Friday, September 23, 2016

From New Jersey to Maasai Mara

Greetings Fisi Blog Readership! I happen to have the honor of calling myself Michael Brogna Kowalski, but you may just refer to me as a regular, ordinary Mike.  I’m the other new fisi research assistant in the Serena Camp/Mara Triangle half of the project, with my partner in crime research being Olivia, whom you most delightfully met yesterday (see her post here).  Hopefully over the course of the next year, I will be able to supply you with hours of entertainment from science-y, intriguing, and inspiring – but most of all adorable – blogposts detailing the going-ons of the project and the Mara (fingers crossed!).  Let’s start with who I am and how I arrived at this very moment in space-time over the course of my short, adventurous life.

A young Michael exploring Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
I was essentially born being amazed and bewildered by the natural world around me.  My grandmothers’ bungalow at the Jersey Shore was really what sparked my practical, scientific interest however.  It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that I learned how to swim before I could even run in a coordinated fashion and I spent many afternoons snorkeling around in my lagoon with a host of fishing nets capturing whatever I could possibly get my hands on – even the much maligned and feisty Atlantic Blue Claw Crab.  Much to my mother’s chagrin shrimp, crabs, jellyfish, ctenophores, isopods, snails, algae, algae-eaters, flounder, silversides, and a score of minnows were presented daily in hopes of appeasing her.  These offerings were most often met with a “You’re making the house smell!” from my grandmother and a “Put them back honey, they need water to breath.” from my mother, but they’ve always supported me in all my endeavors so I can’t complain.  Other kids played video games and watched Saturday-morning cartoons, while I ran around swamps catching snakes, ate some dirt (literally), and watched PBS’s Nature on Sundays at 8PM.  Unfortunately, my family has always been somewhat financially challenged so I couldn’t visit all of the amazing ecosystems I saw on TV.  Day trips were taken around the Tri-State Area to various parks and wildlife sanctuaries, but these could not satiate my desire to travel to the marvels of the natural world, such as the Amazon rainforest or African savannahs.  Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I found myself trapped in a holding pattern and proceeded to hibernate until I mercifully reached my college years. 

One of the male lions (Panthera leo) who guards the eastern gate of Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
I acquired my Bachelor’s degree at Boston University (graduating May 2015) – majoring in Biology, specializing in Ecology & Conservation, and minoring in Marine Science.  My mindset going through college was to study abroad as often as I could and work in as many labs as I could wriggle my way into.  Studying abroad was actually the easier of the two to accomplish -given incredulous tuition fees associated with BU, it was actually cheaper to get credits and practical experience abroad.  I first left the United States as a sophomore, Spring 2013, to participate in Boston University’s Tropical Ecology Program.  This took place at the Universidad de San Francisco De Quito in Ecuador and we got to perform field work in the Andes mountains, coastal dry forest, Galapagos Islands, and Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon (bar none - the most biodiverse ecosystem/park in the world).  In the summer of 2014, I travelled to Tanzania with the School for Field Studies to study African wildlife for the first time, as well as the socioeconomic and human side of conservation. I was fortunate enough to visit Lake Manyara, Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti National Parks.  Lastly, my senior fall semester I participated in the Boston University Marine Semester to fulfill the requirements for my Marine Science minor.  During this block-style semester, I got to work with NOAA in Stellwagen Seabank on marine megafauna, evaluate seas star visual preferences in a sensory laboratory at the MBL in Wood’s Hole, and carry out a sponge metabolome study in the mangroves of Turneffe Atoll in Belize.  

A Golden-mantled Tamarin (Saguinus tripartitus) captures a grasshopper in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador
 In terms of laboratory research assistant positions at BU, I worked in three labs: Dr. Tom Kunz’s bat lab analyzing 3D thermal emergence footage, Dr. Adrien Finzi’s terrestrial biogeochemistry lab determining the carbon, nitrogen, and water isotopic signatures of plant tissues and the effect of transpiration on global climate change, and in the BU Marine Program lab maintaining all of the structural systems and the health of the various fish, crustaceans, corals, and plants involved in the experiments.  I also did some research on hermit crabs (Pagurus longicarpus) in the BUMP lab for my senior thesis, evaluating this species' sociality, whether or not they preferred to live with familiar or unfamiliar conspecifics, and if this could have an overarching impact on population structure and genetics.  I ultimately came away from my four years spent in Boston incredibly interested in mammalian behavioral ecology. 

A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) surfacing above the Ikaria Trench in the eastern Aegean Sea 
I had no intentions of slowing down post-graduation so over the past year I participated as a field research assistant with several organizations.  From July–September 2015, I studied the influence of anthropogenic acoustics on marine mammal abundance, diversity, and behavior in the eastern Aegean Sea (Greece) with Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation.  From October 2015–March 2016, I worked with the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program to monitor populations of primates and nesting sea turtles on Bioko Island (Equitorial Guinea).  My last position took me to Buton Island (Indonesia) from June–August 2016, to educate college students on bat ecology and collect data on bat diversity and abundance with a British NGO known as Operation Wallacea.  Now I find myself back in east Africa studying the behavior of large mammalian carnivores – a place I’ve always dreamt of working, a taxon that I’ve always dreamt of studying, and a subject that I’ve always been truly amazed and fascinated with.  This is in every essence of the phrase: a dream come true, and I intend on utilizing every moment of this wonderful opportunity.

A leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) returning to sea after nesting in Gran Caldera Scientific Reserve, Bioko
Unfortunately, the constraints of time and space do not permit me to further elaborate on these projects within the confines of this blog post.  In fact, I’ve probably come across as a self-indulgent, supercilious rambler.  However, if any readers are alumni of certain programs or you just generally want to know more about something I’ve worked on in the past, then by all means, drop a question or some general love in the comments section.  I’d be happy to chat about anything really!

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