Photograph by Nicholas Dowhaniuk
Photograph courtesy Nicholas Dowhaniuk
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As a kid, I always had National Geographic on the TV, and was always obsessed with foreign culture, travel, science, and the outdoors. While I didn't know specifically what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted a career that involved at least some of those components. For a while I thought about going into international business, and when I entered my undergraduate degree at the University of New Hampshire as an undeclared major, I initially studied communication. After taking an intercultural communication course, along with an introductory course in geography, I decided to change my major to geography and started to study sub-Saharan Africa. All that to say, I really had no idea what I wanted to be while growing up, but I am extremely excited with the direction my career is going in and everything that has happened in the previous few years!
How did you get started in your field of work?
Honestly, everything happened by chance, and it was a snowball effect of jobs and hard work that led me to the position I am currently in. I started to get involved in internships during my undergraduate degree in geography at the University of New Hampshire. One day, my current advisor, Dr. Joel Hartter, approached me with an opportunity to do GIS work along with other research tasks for him. This led to an undergraduate research grant that funded some independent research to understand land use change around Kibale National Park in western Uganda. That project led into my current master's degree with Dr. Hartter, which is the research that has been funded by my current National Geographic Young Explorer grant.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to conservation?
Conservation in East Africa is such a multifaceted, interesting topic to study. You have these vast wild spaces that are essentially islands of conservation surrounded by intensive subsistence agriculture, with a human population that is exploding. For instance, Uganda is growing at the third fastest rate of any other country in the world. At the forefront of this research is trying to understand how poverty alleviation can happen simultaneously with the conservation of these globally and regionally important areas.
That being said, I have always wanted a career that satisfied three basic requirements: wanting to feel as if I were making a positive impact on the world; wanting to feel as if I were helping people; and wanting a career that allows me to satisfy my desire for travel, adventure, and exploration. A research career that involves working on social and environmental issues in sub-Saharan Africa—issues that directly impact people's day-to-day health and well-being—satisfies all three of those goals. I love what I do, and I can't imagine myself taking a different path at this point.
What's a normal day like for you?
My day varies considerably based on if I am in the field or in the office. While I am not abroad doing fieldwork, my days normally consist of statistical analyses, geographic information systems and satellite imagery analysis, writing academic papers, teaching, and providing research support for the PECAR research group. While in Uganda performing fieldwork, no day is ever the same, and there are always exciting challenges that need to be dealt with.
For instance, one day I [may be] collecting data in the bush in Murchison Falls Conservation Area, where I hike with a ranger armed with an AK-47 while passing by herds of elephants and getting bluff-charged by Cape buffalo; waiting for the ferry to cross the Nile River back to our camp while young poachers are arrested with a dead leopard in the back of the Uganda Wildlife Authority's vehicle; eating dinner in a local restaurant as wild warthogs beg for food; or holding community interviews with more than 30 village residents who don't speak the same language as me—communicating through my field assistant, who knows 12 different local languages. Every day is an adventure, and you always have to be ready for whatever is thrown at you!
Do you have a hero?
I don't think I have one hero in particular, but I have always been inspired by people who follow their dreams to do whatever their passion is. I also have a high amount of respect for people who have a positive and optimistic outlook on life.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
It is hard to name one experience that was my favorite, but interviewing and interacting with local communities is absolutely one of the highlights. There is something grounding about getting to know the people in this region. While it is one of the poorest places on Earth, the people are the happiest and friendliest I have ever met. This in itself has had a positive impact on my life, giving me a greater appreciation for what I have in life and an understanding that my problems aren't so bad in the grand scheme of things.
The most challenging experience I had in the field was getting sick. While traveling five hours round-trip to the northern, hot, dusty town of Gulu to pick up my field assistant, I began to feel extremely weak, tired, sweaty, and in somewhat of a hallucinogenic state. Having only been in the country for two weeks at the time, my mind raced, trying to imagine which tropical disease I had acquired. When we returned to camp, my fever spiked at 104ºF, and since driving in the middle of the night is dangerous, I was closely monitored until we could travel to a clinic in the morning. Thankfully, when I woke the next day, my fever disappeared, and everything was back to normal. It was one of the more worrying times I had in the field, but it is a part of the experience while working in remote locations in Africa.
What are your other passions?
I am someone who has trouble sitting still. I am always happiest when I'm doing something, and this has led to a rather large list of hobbies. I love snowboarding, surfing, photography, playing the guitar and writing songs, playing tennis, running, cooking, and most of all, traveling. Recently, I have been starting to get into film and trying to make mini-movies.
In Their Words
I am always happiest when I'm doing something, and this has led to a rather large list of hobbies.