Field science: When your degree takes you to the jungle

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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.

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