The Return

18 06 2012

Full circle. After the ~16 hour flight and 4 hour, bumpy and dodgy drive, I have safely arrived at Mpala again. Well, that is I arrived on Wednesday… it’s the first opportunity I’ve had to free-write. The return to the place I called home for a year has been bittersweet. Sensory memories are pervasive and taking on new meaning on this second trip.  Mpala has changed in many ways, yet retains its mystique and beauty.

One of the many spectacular views found on Mpala

I’ll be staying at Mpala for about 1 month this summer, not as a Princeton-in-Africa Fellow, but as a Ph.D. candidate. Yay science! My research will be conducted both out in the field of the bush and in the lab. The perfect blend? I think so. Classes don’t start until August, but I had the chance to jet out to Kenya to conduct a few pilot studies before hitting the classroom. Needless to say, it wasn’t too hard to turn down a month in Kenya! My Ph.D. will be focusing on disease ecology…

What is disease ecology you ask? Well, imagine a population in the wild, let’s say a herd of buffalo. Now, these buffalo have a lot going on – they have certain behaviors and move around in a particular area. They have a social structure i.e. top dog all the way down to the runt. The buffalo are genetically related throughout the herd and are connected and disconnected by DNA. They come across all types of weather, predators and other types of environmental stressors and hazards. Now, imagine a parasite. Any kind you want – lots of legs, antennae, whatever. This parasite wants to make its home in the buffalo and get a free ride feeding off the buffalo’s essential nutrients. Disease ecologists want to know the how, what and why – it is the interdisciplinary field that studies this interaction. How hosts (buffalo) and pathogens (parasite) interact and how factors such as environment, genetics and behavior influence and facilitate this interaction. I plan to focus on factors that make individuals more susceptible to infection and disease… no need to get into the nitty gritty now – details will follow in future posts.

Grevy’s zebra: as beautiful as I remember

Now, the ways in which Mpala has changed: well, the most obvious is the presence of an electric fence around the research center including the labs, bandas, offices and dining area. Oh yea, and the ring road… remember the ~1 mile loop I ran around over and over and over while training for the Lewa Marathon? No need to check with the security guards about running now – elephants are a much smaller risk as they seem not to be fans of a sharp electric jolt. I’ve gone on a few runs over the past week and the fence seems to be doing its job. The downside: no elephants hanging out within 25 feet. Obviously, a bummer when it comes to posing in front of herds for brag-worthy photos.

Thankfully, there are quite a number of familiar faces which have been absolutely lovely to see again. Catching up and randomly running into old friends has been a highlight of the first few days. My good friends in the kitchen are still around – Eunice still making her awesome cakes and biscuits! Julius, the head of security, has continued to keep a watchful eye on the center and looks quite scary in his green camo uniform. Did I mention his green beret? Yup. The Mpala security force is here to stay. The many friends from the village are mostly around and we played a fun soccer match the other evening until nightfall. Nothing tops playing soccer on an escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley with a golden sunset.

My personal favorite – the Common beisa oryx

Besides the evening social activities, the first few days were anything but relaxed. Mornings were devoted to field work consisting of approximately ~5 hours of driving about the bush scoping out wildlife and collecting samples. I forgot how cold Mpala is in the early morning. I usually start out dressed in pants, sweatshirt and occasionally a wool hat. However, within 2 hours, the pants are changed to shorts and sweatshirts are swiftly removed as the temperature sharply rises. The equator sun is no joke. I’ve already obtained a darker tan, although my back and shoulders received a bit more sun than they should have… Afternoons (after a nice break at lunch) are spent in the lab, processing the samples collected in the field. It’s a busy lab and most of the work continues well into the evening.

So, for now, that’s the report from the bush. Another update soon to follow… including an account of Saturday in the field involving multiple vehicles stuck in the mud known as the black cotton. It made for a fun late morning. Enjoy the game drive pics!

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3 responses

18 06 2012
theresainafrica

Yay! I’m so glad to see that you’re continuing your blog. Say hi to everyone for me -especially Eunice and Julius- and enjoy the late afternoon soccer- I’m hoping to get that started over here at ITFC in the very near future (when I’m not camping of course). I hope those vehicles survive your month-long stay!

18 06 2012
Cordelia Persen

Its great that you are back and in a different capacity too! Enjoy!!! Where are you planning on doing your PhD?

18 06 2012
Katie Kinzer

yay science!

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