Monday, March 26, 2018

Hello, everyone! My name is Connie Rojas and I am one of the graduate students in the Holekamp lab! It has been a little over two weeks since I arrived in Kenya and I am feeling a lot of emotions. Fortunate to be here, in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, observing hyenas, and all of the other cool wildlife! Nervous about starting my field project since time seems to evaporate and things never go as planned. Excited to keep receiving my field training! I am getting better at driving our stick-shift land cruisers in the Mara, identifying hyenas, and knowing my way (I have no sense of direction). I am sad that my family is so far away and that they will not get to visit and experience all of what I am experiencing. Time here is precious, and I will try to get the most out of it!

A little bit about me. I was born in Los Angeles, CA, grew up in rural, Southern Mexico, and returned to LA when I was 9 years old. I resided in LA for all of middle school and high school, and later attended Wellesley College in MA, where I received my B.A. in Biological Sciences and Psychology. I am a mixture of a cellular biologist and an ecologist, as most of my courses in undergrad were in molecular biology, but in my summers, I travelled internationally to conduct field work. After graduating, I spent close to a year following rhesus macaques up and down cliffs in Cayo Santiago, PR.  I found their behavior and social interactions fascinating, and decided that for graduate school, I also wanted to study a complex, social species like these Old World monkeys. And here I am, a 3rd year PhD Student in Dr. Kay Holekamp’s behavioral ecology lab! Like my training, my research has both a molecular lab work and a field work component, and now, even a computational biology/bioinformatics component! Yay! I study host-microbe interactions, and the ways hyenas and their symbiotic microbes are affecting each other. I believe microbes are performing critical functions for hyenas; I just need to characterize them.

I am here in the Mara for 4 more months for my field season and have 3 exciting projects I am pursuing. One investigates how microbial communities change across different stages of meat decomposition, in the savannah! This is such a fun job for someone who has an irrational fear of all things worm-like, but thankfully, I am slowly overcoming this fear. Another project involves the collection of fecal samples from many of the animals here in Mara, not just hyenas, to explore the forces that structure gut microbial communities in the wild. Is it diet, is it their host’s evolutionary history, or is it something else? The last project is my main field project, which evaluates the type of information hyenas are obtaining from the scent gland secretions of other hyenas. The goal is to present adult female hyenas with the secretions of two strangers (i.e. an immigrant male & adult female), and document how long they spend sniffing each specimen. If hyenas spend a differential amount of time sniffing the samples, this indicates that scent gland secretions are indeed encoding different information. I moving to Serena camp and starting this project next month; wish me luck!

When I am not going on observations (so fun!!), collecting feces, or “working” on my dissertation research/data analysis, I am reading (Dee, I borrowed your ‘Walking with the Great Apes’ book but promise to leave it here for Kay), obsessively posting pictures on my Instagram, and trying to help to the RAs with whatever they need =) I am having a great time, and looking forward to building more memories!

Until next time!

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