Monday, October 20, 2014

Field Flashback

September 4th, 2014 was my 23rd birthday and third day on the job as Kay’s new lab manager. One of the tasks I had been charged with was cataloging and organizing every sample we have stored in freezers at MSU. (Read, a dozen or so samples for every hyena darted, plus fecal samples plus paste samples plus tissue samples from necropsies and miscellaneous samples…over decades of research).

Please release the image of your freezer at home and input this:

 And we have 2+ chock full of samples!

            So there I was, in the lab on campus where we keep our overflow, cataloguing away. 

Picking up each 2.0ml tube, recording the pertinent information of which hyena, type of sample, etc etc, and then assigning it an exact row and column location in a 81-spot box to be filed into the freezer. Trying to not make contact with the dry ice and suffer the sharp burn of solid carbon dioxide, listening to Benson and I’s favorite country music quietly. I had filled several rows when I reached into the box, drew out another un-catalogued tube, looked down and saw my handwriting…and then read the information: GALA #658 04Sep13.

Have you ever had one of those clichéd moments where you’re going about your day and without warning something grabs one of your senses and life in the present moment freezes as you’re thrown back into a memory? This was one of those times for me.

September 4th, 2013
365 days from that moment, Benson, Dave and I had been sitting with Galapagos (GALA) and a dwindling group of hyenas for over an hour in the field. I was newly confident in the driver’s seat on the right side, not so confidently using the sitting time to memorize at least a few more spot patterns. The hyenas were chewing on scraps of a cow carcass, nonplussed by our presence.
We had identified our target (GALA), prepped the dart, and Benson had been aiming out the window with Dave whispering prompts of when the other hyenas weren’t looking, when the blades of grass weren’t swaying to much, and when GALA’s body was angled properly.
I was silently sitting in the drivers seat, sending out the most fervent birthday wish I can ever remember hoping for: please let me witness my first darting on my birthday. Please. At 7:41 Benson took the shot, the dart flew true, and I got to watch the full process of a darting for the first time. I remember thinking at one point, “This is probably not what Taylor Swift was thinking of when she sang, ‘I’m feeling 22!’”.  Every detail of the darting came back – how the sun was warming up my side of the car as we waited for the perfect moment, realizing how different a hyena’s spot pattern looks when you’re right up close, feeling the course fur for the first time, being mesmerized while watching GALA’s breath move in and out through her bone-crushing jaws, and then snapping back to focus as Dave and Benson called out measurements I needed to record.

And then of course the long period after we had taken her to the safe resting spot, where we stayed to ensure she would wake up safely. It had become heart –grippingly long as concern grew to worry grew to the flutterings of panic when she wasn’t stirring two hours later (the drug we use is meant to wear off in about an hour max). I smiled remembering the release of relief and laughter we shared when Dave threw the second rock in GALA’s general direction and she picked her head up ever so slightly; we realized then that the drama queen could simply not been bothered to try standing up when she could just take a nap in the shade instead.

            When the flashback released me, I stayed motionless for several moments, awed by the serendipity of finding the samples from the most unique birthday present I have ever had, and how neat it was to still be a part of setting that sample up to be a part of all the various genetic and hormone analysis that will be done with it. This is one of my favorite parts of my new job as the lab’s manager – getting to see what happens after we collect the data in the field, what is tested and learned, and being reminded what a legacy of scientific research we all play our role in. 

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