Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Why am I always running on four hours of sleep? How are we supposed to get back to camp when the engine just blew up? What are we supposed to do when the camp washes away in a flood?
Why am I writing this grant that I know is going to get rejected? How am I supposed to analyze this complex data? What am I going to do with all these genetic samples when all of my wet-lab courses have been theoretical?

These are just a few of the laments from scientists who attempt what some perceive is impossible, combining intensive field studies with state of the art wet-lab assays. When you add in that this is all to study the behavior of a socially complex species, one raises more than a few eyebrows, even among colleagues in the sciences. When we go to get funding or advice for studying how early development can shape neurological or hormonal outcomes, we get told that we should be doing this on mice in a lab. When we attempt the same for studying complex behavioral traits like personalities or cognitive abilities, we are told that there is just not enough control in free living species to reliably measure that. This has been a prevailing view in the sciences, and in the public eye, for quite some time, despite the numerous recent studies that have shown otherwise. Many believe field work is for discovering new species, tracking animal range shifts and decline, describing species-typical behaviors, and maybe population genetics. Conversely, wet-lab work requires high levels of control, and is for studying specific physiological mechanisms on short living model species. In short, between the difficulty of the work itself, many of us working on projects like the Mara Hyena Project, also have a hard time finding support even from the scientific community.

This brings us back to why. Why are we even doing this!?!?!?....... Well, it’s because of the “why”.

You see, each and every one of us grew up asking why. I’m not talking about just scientists, I mean everyone. Granted this drove our parents insane with our incessant “why, why, why”!! Eventually, many stopped asking why, or kept our questions to ourselves. “Why” is not always acceptable when working for large corporations or the government, at least not incessantly. Stopping to ask “why” when you have to run into a burning building to save someone could even cost people their lives. However, some of us can’t help it, we just can’t stop. What is worse is that it is strongly addictive. You see the moment the first “why” is answered, it opens up more “why”, “how”, “what” and “when” questions, and each time one of those questions gets an answer, they multiply exponentially. And ohhh, the thrill off chasing the answer, the high of opening new questions, nothing can compare. When you are on the verge of a new discovery that may change how we see the world, it’s like watching the fuse burn down right before the fireworks go off.

Fortunately, there is a place in the world for “why” addicts like ourselves in the sciences. Here we are encouraged to explore the freedom of asking “why”. What is more, there are guides on how to do it so that we can find answers and new questions more efficiently, and of higher quality. While the scientific method is almost formulaic in its function, it is the “why” that sparks it into motion. For those that are willing, there are even entire institutions dedicated to fulfilling the addiction of asking “why”, and mentors that are all too happy to get you into the habit and see the same hunger in young eyes that they have felt all their lives.

This addiction is what led my colleagues and myself to the Mara Hyena Project. Dr. Kay Holekamp came out to the Mara and the hyenas not long after finishing her PhD, looking to feed her own "why" addiction. Even she was surprised by the amount of questions she could ask, and with every paper, she found more and more. Now with nearly 28 years of study, the spotted hyenas of the Masai Mara have fed the addiction of "why" for dozens of graduate students, many post-doctoral students, and droves of up and coming undergraduate research assistants, not only in the field, but back in the labs at MSU. What is more, with improving techniques and technology, we have increased the number of questions that may be approached to unimaginable heights. Everyday when we drive out of camp, or walk into the lab, we can feel the rush of being able to ask "why" with the anticipation that we will be a part of the answer.

Therefore, the answer to why we put up with the pain, stress and hardships required to keep this project running, the answer is....... 
Why should we conform to what is expected?  Why would we restrict our freedom to explore? Why would we do anything else? Why would we ever want to stop asking why!?!

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