Follow Your Stubborn Dream

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My name is Lisa Barrett, and I am a contributing author of this new and exciting blog! For my first entry, I will introduce myself and give some background about how I have come to be where I am today.

Barrett_Lisa_BioPhotoEven as an undergrad who chose to study Evolutionary Anthropology 10 hours away from home, I wasn’t positive about what I wanted to do when I grew up. However, I was (and still am) stubborn. I knew I loved playing ‘zoologist’ in my backyard with my dog, but did I really want to spend my life pursuing that sort of career? I certainly thought so, and so I eagerly searched for any opportunity from friends and professors to get more experience in this field. Not even the overwhelming lack of employment in that field (of which I was always made aware by my helpful mentors) would stop me.

Fortunately, I determined early on that research was what I wanted to do. In 2011, I was accepted to participate in DANTA’s five-week primate behavior and conservation field course. Not only did the program teach me the practical skills I needed to achieve my professional goals, but DANTA and its small team of leaders, especially Kimberly Dingess, instilled in me a confidence and drive to accomplish my goals. This helped to form the inner motivation to do what I want to do—I had finally gained a firsthand perspective of what a career in research would involve. I loved waking up each day in search of the gymnastic squirrel monkeys to see what my small group (comprised also of Sam and Ginny) could learn about their ranging patterns and activity. Although each day was exhausting—and at times overbearingly hot—I enjoyed the challenge. Beyond fieldwork, I gained practice in writing up results and presenting research at a poster symposium. While primatology was not off of the table, it was elephants who won me over after graduating from Michigan in 2013. Ever since my 2008 trip to a South African game reserve with the People to People Student Ambassador program, I had become fascinated with elephants and their conservation story.

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I had applied for a one-year research assistantship with Think Elephants International (TEI), a U.S.-based non-profit organization in the Golden Triangle of northern Thailand focused on elephant conservation through research and education. Just a few weeks after returning from Thailand, I am reflecting on my experience there, prompted by the inevitable question from my friends and neighbors: “What made you want to do that?” My usual response was that elephants have always been my favorite animals, and I wanted to study their intelligence (both true). But what lay beneath that response? After all, no one was forcing me leave home for 14 months just a few weeks after my graduation.

When I signed on for the job with TEI, I knew that I would be working as part of a small team to design and conduct cognition experiments on Asian elephants while educating local Thai children and visiting guests from all over the world. I would learn the inner workings of a new, research non-profit and help to make it successful. In short, this was my dream job. But as I stood sobbing in the JFK International Airport just hours before my 30-hour journey, I was definitely doubting my life goals and whether I could persevere to achieve them. It didn’t help that I could hear my encouraging mother reminding me that I could become a veterinarian instead (“If you had only taken calculus!”). Nevertheless I sucked it up, as I had at the end of our five-hour hikes through the Costa Rican tropical forest, and I got on that plane. Now I can hardly imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t!

Lisa and Buathong

From this experience, I have honed my research skills and more. I gained invaluable experience in presenting scientific information, adapting to a new culture, as well as formulating a research question and carrying it out through design and implementation. I also helped maintain a blog, newsletter, a YouTube channel, and Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest pages. The list goes on and on: science writing, professionalism, customer relations, marketing, the best way to remove mud off of your motor biking feet during monsoon season–all while applying for graduate school, a feat I did not fully appreciate until I was finally accepted to the University of Wyoming’s doctoral program as an NSF GRFP fellow. Of course, there were many things I REALLY did not expect to learn while living in a developing nation: some elephants are better than others when it comes to introducing a new research apparatus (not Bleum, because she is awfully strong and curious); you can work and live with the same three individuals for over one year and still be best of friends, and it is best to follow the Thais when there is an earthquake.

In some ways that I cannot explain, I needed to do whatever it took to satisfy my desire to study animals. So, as I reflect on my year abroad with the elephants, I realize that at some point you might have to go with your gut’s passion and follow it to the other ends of the world (sometimes literally). I might not become rich or even a famous scientist, but I will be able to look back and know that I followed my dream. I am very fortunate that I have had these opportunities, and I appreciate every decision, sacrifice, and rice-based meal it has involved.

The truthful answer to the question I have been getting since returning from Thailand? “I just had to.”

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In the wake of my first year as a PhD student, I am discovering that the more I do, the more I learn, and the more there is to learn. My inner motivation feeds this yearning to learn and to gain more experience. I am exposing myself to new interests—things like human-wildlife interactions and the intersection of conservation, scientific research, and education. While I feel as though my career is just beginning, everything I have done up to this moment has been an integral part of my journey. I believe DANTA helped me to channel my stubborn optimism to form the basis of my career. I am excited about where it will lead. What motivates you to do what you do?

To learn more about Lisa, visit her bio section here.

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