Field science: When your degree takes you to the jungle

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Not every degree leaves you languishing in lectures for three years. Third-year zoologist Tamara Williams' studies have taken her to Ecuador so she can get up close and personal with rain forest life.

At some point in my teens, I found myself so lost in the mesmerising world portrayed by David Attenborough, that I knew no other vocation could possibly satisfy me. I wanted to live it. So here I am a few years later, living in the tropical rainforest of Eastern Ecuador, an intrepid explorer and novice field scientist.

What is a field scientist? The word scientist evokes all sorts of images, mainly ones of laboratories and white coats, test tubes and lab rats. What about us scientists who don't work in labs? Field scientists work in the great outdoors, and are interested in pretty much everything from discovering new species to the effect of obscure parasites on ecosystems. They explore and investigate, aiming to eventually understand what they observe. Two years into my undergraduate Zoology degree I'm not quite a field scientist yet, but what I lack in education and experience I make up for in... well, I'm keen anyway.

I am currently spending my third year living at a small scientific research station, named Timburi Cocha, in a remote patch of rainforest belonging to the indigenous Kichwa community of San José de Payamino. It is everything you would expect a tropical rainforest location to be. The air is hot and thick, the trees are densely packed, and everywhere is teeming with life. Just this morning about a half meter square of mushrooms sprouted on the dirt floor of the kitchen. My favourite time is the early evenings. It’s finally cool enough to be comfortable, and the nocturnal creatures begin their nightly cacophony of calls, while the setting sun paints the trees with an orangey incandescence. You can even see a volcano in the distance. If you consider a tropical rainforest to be perfection, then this is close to perfect.

The local Kichwa community is much more westernised than I had expected. They own the land and govern themselves, but the Ecuadorian government also provides for them. They have a small row of street lamps, and a school complete with a computer room and satellite Internet. Each year they vote for a new president and vice-president, who organise the democratic community meetings. They drink plenty of chicha, a drink they make with chewed and fermented yucca (a root vegetable that is abundant here), though for many visitors it is an acquired taste. Each family has a finca in the forest, a traditional wooden home on stilts with a hearth. They have a shaman too, but the shaman is officially vice-shaman, since the head shaman position is supposedly cursed. One wet day a local lady was bitten by a lethal pit viper; whilst I administered shots of anti-venom into her buttocks, said vice-shaman was applying all sorts of plant treatments to the wound and was attempting to suck the venom from it (something which the NHS website implores you never to do).

Life for me here as a work experience student is relatively simple, revolving mainly around my personal research, which is a biodiversity study of frogs. I am trying to establish exactly which species are here, where and when I can find them, and in what condition. To do this I walk slowly along several 100 meter paths in the forest, equipped with a local guide, and at night time a torch. When I spot a frog I feel an intense adrenaline rush, will I successfully capture it? Have I collected this species yet? Unfortunately for most of the time, I am just walking very, very slowly, and looking at leaves. Much of field research is like this. It isn't all finding new species and being transfixed by exotic courtship rituals.

Have you ever seen the behind the scenes footage included at the end of many nature documentaries, where it turns out a patient cameraman has been sat in a tree for three days waiting for a bird to dance? It is laborious and monotonous work, but it is rewarding too. Imagine being the person that has made a discovery, to be the person to first question something, to then carry out an investigation and to contribute it to the vast catalogue of information that is science. I find this concept inspirational.

Being a field scientist basically means being an academic, collecting data and publishing scientific papers. It doesn't pay well but it is interesting work. Getting your foot in the field science world can be tough. When I was applying for placement jobs there were endless pharmaceutical opportunities, but nothing to fulfil my desire for exploration. Much like a career in anything else, to become a field scientist you need to build up a range of contacts and a portfolio of work. Finding the initial experience can be a difficulty, since many opportunities are voluntary, and by voluntary I actually mean that you have to pay on top of supporting yourself. Getting a job where my expenses are paid, and I even receive a basic salary is almost unheard of.

As a work experience placement goes, this is a fantastic one. By the end of this year I will have gained countless skills and I am hopeful the experience will facilitate my progression into further study. I live an exceptionally beautiful place. I have unlimited freedom in that I choose my own research, and I work to my own timetable in the day. I have no instructions, and nobody to hold my hand. I have no deadlines, no exams, and my supervisor is a world away. This isn't for everyone though, at times I am at a loss for what to do, or how to do something, and it is difficult to get things organised. I was planning to start making a garden six months ago, and I have yet to get past failing to germinate avocado seeds. Working in the field might not be the most cutting edge science, there is little use for nanotube technology or particle accelerators, but it is what I choose to do, and I love it.

Tamara Williams is studying Zoology at Manchester University, more or less.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Primary Teaching Jobs Available NOW-Southport

£80 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Due to an increase in dema...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London