A month in Analalava Special Reserve: Fieldwork, Failure, and Forging Ahead

Going into my study abroad program in Madagascar as a Gilman Scholar, I knew vaguely that it would involve a month-long independent project. I didn’t know then, though, that my independent study project (ISP) would push me to my physical and mental limits and make me a stronger scientist and scholar.

My study abroad program was all about biodiversity and natural resource conservation. Within that framework, I was especially interested in studying invasive species. So when it came time to select an ISP topic, I chose to visit a small nature preserve near Madagascar’s eastern coast and survey the invasive plant species present there.

I had emailed my project advisor, the manager of the reserve, before arriving, but beyond that, I didn’t know much about the place or what to expect once I got there. This solo adventure was eventful from the moment I arrived in the nearest town: I stepped off the bus, began walking to the hotel where I’d be staying the night, then realized that my giant backpack—stuffed with everything I would need for the next month—was still on top of the bus that was now driving away. I pivoted and ran frantically after the bus, and thanks to the assistance of a kind motorcyclist who saw my desperation and pulled up alongside the bus to flag it down, I was able to get my bag.

After that heart-pumping introduction to the seaside community where I’d be spending the next few weeks, things progressed more smoothly, but not always according to plan. I arrived at the reserve and met my advisor and the guide who would be helping me with my fieldwork. Because the reserve was quite small and roughly bean-shaped, I figured my guide and I could cover it with east-west transects looking for the three invasive plant species I was there to survey. After the first sweaty day of fieldwork, I realized that our progress through the humid forest would be much slower than I’d initially planned. That evening, I calculated how far we’d been able to go so far and how much more ground we could cover in the time I had to collect data. I used that information to adjust my plan, modifying it to cover fewer transects that were slightly farther apart so we could still survey the entire length of the reserve.

Revising my independent research plan felt terrifying and exhilarating. For the first time in my professional life, I was in charge of this study—my decisions would make it or break it. At my home institution in the U.S., I had been working in a lab doing the kinds of useful but repetitive tasks that undergraduates are usually given—watering plants in the greenhouse, weighing biomass samples. But here, I was calling the shots. And the fact that I was doing so in an entirely new environment, both ecologically and culturally, made it all the more intimidating and all the more rewarding.

The rest of the study fit into the time I had allotted with the new transects I had created, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. My study abroad program’s academic director came to visit me at the reserve and got lost in the forest for hours when he tried to get back to camp on his own. The fieldwork itself was hard, grueling work—but it was worth it. At one point, I was hip-deep in marshy water, and I looked up to see a lemur frolicking in the trees above me. One the last day of data collection, the final transect ended in a steep hill out of the reserve. I dragged myself up the hillside, which was carpeted densely with ferns, and laid down on the grass at its peak. I gazed down at the reserve that spread out before me and felt a sense of completeness. I was scratched up and sweaty, but I’d done it.

Of course, the end of fieldwork didn’t mean the end of my project. I still had to organize and analyze my data and write up my report, which I did over the course of the next week. I’d grown fond of the small reserve where I’d spend the past month, and when it came to say goodbye I reluctantly bid adieu. (Even though I was very excited to get back to a larger city and a wider variety of food than the rice, beans, and potatoes I’d been cooking for myself.) I left Analalava Special Reserve with a stronger sense of myself as a person and as a researcher. I’d designed and carried out my own research project, navigating the pitfalls as they came. And I’d done it all—with plenty of help, of course—in a foreign country, in the fragmented rural landscape surrounding a touristy beach town where no one else spoke English and many didn’t speak French, either. This project solidified my interest in invasive species research, but even more so, it gave me the confidence to pursue the path of becoming a researcher.  And it wouldn’t have been possible without the Gilman Scholarship.

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