Training Program: Conservation Technology



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Quick Facts

Program Background
 

Phones are smaller, lighter, lower-energy, more waterproof, and have longer lasting batteries today than ever before. Across the globe, technological advancements with clear commercial applications garner the most attention from the best engineering minds, and innovative solutions are continually generated for a wide range of puzzling problems. However, to date, the field of conservation has not received such a significant investment of time, effort, and skills, despite being in critical need of innovation. 

Several organizations are out to correct this (ConservationX Labs, Rainforest Connection, RESOLVE), but there remain a great number of problems that have not been addressed with new or adapted technologies. Even in areas where innovation is presently occurring, having multiple groups tackling these obstacles can only accelerate and improve the solutions.

For field biologists in the Amazon rainforest, this is a particularly relevant phenomenon. We work with some of the most unusual species under some of the most challenging circumstances. Often, the specific problems that we encounter are those that very few people face, making them even less likely to be addressed by current commercial entities. 

Our solution? To set up our own engineering team to a focus on the particular challenges and obstacles that we face in our research programs. 

The goal? To use new and adapted technologies to make field biology more efficient, less labor intensive, and safer for wildlife. 

Explore the projects that our team will be implementing in 2021 in the tabs on the left, and join us if you enjoy a challenge, have shop skills, and consider yourself  “clever with your hands.”

LoRa Communications Network

Our team will be utilizing a long range, low power wireless platform called LoRa, developed by Semtech and utilized by the Internet of Things as their platform of choice. We plan to wire our study area to be able to listen to sensors placed within them, including those on animal-carried collars, remote animal censusing devices, smart traps and others. Such technology has been extensively tested in open environments such as the African savannah but suffers range-restrictions in the Amazon where the signal must effectively travel from sensor to receiver through a meters-thick solid wall of wood. Our goal is to find and test systems that can overcome this barrier and still effectively communicate a signal.

Left: The LoRa Base station during prototyping. Here we can see the various components – an SD card reader, a GSM module, OLED screen and of course the LoRa module and antenna. Right: Handheld units to quickly test LoRa range. This device acts both as a transmitter (sending out its GPS location) and receiver allowing for quick analysis of range and reliability of the LoRa network.

Wearable Animal Trackers

The “Biscuit” is a low-weight, low-cost tracker that can function on a single coin cell battery for several months. It is designed to fit on a tamarin, in a collar weighing less than 20g with batteries included. It’s also designed to resist the efforts of tamarins and their tamarin friends from ingeniously picking it apart or destroying it in some way. It will communicate via LoRa to let us remotely track our long-term study subjects for the first time.

It’s big sister, the “Cookie” is a device under construction that will be adaptable to placement on mid-sized mammals. Mostly, it will use the same “brain” as the Biscuit, while increasing its battery life, varying sensors, and possibly improving communication ranges. Other potential improvements under consideration include powering via solar panels.

Remote Animal Censusing

The “Naturechip” is an all-in-one camera trap, RFID tag reader, and weigh scale. It will be deployed in several use cases, beginning with tracking the microchipped primates in the study population. Typically, the wildlife handling team spends several weeks manually monitoring up to 11 sites at once to record primate habituation to baited sites. By modifying the Naturechip we plan to automate this process into a system that will alert scientists at camp at the arrival of the groups to each site, the ID of the group, as well as record detailed images for later analysis. This will free up our team to expand to new sites and operate with a smaller footprint. But the potential for this device is virtually limitless – one or more of its components could be used in long-term monitoring sites globally. One of the goals of this research program is to investigate other use-cases.

This is our remote animal monitoring device: motion-triggered and with the ability to read pit tags (RFID tags), measure weight in 2 separate compartments, take a photograph, and send alerts out through the LoRa network.

Noninvasive Sample Collecting

Some of the least studied mammals in the Amazon rainforest are unknown to us because of their cryptic nature. One does not get to track them or habituate them as easily as one can with most primates, for example. For them, we have to get clever. Our goal is to develop molecular tools to assist with population monitoring along with our partners, but to do so, we need to establish reliable ways of sampling from a single individual in the wild. Today, we can test for armadillos or tayras in general, but we cannot easily say how many of each exactly are present in an environment. This requires a single DNA sample, from a single animal, reliably collected and analysed before degradation in tropical environments.

Enter the hair snare – a simple, low-cost device that animals rub against, painlessly depositing a few hairs, after which the device will seal off the sample to keep it separate from the next such animal. By placement of “smart” snares at varying heights, accompanied with differing scent-lures, we will explore how to collect from cryptic animals such as tayras, capybaras, peccary, armidillos, etc. Our list is intentionally broad, because this has never been attempted on a large-scale before in the region. Who will come by? Only time and the inventiveness of this team will tell!

Smart Trap Technology

Broad-scale animal monitoring for wildlife health or biomonitoring is often restricted because safe animal handling standards require the frequent checking of trap lines. Often, days go by with no success, and the manual effort expended on trap monitoring is extremely high. We are developing systems that we can attach to existing hardware that will make each trapping event quick and efficient. Each trap will alert scientists a distance away, allowing them to quickly and efficiently process animals, as they are captured. Traps will also receive modifications to hold animals for a short period of time and then release them (in the case of small rodents and marsupials), then sealing off the entrance to protect fecal and hair samples deposited noninvasively inside. This will allow us to expand the area covered each night, reduce stress on animals, improve screening efficiencies and achieve project goals in a safer and more consistent manner.

Skills and Training

If you join this program, you will develop the following skillsets:

  • Design and improvement of smart traps for biosurveillance
  • Development of techniques for increasing the signal range of LoRa communications networks
  • Passive animal monitoring technology: assembly, maintainance and deployment
  • Data pipeline development for sensor produced data
  • Daily expeditions into the rainforest for sensor deployment and checks
  • Presence at mark-recapture events where animals will be tagged with tracking devices
  • (Optional): Write operational software in ArduinoIDE/Java
  • (Optional): Prototype your own field deployable sensor

Who we are looking for:

  • Participants who enjoy puzzles and welcome a challenge, since most of what we are attempting in this program has never been attempted before at this scale.
  • Participants with shop skills and technology/programming experience will enjoy this program
  • If you like to build things, innovate, solve puzzles and invent technological or programmatic solutions to problems, then this program is for you.


We are currently recruiting participants with the following qualities. If you are uncertain if you are eligible, don’t rule out this program, contact us to confirm.

Minimum Requirements:

  • You must be at least 18 years of age by the time the training program begins (no upper age-limit)
  • A letter of recommendation from a source that can substantiate the participant’s experience and skills
  • A vaccine to COVID-19 (see FAQ below for details)
  • Participants must be in good physical condition, with the capability to walk 4 miles a day
  • Due to the nature of the work and weather constraints, participants must be willing to be flexible about their weekly and daily schedules
  • Technical skills of some level are essential (woodworking, PCB assembly/programming)

Preferred Requirements

  • Participants must demonstrate a grounding or strong interest in zoology, biology, or conservation technology
  • Previous field experience is not required, but never hurts.
  • Participants must be willing to move from workshop to field components each day, with occasional bouts of solely field or workshop sessions as needed.
  • Participants can expect flexible schedules that are dependent on the weather and the success of deployment of each type of technology.

Who We Are

This project began in 2009, and the primary investigators working on it currently are Ishaan Raghunandan, Mrinalini WatsaGideon Erkenswick, and Gustav Steinhardt

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Apply online here. You will need a CV/resume and two references.

2. Once we hear from your references, we will schedule an interview with the principal investigator of your desired project

3. If accepted, you will be notified within 1 week

4. Upon acceptance, gain student access to online training modules to get prepared before you arrive.

5. Turn in medical info, vaccination record, liability waivers, etc.

6. See you in the field!

All start dates could be delayed 2-4 weeks if it is significantly more likely that participants will be able to get vaccines by that time. This decision will be made in the Spring, with final dates decided April 15. 

DO NOT buy flights until April 16 and the program dates are confirmed.

We will not take more than 1 week’s reservation fee at the time of recruitment.

*If a program postponement occurs and a participant could no longer join on the revised dates, we would refund all fees paid up to that point, minus a 1.5% credit card processing fee.

Learn more about FPI and COVID-19 HERE.

While you may not yet be eligible as a priority group to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the rollout is accelerating with President Biden recently announcing availability for all adults by the end of May. Meanwhile, each state has its own plan for who should get vaccinated first. Eventually, you will be able to get one through your doctor’s office or local pharmacy as you would a flu shot. 

 
We recommend checking with your local health department for current eligibility where you live. The Vaccine Finder website is also an excellent resource for finding vaccination locations, and the NYT has this map to show information by state. Also remember that with Johnson & Johnson collaborating with Merck to produce their single dose vaccine (which was only recently approved), the availability will continue to increase. 

In the end, our programs simply don’t happen without our participants. If you are unable to get vaccinated in your state before your start date, we can accommodate by moving your start later so you will be able to undertake this travel safely. This is an ongoing conversation, and we want to help rather than exclude anyone. We know that the uncertainty is hard to live with –for both you and for us– but we will figure this out together.

To assist you, we will start offering bi-weekly office hours to discuss vaccines, travel planning, and program preparation. The dates are as follows. 

Wednesday, March 10th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday, March 24th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday April 7th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday, April 21nd at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday, May 5th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday, May 19th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
 
Email info(at)fieldprojects.org to get the Zoom meeting link.

If FPI cancels a program due to complications related to COVID-19, participants would receive all but 1.5% of fees already paid. The 1.5% represents the credit processing fees charged to FPI for accepting online payments.

If a participant cancels: 
 
Because we block your spot and potentially reject other applicants based on your being on the team, cancellations can affect team recruitment quite strongly. Nevertheless, we do recognize that circumstances sometimes demand cancellations – so we do the best that we can, given the restrictions we are under. 
 

Canceling for reasons not related to COVID-19: 

  • 30 days or more before your start date: 45% refunded
  • Less than 30 days from your start date: no refund is possible
If you have extenuating circumstances, or applied closer than 30 days to your start date, please contact us. 
 

Our cancellation policy specific to COVID-19:

  • Before May 1st, if you cancel for a COVID-19 related reason, you will get all payments refunded, minus a 1.5% credit processing fee.
  • After May 1st, FPI will have paid a large portion of your program fees to our field station partners, who provide your accommodations and meals the entire time you are on site. This means that those withdrawing due to COVID-19 after May 1st will be refunded all fees paid minus 6.5%. This portion is retained solely to cover our own credit processing fees, as well as the bank fees incurred by our partners at the Los Amigos Conservation Hub in Peru. 
PLEASE NOTE: Those canceling due to COVID-19 will be asked to provide documentation or a doctor’s note

Yes, but it would have to be approved by your university, who will also bill you for the credit hours. If approved, there is also an additional $250 fee that serves as an honorarium for the FPI senior scientist mentoring you through this project. From there, it is just a matter of coordinating between your university mentor and the FPI researcher.

In order to train our research teams, it is necessary that everyone arrives on specific start dates. However, for some programs we are able to provide multiple start dates in order to accommodate the varying schedules of our research assistants. Note: this is not offered for all of our programs, so please pay attention to the specific start times for each program.  If you REALLY cannot make a particular start date, don’t abandon hope – email us and we can do our best to accommodate you!

There are pretty firm minimum requirements for each program (3- to 6-week commitments). These are firm because each research assistant must be trained, during which time the data they collect cannot be relied upon entirely. Anything less than the minimum time is deemed insufficient for the research assistant to contribute real data to the project. However, for most programs, you are welcome to apply for stays that are longer than the minimum period – in fact, we really do recommend and love it when you do!

Our courses have fewer enrollment requirements, and we strongly encourage anyone to apply. The research assistantships are more competitive, and there are fewer positions available.

You absolutely can apply to both a field course and a long-term training program if the dates will line up! In fact, if you are accepted into the long-term program you can attend a field course for a lower fee (typically a $400 discount)

No, you do not need previous research experience. These are training programs designed for participants at all levels. It can be hard to acquire field experience, so we balance our teams with veteran researchers and those new to the world of field research. We seek bright and enthusiastic candidates with the right temperament to work in this challenging environment. 

The cost to participate includes lodging and all meals at the field station, transportation between Puerto Maldonado and the field station, specialized training for candidates accepted into the program, and the provision of equipment and supplies necessary to conduct this research.

A large majority of the fees paid to our training programs cover lodging fees charged by the host field station. Importantly, at the Los Amigos Biological Station lodging fees not only support the cost of running and maintaining a remote field site, but contribute to the larger mission of their parent NGO (Association for the Conservation of the Amazon Basin) to protect conservation areas, monitor deforestation, maintain wildlife corridors, and more.

We are now able to offer a peer-to-peer fundraising program for research assistants. Once accepted, you would be able to create a shareable profile on our platform. This is a team-based initiative, so half of your raised funds will go toward your own program fees, while the other half will go into pool to be split evenly among all program participants who had at least 5 donors. More details will be available during (and after) your interview. If you require help with the cost of the program, there are other options that you might pursue as well. You could start by contacting the Office of Undergraduate Research of your school, or request professional development support from your employer. Here you can explore what is available through your college/place-of-work, as well as through external funding sources. Many universities have SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) programs, which may provide stipends for students to pursue independent research. Please note that if you do find any kind of research-related funding — as many RAs have in the past — it will need to be applied for in conjunction with us, on research projects that we approve. In this case, one of our principal investigators will consult with you about developing a project that is feasible.

All participants are required to show proof of medical insurance before joining us in the field. Many travel insurance providers can assist with emergency medical coverage and emergency medical evacuation. Be certain that COVID-19 is covered in your plan. 

Some candidates may have an opportunity to win a grant that will fund their research assistantship site fees and travel. However, the grant requires them to submit a research proposal. If this is your situation, we may be able to work with you on a proposal. Contact us at info(at)fieldprojects.org and we can help you structure one. We cannot accommodate completely independent projects, but we can assist you with finding a subset of our samples or data that has not yet been full used, which you could develop further with supervision.

Yes, you can. We do not give co-authorship for collecting data alone, but we offer interested students the opportunity to work on data analyses after the summer research program, that could lead to co-authorship in the future. Many of our former field team members have gone on to become research collaborators.

The first signs of suspected symptoms or a temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit should be reported immediately to the field station managers and FPI senior scientists. They will have protocols for isolating symptomatic guests, arranging viral testing, notifying those you have been in contact with, and evacuating you to the nearest hospital if necessary. (Note that travel to a hospital and any care there is at your own cost; make sure your insurance policy covers this.)

The nearest healthcare facilities are in Puerto Maldonado, which is approximately 4-5 hours downriver from our field site. In that city, there are private and public healthcare options. The private facilities are more expensive (one of the reasons we require participants to have travel medical insurance), but they will likely be able to treat patients faster if public facilities are full. 

The second option would be in Cusco, which is approximately 10 hours by car from Puerto Maldonado. There are more clinics in Cusco than Puerto Maldonado.

*While everyone will have their temperatures taken upon arrival by an infrared thermometer, we strongly suggest that participants bring their own thermometers in their first-aid kits, and check themselves daily.

According to the U.S. State Department website, you must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 3 calendar days prior to boarding a flight bound for the United States, and sign an attestation confirming this. The test must be either NAAT (nucleic acid amplification tests such as PCR or LAMP), or it can be a viral antigen test. These tests reflect your current status, whereas an antibody test does not.

Currently, we recommend getting a molecular test at a clinic in Lima (molecular tests are currently not available in Puerto Maldonado, only rapid antigen tests). We recommend getting a molecular COVID test at UniLabs, located in Miraflores (about a 35 minute drive from the airport in Lima). You must purchase the test online, then they send you an e-ticket for confirmation. These tests cost around 145 soles (~$40), and the results should arrive within 12 hours. Plan on staying in Lima for one night  to assure you get test results in time for your flight.

The field station’s safety protocols apply to everybody: staff, researchers, guests, and visitors. 

For every new person arriving at the field station, the science director will go over the COVID-protocol with them personally and explain to them about the mandatory use of face masks, hand sanitizer, table seating, and social distancing. There are planned spaces equipped for maximum distance between people. 

People living or travelling together in a group for more than 14 days can share the same table at the commissary and will be treated as a “grupo de aislamiento,” keeping distance from other guests or groups. Room service and/or separate seating at different tables will be arranged for all others.

The field station also practices “cuarentena laboral.” This means that there are separate working areas, and you will be expected to avoid using workspaces and equipment that is designated for other individuals or groups. 

Regarding the 14-day quarantine for all visitors in Peru, travellers are able to quarantine at their final destination if they get there within 24 hours after landing in Lima. The field station where we work can serve as this site, as they meet all government-approved COVID protocols, and have the capacity to maintain social distance between all visitors.

Our Peruvian partners who operate the field station can optionally send an additional ‘letter of invitation’ in Spanish, to be shown at customs, which states that the field station will serve as a quarantine location. To receive this letter, let us know well in advance. They can personalize the letter, send it to you electronically, then you can print it at home before travelling.

Negative tests are not an official requirement for those arriving at the field station, but a strong recommendation. Researchers from different institutions and others who are not affiliated with FPI also use this field station, and while temperatures will be taken and screening questions will be asked of everyone, there is no guarantee that an asymptomatic or presymptomatic person won’t be present. This means that masks, social distancing, and other detailed protocols are especially important. In addition, this is why we are strongly pushing for all participants to get vaccinated. 

Our enhanced protocols in laboratory or wildlife handling situations are designed to meet or exceed scientific best practices. They are drafted in conjunction with our Peruvian partners (Conservacion Amazonica), Peruvian authorities (SERFOR) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) of our affiliate research universities. Broadly speaking, they will involve strict use of face shields, N95 masks, and gloves. Participants will receive a detailed procedures pamphlet prior to departing for the field site, and may be required to complete a short online training on our website.

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