Towards the end of the MasterCard Foundation’s orientation week for new scholars, I met Dr. Robert "Bob" Montgomery, my new advisor and mentor, with whom I had only been in touch with previously via email for several months leading up to this point. We clicked instantly, cementing the foundation of the life-long collaboration we had been working on. True to form, we immediately got to discussing several project ideas for my new career in the Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey (RECaP) Laboratory. I was elated because I love talking ‘science and conservation,’ and this was the first chat I had with someone as informed on current developments in East African wildlife conservation. Bob later invited me to continue the conversation over coffee with his family.
Over some hot coffee, croissants, and bonding with my ‘surrogate’ family, I presented them with the small care package I got from home. It consisted of a pack of Kenyan medium roast coffee and an assortment of African trinkets that I got hand-made for them. Best of all was the wooden giraffe carving on wheels that I got for Olly. She absolutely loved it and this got us talking about giraffes, our favorite African animals, and all the fun facts we knew about them. For a five-year old, she was exceedingly smart and knowledgeable, she even taught me a few things that I did not know about flamingos!! She expressed her excitement to join us in the field one day. I too had already started imagining all the fun we would have while out on safari in East Africa. Though miles away from home, I knew I was in the right place, among people with a passion for wildlife similar to mine.
Settling into the lab was a breeze, I quickly became acclimated to my new lab space and familiar with my new colleagues over our first lab meeting of the semester. During this white board session with Dr. Montgomery, we went over our identity, the expectations for our performance, and the core competencies that we should demonstrate in our daily lives and work. ‘RECaPivores’ – as we are collectively known –are collaborative, we are productive, we are competitive, and yet we are very humble. Researchers within our lab exhibit a strong work ethic and are both driven and hungry to be productive. Our system of developing blended student cohorts, by pairing students from Africa with their peers in USA, is a proven way to ensure information sharing, idea generation and the development of innovative solutions to several conservation challenges across the globe.
Through the semester, I have been lucky to get opportunities to represent the lab at some functions and high level gatherings hosted by Michigan State University. As part of a presentation by the lab’s Snares to Wares Initiative, in Novi, Michigan, I got to interact with alumni old and new. They were mostly interested in knowing more about the project’s impact on the wildlife populations saved from deadly snares in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. I was extremely proud to share everything I knew especially the fact that through this work we are able to provide some financial support to many poor families by providing an alternative livelihood and source of income. The Snares to Wares Initiative is working to provide alternative livelihood options for individuals so that as opposed to poaching for bush meat, on can become an artisan selling products that are valued by a growing market in America!
For me the best event of all, was the invitation to Cowles House, the esteemed home of University’s president, Lou Anna Simon. On a chilly Saturday morning, before the biggest football game of the year, we got to talk about our lab’s ongoing projects with the President’s guests over brunch. It was a great chance, to mix and mingle with several top figures within the MSU community. Deans, Associate Deans, professors, prospective donors and friends of MSU were all present. This was a big deal, another great opportunity for the lab to display our amazing work of conservation in action. For me, this was also the perfect chance to describe my research (the application of cutting-edge innovative technology to map spatial patterns in human carnivore conflict) in addition to chatting with individuals who might have interest in supporting our work. We also had the chance to chat, though briefly, with the president and receive her endorsement for the work we do, before she headed out to cheer on the Spartans against Ohio State. Feeling fulfilled, Tutilo and I walked back home, in the first snow of the season, and not even the icy cold could bring down our high spirits.