Monkey Business: Erin Kane on Field Research in Cote d’Ivoire

Monkey Business: Erin Kane on Field Research in Cote d’Ivoire

Erin Kane is a graduate student in physical anthropology who recently returned to Ohio State University, USA, after conducting field research in Tai Forest, Cote d’Ivoire, from June 2013 to March 2014. She spoke about her study on monkeys, her thrilling experiences in the field (interacting with local educators and surviving an ant attack!), as well addressing the need for better training on sexual harassment for researchers. Erin also discusses how blogging helped her make sense of her data. She provides advice for early career researchers looking to establish a niche expertise and wondering how they might apply their research later in their careers. Read on below for a summary of our conversation.

Studying Our Closest Living Relatives

Sarah the Diana monkey. Photo: Erin Kane.
Sarah the Diana monkey. Photo: Erin Kane.

Erin began by explaining her work as a physical anthropologist. She draws on biological and evolutionary studies, bringing together ecology, anatomy and human behaviour, providing context between human experience and those of our closest living relatives; primates. While cultural anthropologists study human behaviour in context of other cultures in different societies, physical anthropologists like Erin add to our understanding of human evolution by looking at animal interaction within their species and to their environment. The ecological dimension of Erin’s work is especially topical to climate change policy and incredibly interesting with respect to dwindling food supplies. Erin studies how the availability of food affects the wellbeing of primates.

I’m really interested in how changes in the environment affect the behaviour and health of primates. Right now my dissertation research is looking at how what primates are eating changes annually. When different trees are fruiting, there is different food available, obviously. I’m doing a lot of work trying to figure out what is available in a forest and how you can talk about it, so from a nutritional perspective and from a properties of the food perspective. So – how difficult is it to eat something? Do you have to have to work really hard to open the shells? Then I want to see how that affects their health – looking at stress and seeing if it’s more difficult to be a monkey successfully when food is harder to open, or something like that.

Erin measures the monkey’s stress by examining levels of cortisol (stress hormones) in faecal deposits. She explains with a laugh:

“I get to spend most of my career chasing monkeys and waiting for them to poop!”

In the Shadow of Jane Goodall

So what led Erin onto this monkey research? It all began when she was 12 and wondering around the library looking for a book to read. Nothing much grabbed her, but her father picked up a copy of Jane Goodall’s first book, In the Shadow of Man. Not only did Erin find the book fascinating, she immediately decided that’s what she wanted to be when she grew up (see a video of Goodall further below). Erin also recalls having an “awesome” teacher who took her to see Jane Goodall speak, and Erin also took many interesting science classes throughout high school.

Lesser Spot Nosed Guenon. Photo by Erin Kane
Lesser Spot Nosed Guenon. Photo by Erin Kane

Erin came to realise that she was less interested in ape behaviour, which is a field that has a vibrant scholarship. While there is plenty of information on gorillas, there is less written about primates living in forests. Erin studies guenons (see Erin’s photos below), which are “little cat-sized monkeys” found in various forests in Africa. Erin explains why guenons are so cool:

I think they’re a really good analogy for what was going on in human evolution right before you have Australopithecine, before the early hominids show up. You have a whole bunch of early ape species that are in forests, wandering around doing different things. Then one of them wanders off into a savannah, and turns into humans eventually. Because of all the evolution happening in rainforests, most of the bodies decompose before fossilising, so it’s hard to reconstruct these early ape populations. So I think the guenons, because there’s so many of them, they’re diversifying in the same way that early apes did, so they’re a pretty good analogy. They’re pretty understudied. We don’t know a whole lot about most of them. [Read Erin’s posts below to learn more about guenons!]

Erin’s work has broad applications, not the least of which is adding to our collective understanding of how animals are dealing with climate change. The forest where Erin conducted her field research is along the equator. It has been researched since the 1970s, so she will go through 15 years of data on the native plants and trees. Coupled with the health data she’s collected on guenons, Erin will be able to tell how fluctuations in the environment are affecting their food and survival.

Life in the Field

Erin with her colleagues in Cote d'Ivoire. Photo: ERin Kane.
Erin with her colleagues in Cote d’Ivoire. Photo: Erin Kane.

A typical day for Erin in the field involved waking up at 5am and then spending the day observing the monkeys from around 630am or 7am. She also had the opportunity to spend time in nearby villages and she laid the groundwork for her future field trips where she will invite the top scholars from the region to visit the site. Though they live nearby, locals don’t usually go into the national forest. Locals also have a different relationship to these animals, seeing them as bush meat, rather than as symbols of education and conservation.

Erin explained that poaching is another conservation issue she was exposed to during her fieldwork. As there is a high density of different research groups set up in the forest, poachers tend to stay away until Christmas, when there are less researchers around. Erin sees that inclusive conservation is part and parcel of being a primatologist, so she had begun the groundwork for getting local leaders involved in education sessions about the wildlife:

For a while you could go into the forest as an American or European and then disappear. Now we’re seeing more and more effects of habitat loss and poaching. We were hearing gun shots in the forest maybe once or twice a month.

Erin says there are more local researchers who are increasingly coming in from the city of Abidjan to study the forests and teach the locals about environmentalism. Erin sees this local involvement is pivotal to long-term sustainability and broader research efforts.

There's nobody studying primates who's not dealing with either endangered or soon to be endangered animals who are losing their habitat. Being able to bring local people into the forest and give them  a chance to see what it's like is really important. - Erin Kane, Physical Anthropologist
There’s nobody studying primates who’s not dealing with either endangered or soon to be endangered animals who are losing their habitat. Being able to bring local people into the forest and give them a chance to see what it’s like is really important. – Erin Kane, Physical Anthropologist

The Downsides

The downside to her field trip was that she contracted malaria upon her return, despite having taken medication abroad (admittedly, she should have continued the medication upon her return). Another low point of her field research was that Erin suffered an attack by army ants in the middle of the night! They got in her nose, all over her hair and on her bed. She would continue to find army ants months down the track, despite washing her sheets five times!

Blogging to Sustain the Wonder

Erin kept a terrific blog, The Great Blue Erin, for the first part of her fieldwork, which she eventually had to abandon because of the poor internet connectivity.

One of the things that is really frustrating is that the most amazing things become routine really quickly. So the first week you’re in the forest, you’re like, [talks excitedly] ‘Oh my God, you’re in the forest and everywhere you look there are monkeys! And I found a snake! And there are really exciting, awesome things!’

And then three weeks later, you’re like, [sounding bored] ‘Oh my God. I have to go out into the forest again and stare at a monkey that’s going to sit and do nothing.’ Things that are incredible become really boring and horrible. So having a place where I could go, ‘Okay cool. Today this is what I found. Actually, that’s really cool even if it’s not directly relevant to the research.’ There is some sort of narrative going on… And also there’s a lot of stuff that happens that’s just kind of weird, that doesn’t really fit into the research that you’re doing, or that’s not a piece of data that you can write down easily. [Note: Bonus points if you can find the snake in Erin’s pictures below!]

Erin notes that it was easier to maintain her sense of wonder in her first field trip to Peru, especially since she was field assistant for someone else, rather than being in charge. Still, Erin kept a field journal going throughout her trip to Cote d’Ivoire to help her process her experiences.

"I really like having a venue to process what happened over the course of the day.It gave me a place to think about the bigger picture for the different groups that I was working with. " - Erin Kane.
“I really like having a venue to process what happened over the course of the day.It gave me a place to think about the bigger picture for the different groups that I was working with. ” – Erin Kane.

Managing Sexual Harassment in the Field

We asked Erin to comment on an ongoing study by Kate Clancy, published in Scientific American, which shows that 59% of anthropologists face sexual harassment and assaul in the field. The research finds that women are three times at risk of sexual assault than men. Alarmingly, half of the sexual harassment is perpetrated by senior researchers over junior women. Erin attended the physical anthropology meeting where Clancy presented her findings. Erin notes that the meeting was very well attended – but predominantly by younger women, particularly students. Erin remembers reading one response to the study in Savage Minds, an anthropology blog, which argued that the levels of harassment in Clancy’s study were comparable to the levels of sexual harassment in the wider population. This view is highly dismaying, as it takes sexual harassment as a given fact of life.

Erin says: “You shouldn’t be expecting these rates of harassment and assault,” but she notes that an important outcome of the research is that it’s “opened up conversations”:

My Department Chair emailed staff the original paper and some of the commentary around it. He’s, I don’t know, probably in his late 50s, early 60s, and male, and I thought that was really awesome. The best outcome is to have it be something that people talk about. I’ve worked in places that are pretty patriarchal, pretty traditional places where I’m pretty much the only woman, or where there are only White women or European or American women. No body in any of the field sites I’ve been to – before I’ve gone, none of my advisors have gone – ‘Oh by the way, this might be an issue!’ And it has been an issue at every field that I’ve worked at, either in terms of interacting with the folks who live around us or in some cases the professors who are associated with projects.

Erin  is especially impressed that someone like Clancy is talking openly about sexual harassment, given that she’s a tenure-track faculty member who does high calibre anthropological research in other areas. Clancy could ignore the issue, as other senior researchers do, but her research on women’s issues is giving voice to the experiences of early-career researchers.

Erin has faced a version of “everyday sexism” in the field, through inappropriate and sexist comments on her clothing during routine conversations with colleagues. Erin previously worked on a field project in a desert of Kenya looking for fossils. She wore shorts because it was so warm. One of the professors running the project pulled Erin aside and said her clothes were “really distracting” to the people they were working with.

He implied that the Kenyan men whom they were working with [might have a problem]. I was like, ‘Really? This is the conversation we are having?” There was a woman there, also a professor, and she was like, ‘Well actually, everything is fine and don’t worry about it too much. He’s old and uptight, don’t worry about it.’  So on the one hand I really appreciated that this professor was there to be like, ‘It’s not a problem. Things are fine, keep going how you’re going.’ I think there needs to be a lot less presumption on the part of professors to be policing what people are doing if it really isn’t hurting anything. One the other hand, having people around who are explicitly an authority figure who is running the project and clearly in charge would be helpful. A lot of times, these are informal positions, so it’s hard to have a sense of who to go to if something goes wrong.

How Better Training Can Target Sexism

In her most recent position in Cote d’Ivoire, Erin was in essentially in charge. She paid the field assistants and ensured the project was running smoothly. Yet she had no buffer for the sexist behaviour of the staff.

People were asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions that were totally inappropriate. It wasn’t something that I felt I could email my advisors or the other people in charge, like, ‘Hey so they’re asking me weird sex questions. Could you tell them to stop?’ Because the assumption is that I should be able to deal with this, but there isn’t really any training for how to deal with this.

I laughed it off the first month or two, but then it got so frustrating that I said, ‘Listen I don’t want to hear this again. Stop!’ Once I was visibly angry they were like, ‘Oh okay. We’re not doing anything wrong.’ It was very frustrating.

Erin notes that positive changes were being rolled out in her department.

Professionalisation is being built into the degree program. We get a course on teaching anthropology and we have a course on grant writing. One of the things that we’ve been talking about is a course on doing fieldwork, because it’s something that’s expected for you as an anthropologist. It’s not even necessarily to do a course, but even half an hour during orientation where people are told, ‘So if this happens – and if you’re working in particular parts of the world, and it’s conceivable that it will – here’s a way to approach the situation.’

Creating a Niche

We asked Erin to provide career advice to young women who might like to pursue her exciting career path. In terms of classes to take, Erin says, “You can never take enough statistics.” She also encourages young women researchers to “make a name for yourself scientifically” by focusing on a niche area away from primates. Erin recommends studying other mammals and insects that are under-researched.

Erin understands the professional value of understanding how research knowledge and techniques can be used in new and innovative areas. Erin now has various skills through her observational methodology, her analysis of hormones and nutrition patterns, as well as her research on biochemics. She is now starting to thinking about how she can apply these skills to a career closer to home or in a related field.

Erin ended by reflecting on the importance of not just interacting with women scientists in your own faculty or discipline, but also keeping engaged with the activities of other women in various STEM fields. While our knowledge and practices vary, our experiences overlap!

Career Advice by Erin Kane, Physical Anthropologist

Get in touch with Erin via Google+, and learn more about the monkeys she studies in the embedded posts below!

Do you have any questions for Erin? Have you got any tips for women researchers going into the field? Would you like to see more training on how to address and manage sexism as part of the syllabus? Let us know in the comments below!

Learn More: Monkey Magic!

Here are posts by Erin including her photography from the field, beginning with her field site and the various monkeys (and snakes!) she encountered. Finally, Erin writes about Jane Goodall’s influence on her work.

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