Moira Donovan ’14 Reflects on Her Fieldwork Experience

Wed, 2013-11-20 12:23 pm

Moira Donovan ’14 —

Researchers with Target, a hyena model

This summer, I worked as a research assistant in Dr. Kay Holekamp's Hyena Lab at Michigan State University through the International Research Experience for Students, a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant which supports undergraduates to experience fieldwork.

For nine weeks, I lived in a tented camp in the Masai Mara National Reserve in southern Kenya and helped Julie Turner 11 collect data for her dissertation. For the most part, I rode in the back of a research vehicle with Target, a life-size Styrofoam model of a hyena (made by a company that manufactures archery targets — hence his name) and waited to deploy him. Julie uses Target to test hyena "boldness." Her research focuses on social intelligence (how well a hyena interacts with others in a group environment) and personality aspects that might contribute to it.

We measure boldness by observing whether a hyena approaches Target and when the hyena realizes Target is not an actual hyena. To conduct a Target trial, we found a lone hyena traveling a predictable path, placed Target on that path ahead of the hyena, and video recorded the interaction for later analysis. Although we went on observations twice a day, we came across conditions for a Target trial only once in a blue moon, so I also helped collect general behavioral data.

This summer, I truly realized my interest in animal behavior, and also learned that living in the field is rigorous and often unrewarding: waking up in pitch darkness for observations at 5 a.m., analyzing data back at camp during the day, observations again at 5 p.m., then passing out in my tent before 10 p.m. What it lacks in glamor, though, it makes up in a multitude of ways for people who are passionate about behavioral research. Fieldwork is not for everyone but this experience will definitely inform my decisions of what to do after graduation.

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