Tropical Tribulations, Final Episode: Small Fieldwork, Grand Finale.

*** I just wrote a lengthy, thought-out post, then accidentally clicked on a link, and when I came back I had lost it all. I have no energy to write it again. Thanks, WordPress, for saying you have an auto-save function that doesn’t actually work. Aaaaaaarg. At least it’s not my thesis. Hm. Below is the part I didn’t loose. Co-Bloggers: please hit “save draft” more often than I did in the past two hours…***

24082014732When I arrived in Brazil, one big question lay over the country: would it be enough for the “Hexa”? The sixth title? Here, at home, with the world watching?

It was not to be. The World Cup – which some considered a flawed enterprise anyway – came and went, at lightning speed, as did the Summer. At the end, as I left the country, footballs still flew high in Brazil – as the picture shows – but new hopes had come to decorate the streets. On the school wall, the talk is of “luz”, “esperanca”, “respeito” and “abracos” (light, hope, respect, and hugs); and although the “Hexa” is still visible, somebody has since sprayed a new dream over the old one: “amor por favor” (love please).


Tropical Tribulations, Episode 2: Half-Time. Fieldwork, fast and slow.

one-does-not-bbraomAccording to rumours, something of importance came to end around a week ago in Brazil. Apparently. People still talk about it in the streets. It must have been a big deal. And indeed it was: after six weeks in Recife, the first half of my time in Brazil has come and gone! (Also: the World Cup). Six weeks full of encounters, experiences and events, which yielded a pitiful two interviews so far, and the half-time conclusion that fieldwork is fun! – and slow. And, also, that things rarely go according to plan, which, as it turns out, is usually all for the better. Tales, then, of winding paths – and of another kind of couchsurfing.


Tropical Tribulations, Episode 1: “First Steps”. Qui a dit que le Brésil était chaud, cher, et carnivore?

Recife! (État du Pernambuco, Nord-Est du Brésil)

(Pernambuco, Brésil)

Comment ne pas commencer un voyage: arriver à l’aéroport avec exactement 4 dollars canadiens dans les poches, pour se rendre compte que les cartes bancaires ne marchent pas au distributeur. Peut-on payer par carte de crédit au bureau de change? Non plus. De toute façon, celles-ci ne marcheraient peut-être même pas, faute d’avoir prévenu la banque du voyage… et je ne sais pas exactement où je dors ce soir. Excellent début.

Les premiers moments en nouveau territoire présentent toujours leur difficultés, qu’une bonne organisation ne peut pas toujours prévenir (sauf – voir ci-dessus). Comment fonctionnent les bus, les banques, la vie? Où vivre, avec qui, à quel prix? Quand jouer le touriste, en prenant son temps pour découvrir les lieux, quand jouer le troubadour, en prenant sa bière pour découvrir les gens, et quand se retirer pour travailler, afin de démarrer la recherche sur les chapeaux de roues? Tant de choix, d’opportunités, et de dilemmes dans ces premiers jours – jours au cours desquels, jonglant entre rêves et réalités, trêves et activités, et fèves [le feijão!] et festivités, j’ai découvert que le Brésil n’était ni si cher, ni si chaud, ni encore si carnivore qu’on ne le raconte. Récit d’un début de voyage.


Tropical Tribulations, “Pilot Episode”: Airport Ponderings

indexBack in January, I wrote one of my first posts for this blog – titled “Un novo ano, um novo desafio” [a new year, a new challenge] – about how I wanted to start learning Portuguese. Why? Because I was then planning to conduct fieldwork in Brazil, in the Summer of 2014.

Things since then have come a long way. And so have I, since I appear to be sitting in departure Terminal D of Miami Airport, whose walls are plastered with the above banner. For it has come to be! After a Fall semester spent poking in the dark (topic-wise), and a Winter semester full of Portuguese audio-CDs, vocabulary lists (thanks, Anki!), proposal writing, ethics reviews, funding applications, and other shenanigans, I am indeed going to Recife, capital of the Northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, for three months of fieldwork, on a topic I won’t bore readers with (just yet).

That my fieldwork coincides with the World Cup is, obviiiouslyyyy, sheer coincidence. Bit like a Black Swan. But still: for all those who were worried that this blog would not contain live-reports from “Copa” games, worry no more. I will try to regularly post updates “from the field(work)”, about travel, research, and futebol. But first, boarding calls. Next step, this:


ps: for those remaining in (beautiful) Montréal, PGSS will be screening many Copa games at Thompson House.

In Our Lifetime?: World Tuberculosis Day 2013

Distributing education material at a World TB Day event. Kunming, China

Upon first describing my research—on tuberculosis (TB) control in China—I’m generally met with glassy stares or feigned interest. When people ARE instantly captured, I get the feeling that much of it comes out of an anxious hypochondria that’s more about themselves than anything that I have to say. A bit of an exaggeration, okay, but to be sure: TB is not the “sexiest” of research topics.

And that’s part of the point of my work.

Did you know that approximately 30% of the world’s population is already infected with the TB bacillus? Or, that TB is seventh on the list of top causes of morality worldwide, at 1.4 million deaths (4.3% of all deaths)? Or, that 8.7 people fell ill with TB in 2011?


Event: McGill Gets Inspired by TED-Talks

Three Minutes to Change the World

“Fast paced” is practically the antithese of “Grad School.” When you think about explaining your research, doing it quickly is rarely part of the experience. Most of us are prone to panic attacks when our presentations are limited to 45 minutes, discounting the question period as optional.  So what do you think about someone trying in less than 5?


EndNote for the iPad: not ready for prime time

My search for an optimal flow of searching, sorting, storing, organizing, reading and annotating papers continue. The current process is still a bit convoluted (and I’m not alone!), but it kind of works.
First of all, I am glad to have moved completely to a digital configuration. This summer the entire floor where my office is located will be renovated. I’ll be “officeless” for about five months. I have nothing to worry about, there are no more books or printed articles in my shelves. All I need is a device to connect to the Internet. (more…)

A Kunming Carole: Reflections on the Holidays in Five Scenes

Street Performer, Jinma Fang, Kunming, 25 Dec 2012

Scene One: Christmas Light Bulb

I knew I wanted to write a blog post about spending the holidays in China, but couldn’t  find a thread to tie my thoughts and experiences together. China, being an atheist state (opiate of the masses and all), does not officially celebrate Christmas. This has not, however, stopped the incursion of a certain jolly resident of the North Pole, or market capitalism from incentivizing a growing red-and-green presence starting in early December. Some of it is right on, like the decked-out Christmas trees that occupy the front of major department stores. Some of it is slightly off, like the Chinese translation of Christmas as Shengdan Jie (圣诞节), which literally translates to “Holy Birth Holiday,” but might also be confused for “Santa Holiday.” And then there is the downright funny appropriations, like the balloon-and-stilts payaso Santa I came across in one of Kunming’s main public squares. Cobbling these images together in a coherent manner seems at once forced and yet inefficient in capturing this unique collage.

I’ve gotten into the habit of going to a nearby Cantonese restaurant on not-just-Saturdays to indulge in dim sum, and catch up on some reading on my Kindle. The food is delicious, the location is convenient, and the clientele is exclusively Chinese. I found myself heading there, thinking about how best to describe the holiday experience. Busy as always, I walked into the restaurant, and couldn’t help but smile: my familiar servers were buzzing around, carefully balancing little delicatessens on bamboo steamers, all the while wearing Santa hats and moving to Jingle Bells. In Chinese, of course.


Another kind of fieldwork…

Inside these buildings you can do interesting fieldwork as well!

Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote in this blog. Probably because my to-do list was full, but then by looking at recent posts from my fellow Grad Life bloggers, I can see my summer was not that original: Erik and Crystal also gave us their insights about doing fieldwork and attending academic conferences. While I’ll keep my stories about the conferences I attended for another post, here is a little about my experience with fieldwork, which was a little bit different than Erik’s. After all, when talking about fieldwork – and especially from Erik’s picture – one can imagine collecting data from an actual field… Well, being in management, the definition of going to the field can vary a little. (more…)

Yet more fieldwork!

Ah, the joys of field research. Driving out under a blue sky through the rolling hills of the Eastern townships, it’s hard to think of a better way to spend a work day.

Genetics at work! Two cultivars distinguish themselves in my experiment at the LODS agronomy center.

It’s the many days like this I’ve spent over the last two years that make me feel lucky to be in field research. Although agricultural fieldwork is often the subject of spirited complaints, I don’t think I could survive without it. (more…)

Field season report #2: the research

Now that the “oooh, aaaah” part of my field work is out of the way, let’s talk research, shall we?

My PhD work is a component of a research program called the Northern Biodiversity Program. It involves several professors from several universities, about a dozen grad students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a multitude of private and public partners.  The word that must best describe a project of this scope is: “collaborative”.

col·lab·o·rate  (k-lb-rt)intr.v. col·lab·o·rat·ed, col·lab·o·rat·ing, col·lab·o·rates

1. To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
Although we all share the same overarching objective, our personal research goals and areas of specialization are quite different. On this trip to the Yukon, I traveled with: an arachnologist studying spider population genetics; a hymenopterist doing biodiversity inventories of wasps using molecular techniques; another arachnologist interested in the distribution and life history of a species of pseudoscorpion; and another hymenopterist working on parasitic wasps and their caterpillar prey.  Me – I study beetles.
Our sampling methods and research questions essentially had zero overlap, with the exception of the locality: it’s what brought us together for this particular field trip.  In a nutshell, it meant five different types of critters being targeted for sampling/collection using five completely different methods in five different habitat/terrain types.
This is the kind of situation that has serious potential to turn a group of nice, sane, rational adults into cranky, snarly, whiny ass-pains. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen. It’s very easy to get all “ME ME ME” in the field, wanting nothing more than to spend all your time basking in the glow of your own beloved study subjects, and getting royally snarky over any time “wasted” on other people’s work.
Happily, this is not what happened on my trip.  I have proof:

Happy campers, L-R: Barb (wasps), Katie (spiders), me (beetles), Laura (wasps and prey), Chris (pseudoscorpions). Photo by Chris Buddle.

Field season report #1: the beauty

Yours truly at the Arctic Circle - km 405.5 of the Dempster Highway

I’m back from my adventures in the breathtakingly beautiful Yukon territory, and can now proudly claim to have survived a trek up and down the infamous Dempster Highway!

The science was awesome and the the team I worked with was incredible, but first I just want to share the tourist-ey bits of my trip.

We landed in Whitehorse late on on Sunday evening; by noon the next day we were equipped with an SUV, RV (i.e., transportable lab space), groceries and protective gear (it’s bear country after all!) and were on the road with Tombstone Territorial Park as our goal for the first night’s camp.

The caravan heading north from Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway


If science is cake, then this is the icing…

I can honestly say that I love 95% of my work, 95% of the time. Doing Science makes me feel happy and satisfied, and I can’t imagine doing anything else as a career.

That said, if science is my cake, then this is the time of year is the icing on top – it’s field season! Elsewhere, I’ve chronicled some of my Arctic adventures from the past two field seasons, from my first incredible summer living in Kugluktuk (for example, here and here) to my stay in beautiful Yellowknife last year. This summer, my research will take me with a small team to the Dempster Highway, in the Yukon.

Photo by Chris Buddle, used with permission

I’m excited about this for a few reasons, the first of which is that, after this summer, I will have visited every province and territory in Canada. I think this is pretty neat. Second, according to my advisor, the Dempster is the most beautiful place on the entire planet to visit. From his photos, I have to think he’s not exaggerating. (more…)

It’s time to pay my dues

Me, catching bugs in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. I'm thinking the whole thing is pretty awesome.

This is my sixth term as an Entomology (that’s the -ology of insects) PhD student at McGill, and I’ve been awfully busy. I’ve given my first departmental seminar, submitted my thesis proposal, survived my comprehensive exam, taught three terms’ worth of labs, and finished writing a book chapter. (I’m tired just looking at that list!)

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I also managed to squeeze in two field seasons in the Canadian Arctic.

I’m the first to admit that doing field work in the far north is pretty sexy stuff. I get to travel to gorgeous remote regions that most people will never get a chance to see. I spend my days driving an ATV over wide-open tundra, setting traps and collecting specimens and keeping an eye out for grizzly bears. I see cool things like muskoxen, the spring thaw on Coronation Bay, and the midnight sun. I get to meet beautiful, friendly people; sometimes I get to go bug-hunting with local kids.

Even when it’s cold and rainy, my ATV gets stuck in the mud and I discover that a reckless caribou has run through my trapline, it’s still full of awesome.


Scar-Butt the Baboon

 So no one tells you when you start field research the plethora of horrors that are awaiting to hamper, or completely usurp, your productivity. Below I will tell two of my favorite incidents that occurred this past summer while I was conducting my field research in Uganda. I hope this will give you, my awesome cyber-audience, a taste of the trials and tribulations that being a grad student is all about.

Incident 1: The elephants. When people think of elephants in their mind’s eye, it is usually as an intelligent, gentle, and altogether harmless creature. Well, they’re not. In the region I work, the elephants raid crops for food and are therefore attacked quite viciously by the villagers, whose entire lives depend on their land. The resulting relationship between humans and elephants has digressed to one of war: when one sees the other, all bets are off. (more…)

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