Friday, August 31, 2012

How to get to Think Elephants International, Thailand: some abstract vocational directions followed by more concrete geographical ones

I’ve spent the last 7 months happily engaged in groundbreaking elephant research for an organization that, above all else, values conservation. I tell you this in part to introduce myself to the TEI blog as one of the research assistants. More importantly, I tell you this because if I knew I’d be doing what I’m doing now,  six years ago when I started university, frankly I’d be baffled as to how I might have gotten here.

I remember how frustrating it can be to finally decide upon a career goal only to realize that the path to reach that goal resembles a maze from an issue of Highlights children’s magazine.

Or even worse, you might feel like there aren’t any paths leading to your acorn/dream job at all.

At TEI we’re all about conducting elephant cognition studies and educating the public about our research findings, the complex issues surrounding elephant conservation, and how we can apply the former to help resolve the latter.

I enjoy being in a position where I can educate others and share my experiences. Perhaps by sharing my experience in getting to this position in the first place, I can offer some insight to the young TEI follower who wants to work with animals but doesn’t know where to start.

I’m by no means an expert in working with animals. Take my words with however many grains of salt you deem necessary.  I’ve stumbled upon a great deal of luck, but have taken a series of small yet methodically determined steps as well.

Step 1: Seek out relevant experience.
How do you get experience in a field that requires you to have experience?
Think small. That makes me sound like the motivational speaker that’s secretly trying to sabotage you, but I honestly recommend it. What I mean by this is that, once you have a rough idea of your goal in mind, don’t underestimate even the slightest movement down a path that could potentially take you there.

It’s important to realize that the experience needed for a job is probably not as specific to that job as you might first think. I had absolutely no experience with elephants prior to starting my work with Dr. Josh Plotnik. The experience I bring to the TEI table is instead that which I’d gained conducting similar research on completely different animals: rhesus macaques & capuchins.

So then, how did I get the experience that qualified me for work with monkeys?
Probably in part by following steps 2 and 3 (below), but to a large extent I credit having worked previously with dogs at daycare centers in my community. It’s easy to get experience working with dogs and other domestic animals, so use such work experience as a starting point. With that experience under your belt, animal work that was previously out of reach might be attainable.

The more experiences you accumulate the less time it will take you to hone in on exactly what work you want to do. I’m still not certain in which capacity I want to work with animals. But, with each day I spend in contact with them, by decisively closing off some avenues and veering off toward others, I get closer to recognizing what it is that I’m eagerly moving toward.

Step 2: Take advantage of available resources.
As a first year at Emory University, I had this idea firmly planted in my head that I wanted to focus on primates. I worked quickly to immerse myself in the field both on and off campus.

I made it my duty to secure enrollment in the single class offered only once a year by prominent primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal. Outside of the classroom, I applied for research tech jobs at the Yerkes Primate Research Center located next to the university.

With a significant amount of luck, I managed to snag both a seat in the class and an opening in a cognition lab working with rhesus macaques.

Step 3: Network.
Not to slight Dr. de Waal in any way, but before I was taken on as a volunteer in his capuchin laboratory at Yerkes, another important contact in my incipient primate network helped me get my foot in the door. Well… the ties I had to this chimpanzee named Woody certainly didn’t hurt my chances. I found out in the middle of an interview that the chimp that I had been sponsoring for a few years at a sanctuary called Chimp Haven, had—unbeknownst to me—come from Yerkes and been a research subject of my interviewer.

Of course, networking with humans works too. I should note that Dr. de Waal had two teaching assistants when I took his class. One later supervised me during my time in his capuchin lab and is currently the Head of Education for TEI, Dr. Jen Pokorny. The other was TEI founder and director Dr. Josh Plotnik.


As promised, if you are legitimately interested in visiting TEI in Thailand for an elephant experience, we are located in the Golden Triangle, within the municipality of Chiang Saen. The small Golden Triangle village is about an hour’s drive north of Chiang Rai, a city that hosts its own international airport. We are just down the road from both the Anantara Resort & Spa and the Four Seasons Tented Camp. In addition to the research experience we offer through Earthwatch, these resorts boast programs for their guests that will bring you into contact with both the TEI team and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) elephants.

I assure you my future blog posts will have much less to do with me and much more to do with elephants.

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