Meet a Field Biologist: Interview with Dr. Mini Erkenswick Watsa

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In the minds of many people, the life of a field biologist can be overly romanticized, assumed to be exceptionally perilous, or sometimes even thought of as superfluous or escapist.  Of course, none of these notions accurately capture the experiences of those working in the field. For anyone interested in this type of career, FPI’s co-founder, Mini Erkenswick Watsa recently did a short interview for Colorado State University’s Zoology Club, which dispels some of the misconceptions about field biology while offering insight into the motivations behind her own scientific pursuits. The Colorado State Zoology Club has graciously let us reproduce the article below. – Ben Lybarger

What is the most challenging aspect of working at a remote field station?

To me, personally, I think the most challenging aspect has been to be organized enough to have everything necessary for our work to go off smoothly, given that so much is unpredictable – the weather won’t cooperate, people fall ill at random, and the monkeys, despite being the size of squirrels, can outwit you all the time. However, the bigger challenge is one I expect has nothing to do with being in Peru specifically. We typically work with a team of about twenty people, and when you have that many people closeted together in the rainforest, working days that begin before dawn and end at 9 pm, tempers can get frayed and things that we would normally ignore can become blown out of proportion. So the hardest thing to me is to keep everyone working together, in harmony, despite the fact that everything they own is probably wet and moldy, their appetites have doubled and so they are always hungry, and they are convinced that they have just contracted some deadly disease in the jungle.

That being said, I wouldn’t swap this job for any other in the world.


What is the most interesting or unique behavior you have observed while out in the field?

This is a tough question to answer I’m afraid, because I strongly suspect that what I deem to be fascinating might not be terribly fascinating to everyone. But I’ll give it a go nevertheless and hope for the best! This specific instance come to mind:

One day in early 2010, my team and I were out following a group of emperor tamarins (Saguinus imperator), which are tiny mustachioed monkeys known for their cooperative breeding systems in which all individuals in the group participate in rearing the young of the main breeding female. In general, these are pretty peaceful animals and no major struggles of dominance are known to occur in their societies, particularly in comparison with animals like baboons or macaques. However on this particular day we witness a scene so gory it has stayed in my mind for years. The first thing to happen was this: one of the field assistants we were with stepped on a hive of wasps and they immediately swarmed her and started to get stuck in her hair and clothes, as they are wont to do. Once we established that they were stingless, we left her to rid them from her person, grumbling and cursing under her breath. Suddenly though, she called out to us and fearing the worst we ran over to her, only to behold a remarkable sight. Two emperor tamarins were wrestling with each other on the ground, completely oblivious to three large human observers a mere 5 feet from them. Two other animals had come low in neighbouring trees and were whistling and calling from about 3 feet off the ground. The fighters were so absorbed in their tussle that we were able to film them and observe them from close quarters for some time. When they finished, finally, we noted that both were females, and one had literally scalped the other. There was blood everywhere, their pristine white mustaches were red in color, and still, the smaller of the two fighters continued to follow the larger one around uttering begging vocalizations. Over the years we have learned that these arguments arise when a female disperses from her natal group and tries to enter another group – the dominant female in that group is often vehemently opposed to the idea and makes her feelings known. It was one of the most exciting and traumatic experiences of my life. We never encountered the group again and I have always wondered if she ever did succeed in surviving her injuries and entering the group.  I guess we’ll never know.

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What advice would you give students who are looking to go into field work?

Field work encompasses a great variety of activities, and so my first piece of advice would be to try everything. If you are not certain of the host system you would like to work with, then explore everything from insect to bird research. You will notice that each has its peculiarities. For example, primate research can either be only physiological, in which samples are collected from animals for processing in a lab, or it could be behavioral, which involves full-day follows and some of the hardest work in the field. Plant researchers wander long distances, and amphibian researchers do all their work at night. Figuring out if you are interested in diurnal or nocturnal work, large or small scale work, sample collection and preservation, or even 3 day to 3 month long projects is crucial to helping you decide what you would be happiest doing. One of the best ways to do this is to take a field course in tropical biology, because it’s a good way to try everything out. That is also a shameless plug for opportunities Field Projects International offers – but in all honesty, it’s a great way to approach the question of whether this is right for you. Once you have some idea, then my last piece of advice would be to never, ever get attached to one place or one organism. The simplest way to burn out and become disinterested in your own work is to focus on the where and the who instead of the why. I always advise my students to pick an interesting question to answer before they pick their species of interest and their field site. If you’re not interested in the science, then your field work will become mechanical – so find a question that so gets under you skin that you can’t sleep at night for want of knowing the answer. Then you’ll be well on your way to happiness.

What do you believe is the most rewarding part of your job?

I am so very fortunate to do what I do. I’m able to fill the shoes of an academic, while keeping my hand in in the field at the same time, and that is a luxury not many people have at all. I’ve intentionally stayed away from formal academic positions in order to give myself the flexibility of continually learning in the field. When I’m in the rainforest, what’s not to love? I get to work with inspired and curious students from all over the world, watching them change in a mere 2 or 3 weeks from having conversations dominated by talk of school or sports to passionate arguments on conservation ethics or documentary film making. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. When I leave the field and return to the urban jungle, I’m able to drown myself in data, exploring burning questions and working with students to answer them. I greatly enjoy the team work and camaraderie that goes into running a successful research season followed by a flurry of activity in the lab.

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What does a typical day look like for you?

When I’m in the field, my days are radically different than when I’m at home. While I’m in the forest, I wake each morning either before dawn or with the calls of duetting titi monkeys and I jump right into work. These days involve long hikes, chasing monkeys, and observation of behavior from a variety of vantage points. In the evenings, once the animals are asleep, I spend my day helping to transfer data into electronic files that are backed up in triplicate. By 9 pm, I’m in bed – sleep is never more important than it is here.

Back at home, I spend my time managing the NGO Field Projects International and writing up research. Occasionally I teach courses at Washington University in Saint Louis as well. I wear the hats of lawyer, accountant, administrator, and marketing specialist (to name a few), and confess that I spend a great deal of time in front of a computer. Keeping in touch with over a hundred alumni scattered across the globe is no easy task! Still, I’m reassured by the fact that I’m never more than 4 months away from my next field adventure.


What do you believe is the biggest held misconception surrounding primatology or tropical field biology?

This rather depends on whose perspective you take, but in the broadest possible sense, I often get asked these questions/encounter these statements that make me wince:

      a.) “You’re so lucky! You get to travel so much for your job!”

Actually, travel is really, really hard. Ever tried to find a cat sitter for 3 months? Or attempted to clean a house that has been the playground for your cats for that long? In all seriousness, I feel like people envision a job that consists of airplane rides from one tropical beach town to the next, where I spend my spare time sipping on cocktails and enjoying the surf. In reality, I travel to one or two specific places every year to do a job, I eat less than stellar meals at a field site at which refrigeration is a luxury, and I work 16 hour days at a minimum. There are no cocktails involved at all, and certainly no beaches.

      b.) “I could never do what you do. I can’t live with all those insects crawling over me and it’s so dangerous!”

This is a common complaint. I think that people that live in urban jungles think of living in the rainforest as something quite beneath their exalted standards of hygiene. In reality, in the rainforest you would spend more time paying attention to your body and its cleanliness, monitoring bites and aches and pains, because you live in a world where staying healthy is paramount to survival. The true insult they are levying when they make this comment is that the people who live in the rainforest, and yes, PLENTY of people do, are somehow exotic freaks who are either being forced to, or endure unimaginable hardships no decent person would want to encounter. In reality, women are giving birth unassisted in these rainforests. Children are raised and educated in these forests. People have successful jobs, they work hard, and they reap the benefits of their work in these rainforests. I am merely a visitor and I need not be complimented for doing (possibly badly) what others do daily just because my job takes me into their world for a few months.

      c.) The final misconception is the nearly constant implication that I am somehow getting out of “real” work, escaping a world of 9-5 desk jobs with irate bosses and grumpy co-workers, and thus, I should be somehow grateful for these great sacrifices that others are making so that people like me can “have fun at work.” I would strongly suggest to people of this mindset that they consider what the true meaning of their jobs really amounts to. I have no opposition to working at a job that you are good at in order to support yourself – whether you are desk or forest bound. However, conservationists and field scientists deserve as much or more respect for doing their jobs, even though they may not appear to be quite so serious or structured, because there’s a pretty good chance that they are doing the most important job of all – keeping this planet in homeostasis so that others can continue to live in cities without facing drastic changes to their lives. I do admit though, we’re probably failing – we can’t protect resources faster than they are being used up.

What was it that inspired your to study monkeys, specifically tamarins, above other animals?

When I was an undergraduate at Grinnell College, I discovered one day that Ph.D. programs don’t cost anything to attend – in fact, they paid students a small livable wage. Having gone into serious debt to afford undergraduate education, there was no way I was going to put my parents through any more, even though I’ve always (and still do) wanted to be a vet. So I began to explore alternative ways to working with animals – after all, I didn’t need to join a career that thousands of people had – all I needed was one job for me to do, and I would do it well. So I joined an anthropology graduate program, although I would probably have been equally happy in a zoology or wildlife biology program. There I stumbled upon the phenomenon of genetic chimerism, unique to callitrichids, which include both the tamarins and marmosets. I knew what I wanted to study, and so I set about finding an appropriate study system. It didn’t matter to me where I was or which exact species I worked with. While I do think that the monkeys I study are terribly good-looking, it was the science that drove me to work with them.

  • If you would like to learn more about Mini and her work in the Peruvian Amazon, check out these links:

Mini Interview