Monday, July 27, 2015

Time of Many Firsts

Hello everyone! My name is Connie Rojas and I am the newest member of the Dr. Kay Holekamp laboratory! I will be starting my Ph. D in Integrative Biology at Michigan State University this Fall, and am currently in the Maasai Mara in Kenya learning tons about the Mara Hyena Project, spotted hyenas, and Kenyan culture.

I have always been interested in animal behavior; I majored in Biological Sciences and Psychology at Wellesley College, and throughout my undergraduate education, sought opportunities to strengthen my molecular research and field work skills. It all started when I decided to study abroad in northeastern Queensland, Australia, with the School for Field Studies (SFS): Tropical Rainforest Studies program. I had the opportunity to live and take courses in the Wet Tropics, and conduct independent research comparing the functional diversity and redundancy of secondary tropical forests to those of primary forests. I found my experience incredibly rewarding, and when returning to Wellesley, was determined to look for additional field opportunities. The following summer, I participated in the NSF-funded Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program in Costa Rica. I spent 8-weeks investigating if diet had an effect on the parasite load and immune response of frugivorous bats, and learned tons about being resourceful, troubleshooting when unexpected circumstances arose, and maintaining a great work ethic in a demanding environment. Although, I did not find any significant effects, the experience drew me to the evolution of mammalian social behavior.

At Wellesley, I took a different direction and diversified my interests in cellular biology. Most of my courses were molecular-based (e.g. genetics, cellular physiology, evolutionary developmental biology, microbiology) and my senior research project analyzed the composition and diversity of bacterial assemblages of a permanently stratified, meromictic lake by high-throughput 16S rRNA Illumina sequencing. I enjoyed performing DNA extractions & RNA amplifications, and learning about cis-regulation and hope to incorporate this into my prospective research. Most recently, I was a field assistant for Dr. James Higham (New York University, Department of Anthropology), collecting behavioral data on the reproductive strategies of rhesus macaques living in the free-ranging colony of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. My responsibilities included collecting and uploading data on a daily basis, assisting with the annual capturing season during which blood and morphological data is collected, and collecting urine & fecal samples for hormone analysis. My work with the monkeys is definitely helping me better understand the complexities of hyena social behavior.

I am very happy to be in the Mara right now. It has been helpful to see how observations are carried out, data is transcribed, and hyenas are identified, and simply how camp life is like and how camp is maintained. This is a time of many firsts: first time in Africa, first time seeing the wildlife up-close (gazelles, wildebeest, hyenas, lions, cheetahs, jackals, mongooses, etc), first time driving a car (!!!, thanks Benson), first time in a hot air balloon, first time getting up at 5am consistently, the list continues. The hyenas, sunrises, sunsets, homemade bread, and chai tea never get old. Also, everyone at camp is so nice and I look forward to getting to know them better.

My time here has made me even more excited about starting my Ph. D, researching hyenas and working alongside Kay for the years to come. My specific project has not been fleshed out, which is understandable, but whatever it is, it might deal with the energetics of maternal care, factors influencing female mate choice, or stress physiology, and coupling field observations with genetic/endocrinological/microbial analyses (or so I say…).

I promise to talk more about the hyenas and my time at the camp in my next post, but in the meantime, feel free to email me at if you have any questions or comments, or simply want to chat.

Nakutakia siku njema!
(Have a nice day)


dee said...

Great post Connie, it sounds like you have settled right in! Please continue to let us know how and what you are doing. Oh and please give my best to the gang.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dee! The folk at Talek were always asking about you and Kay! I'm now back from the field --I had a great time. My next post is coming up; I am working on it. Hope you are doing well.

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