Friday, July 15, 2016

Sending samples home, and taking "Papa" Joseph to Nairobi

Every year Dr. Kay E. Holekamp comes out to the Mara Hyena Project to check on how research is going, work some field magic with Benson, update manuals, obtain new research permits from the Kenyan government, and generally clean up camp. It is great having her here to learn from, and to validate your abilities as a researcher under one of the greatest. However, there is one part that we all, including Kay, dread about Kay’s visit. When Kay heads back to the states, she also has to take back all of the biological samples we have acquired over the past year. This usually means we all spend the last day before Kay drives to Nairobi trying to extract DNA from our samples, while fighting with wind, monkeys, and a non-sterile environment. The next morning Kay, along with Dee White and two RA’s, will have to drive extra carefully up to Nairobi with liquid nitrogen (LN2) tanks full of our samples. Then on the following day we will buy dry ice for shipping, and spend the rest of the day carefully dumping the samples out of the LN2 tanks, while Kay and Dee get frostbitten fingers as they grab and pack samples into the dry ice cooler. Needless to say it’s a lot of work and a lot of stress.

This year was a little different. While we had a lot of difficulties getting the sample transfer permits, we did not have to do DNA day!!! Due to some recently developed technology, we can now obtain and immediately freeze off samples, which allow us to extract both DNA and RNA back in the states after the freezing process. In addition, instead of taking two RAs up to Nairobi this year, Kay took “Papa” Joseph and myself up. This was the second time I have made this sample transfer trip, as I had done it before as an RA in 2013, but this was the first time Joseph had ever been to Nairobi!!!

First the car trip: The drive up to Nairobi this year took 8 ½ hours, consisting of bumpy roads, giant potholes, flat tires, heavy traffic, and one diversion due to a car pile-up. This didn’t faze Joseph at all who spent the majority of the ride up looking like a Hollywood star.
"Papa" Joseph
Day Two: After a night to recover we drove downtown to pick up dry ice to pack the samples. Unfortunately, when we showed up the dry ice machine was broken, and it was the only one publically available in Nairobi!! Thankfully, after about 45 minutes of gut wrenching terror, they got the machine working. After that we sped back to the cottage, and spent the rest of the afternoon transferring the samples from the LN2 tanks to the dry ice coolers. Descriptively, it was basically Joseph and I overturning one LN2 tank into another with a funnel filter in-between. When samples fell into the funnel Kay and Dee would grab them, sort them, and pack them into dry ice.

We ended up only using four boxes.......
Sophisticated tools for obtaining biological samples from -196 Celsius liquid Nitrogen
Yes, that is a broom and a stick 
The tanks are not too heavy, just really awkward to pour while avoiding the freezing liquid
The whole process took approximately 2 to 3 hours, after which we taped up and labeled the coolers for transport. With that done we got cleaned up, and Kay treated us all to a nice dinner, and somehow Joseph still managed to look cool as a cucumber.

He looked great. I looked like I had fallen in a ditch
Day Three: Kay and Dee fly out in the evening, which means finding a way to get all of their field gear, as well as the sample coolers, into big bags that weight less than 50 pounds. This requires a lot of packing, unpacking, and repacking while a few individuals stand on a scale and subtract their own weight from the bag and person weight. Joseph and I both weigh as much as a hyena, that’s all we are saying. You will have to look up your hyena facts in earlier blogs if you want to know how much that is.

The coolers were all close to weight limit to begin with
Somehow we managed to get it down two four duffel bags under weight limit
Once packed, we relaxed until the big taxi came to take Kay and Dee to the airport.

Day Four: “With the cat gone the mice will play!”……….not. 
As with nearly every Nairobi trip there are errands that need to be run, so Joseph got a chance to experience downtown traffic while we turned in samples at Kenyan Wildlife Services, and began the process of getting student research passes with the Kenyan Immigration Department for incoming students. Thankfully, one of our other errands was to drop off collected hyena skulls to the National Museum osteology department, so Joseph and I got a chance to walk around the museum.

It was a great museum
Lot of culture
A bit of science
And some amazing art
Day Five: July 7th is actually a holiday in Kenya, so Joseph and I took our time sleeping in. Then we checked out Kazuri beads (, which was started as a way for single mothers to support themselves, and the giraffe center ( where the public can get up close and personal with giraffes while learning about local conservation efforts. If you want to see the video of Joseph making out with a giraffe, you are going to have to ask him. Finally, we got our real reward for helping Kay get her samples home safely, by spending the evening at a fancy restaurant known for its fine steaks.

Joseph looking high class with his "virgin" fruit cocktail surprise
Day six: We refilled the LN2 tanks, and shopped for camp supplies, during which I found out that Joseph was a lucky charm for getting through traffic jams.

Day seven: We inventoried the cottage finding relics of decades past research projects, including Kay’s first ever laptop that I could use as a free weight!

Day eight: I returned to the Mara, while Joseph headed home to his family.

All in all it was not the worst sample transfer ever, and it was certainly not a bad Nairobi trip, but I’m very happy to be back in the Mara, and Joseph is happy to relax in his home. I can also report that Kay and Dee made it home well, and that the samples have made it safely into the freezers.

Until next time, "say goodbye Joseph"


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