Saturday, October 13, 2012

A day at Think Elephants International.

My name is Elsa and I’m the most recent addition to the TEI research team.

When I bragged about told my friends I would come to Thailand to do research cognition/conservation work on elephants, their first question was “but what would you do exactly?” [1]  

I tried to hide the fact I didn’t have much of a clue myself by speaking about “doing experiments with the elephants, you know, like the ones with chimpanzees, but also educating the kids about how much these animals are endangered, hmmm, you see?”

And so, they kept asking.

After a month and a half of being stationed in Golden Triangle, Thailand and working with three amazing people, I feel I can now give a better answer to this question. For any of you flirting with the idea of becoming a research assistant one day, here is a glimpse of how a “typical day” looks at Think Elephants International. If you ever thought this job would entail being a sort of Indiana-Jones-style scientist, fighting in the jungle by day and kissing slender creatures by night, stand still while I give you a dose of reality.

6.30am-7.10am: We wake up, sometimes with deep astonishment regarding one’s ability to sleep through a level 5 alarm clock ringtone. 

Sometime around 7.30am: We go to the research site, about 2-3km away. While Lydia has a motorbike, Rachel and I cycle. See “tropical rain” but also “breathtaking scenery” and “yay, exercise”.

8am: After having set up the apparatuses, we start testing our first elephant of the day. We generally test about 2 or 3 every morning, for about 30min each. Since they are also involved in tourist activities later in the morning, we have limited access to them. 

If you want to have an idea of how cognitive experiments with animals work, have a look here or here. Basically, researchers come up with a Big Question such as: do Eurasian Jays understand the physics behind water displacement? Big Questions are always fascinating, but very hard to test. What you need is a Testable Question, for example: would a Eurasian Jays choose stones rather than pieces of cork to make the water rise in a tube? Slightly less sexy, I know. The point though, is that we can record the answers to this question.  We then have an idea – after many painful statistical tests – of how well the animals did on this particular task, which hopefully give you some clues about how to answer the Big Question. 
It’s not that simple though. Two principles are really important in science: control tests - tests you run to be sure the results you obtain are not due to trivial biases - and repetition. 
Dont trust BBC documentaries: doing an experiment actually requires running (many) control tests (many times) on top of the actual test (that you repeat many times as well). If you have followed me right, you should have reached the conclusion that our work can be quite repetitive sometimes. Sometimes it is... and sometimes it is not, because of the elephants. There was the day Lanna did this incredibly cute thing, the day Bleum played for 5 minutes with one piece of our equipment before giving it back, and of course the day Poonlarb destroyed the apparatus. The list goes on. 

Around 10ish in the morning: We cycle back to our office in Golden Triangle, strategically located between the great iced coffee/tea shop and the 7/11. We then proceed to enter the data we collected and discuss the results of the day. We also make sure we are ready for the next day of research, scheduling elephants, creating new recording sheets etc…

12ish-1ish: LUNCHTIME! We cycle back to the research camp since we eat at the canteen with the hotel staff. Thai food everybody! Thai food cooked just for you!! We usually eat with the two Thai vets and the elephant coordinator which makes for very interesting discussions. There is always the Thai TV on which makes the midday news jingle the official anthem of the TEI team since it gets stuck in your head for the rest of the day. 

Afternoon: This is the beauty of the research assistant job: I cannot give you an outline of our afternoons because they change every single day. However, here are some of the things we may do:

-          - Reviewing literature: 

Knowing that I was writing this paragraph, a researcher suggested this definition: “ reading every paper ever written until your eyes fall out”...
Doing literature review means you are trying to find already published scientific papers relevant to your subject. Most of the time it’s very exciting: you learn many new things but there is always the risk that the next paper will be an obscure article published in the 60’s that’s testing exactly what you want to do.
Spotting a scientist doing literature review is easy; just follow the slightly red and puffy eyes. 

-         -  Designing a new study: 

Designing – creating - a study is the mental equivalent of a Quiddich Game. Ideas are flying around, counterarguments are punching you in the face, score is recorded, and everyone is pursuing the Golden Snitch of the Perfect Experiment. Sometimes there is a big silence, which means you either said something very clever (doubtful) or very dumb (here you go). If you leave the room remembering your name, you’re not doing it right. 

-        -  Building new apparatuses: 

One of my favorites; a team of researchers in the middle of a hardware store is a great thing to watch. We often need apparatuses for our experiments with the elephants and as you may guess, they don’t come readily available to use. We have to build them ourselves - with the help of kidnapped dads on holidays - hence, the hardware store. There is always a moment where we all end up waving our arms and fingers in the air, because, you see “if you bolt this part to this part, and then you pull this… Wait a minute; let’s say that my middle finger is the screw, so…” And I’m not even talking about discussing different measurement systems; inches, centimeters, feet, “roughly the size of my hand”, and of course :“about this big”… 

-         -  Working on education projects: 

As you may already know since you are currently on the TEI Teaching Kids page, we are strongly involved in educating the next generation about science and conservation. At the moment, we are designing curriculums for both Thai and US schools. We have to make sure we are giving the students the right information (see: literature review) but we also have to convey it in a child-friendly way. So not only do we have to think like elephants to create our experiments, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of kids aged 8 to 15. Can you picture the feeling you get when you have to choose a birthday gift for your 12 year-old niece? This instant of sheer panic when you realize you don’t know anything about what she likes and how she thinks? When you still don’t want to go the easy way and buy her anything Twilight-related, but understand that the complete collection of Tolstoy’s novels may be aiming a bit too high? Then you have a pretty good idea of the balance we have to find when building our lessons. This is actually a great and exciting challenge. 

Evening: After dinner we may go for a drink or just go back to our rooms to enjoy a quiet night, reading, writing to friends or analyzing the physical principles behind the last episode of Dr. Who. 

It was just another day working for Think Elephants International!

[1] Actually, it was the second question, the first being: “can I come visit you?” This is how much they love Thailand me.

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