• The day we drove up so quietly and so close right next to a Rothschild Giraffe
Rothschild Giraffe. Photo source:'s%20Giraffe.jpg
grazing on an acacia tree. And I rolled down the car window and touched its tail. Score one, me! The giraffe did not look amused.

• Driving in circles, lost inside some part of the Eastern Mau Forest, trying to find our way out, in the middle of a thick thunderstorm. It’s still a mystery to me how we found our way back out.

• Stopping by Makalia Falls
Makalia Falls. Photo source:
to collect a water sample the day after the news of a woman mauled by a leopard while collecting water near the very same waterfalls made the newspaper headlines. And then nervously keeping an eye on a small hole in the cliff, suspected to be the den of the leopard and her cubs, while trying to rush and obtain a quick water sample.

The memories go on and on…countless little details that flood my mind and remind me how it all began. For me, the ‘assistant to the research assistant’ wasn’t just my first job; it was my first step in a journey to self-identity.

~vagabond~ © 2007

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