Toxic Tours and Chimp Lasers
May 18, 2014 | by Elizabeth Wason and Susan Hutton
This is an article from the Spring 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.
Broadcasting on the radio in Guatemala. Tromping through forests in Uganda. We bring you the adventures of four students pursuing projects and fueling their intellectual curiosity outside the classroom and off the grid.
Caleb Vogt, Uganda
Last summer LSA sophomore Caleb Vogt spent five weeks living in a dome tent under an A-frame roof at the Kibale National Park in Uganda. By day, he went “chimping” — what LSA anthropology professor John Mitani and a handful of his graduate students call their method of hiking through the forest, observing chimpanzees. Approximately 200 chimps live within the park, and Vogt followed groups of 10–30 of them at a time with the other researchers. Vogt was in charge of documenting chimp body size to address the question of whether a chimp’s size relates to its social hierarchy in the troop.
“Whatever happened to be showing at the time — whether it was their face or their butt — I had to be able to recognize them,” he says. “For the first two weeks, I was getting it wrong more than I was getting it right. But it felt so good when I started to understand — ok, this chimp has a scar; this one has a notch out of its right ear.”
Vogt received a research grant from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) to join Mitani in the field. He strapped an unobtrusive and nearly indestructible video camera to his head as he trailed the chimps, filming everything he observed. Because electricity was limited at their field site, Caleb had to recharge his camera using car batteries, which in turn were recharged using solar panels.
Despite the limited power supply, Vogt and the research team used lasers as one of their primary field tools. They aimed a set of parallel lasers at male chimpanzees and snapped a photo once they had an unobstructed view. “There are certain trails that you can walk along and chimps choose to walk along, but 95 percent of the time, they’re going off the trail,” Vogt says. “They’re going through dense bush, and I’m crawling along after them, trying to get a picture of them with no obstructions.” Back at the lab, the known distance between the two laser dots visible on the chimp in the photo was extrapolated to estimate the chimp’s body size.
“It was a huge challenge for me to sit there and wait for them to cross my path in just the perfect way, for that two-second window to take the picture. I might go out for 12 hours in a day and get two good shots.”
Moving forward, Vogt wants to combine his chimp research with his previous UROP project studying the mouse vestibular system, which helps to regulate balance. Focusing particularly on field observations of the head movements of older chimps, Vogt hopes to identify links between irregularities in the vestibular system, imbalance, and falling events in elderly people.
“I think doing the project in Uganda made me realize that, as someone who’s interested in research, the fieldwork part of it is hugely important to me,” he says. “I know that you can learn a lot in the lab, and lab work will play a big part in my career. But I know that at the end of the day, I’m always going to look forward to the summers when I can go and collect the data for myself. And that was a big revelation for me.
“One of the really cool things about primatology and studying these animals is that we might not have them for much longer. We might make it out of the 21st century, but I’m not sure the chimps will,” Vogt says. “It’s going to be really important for us to collect these data on these chimpanzees, because future generations may not have the opportunity to study them. We need to learn all we can now, before it’s too late.”
Amy Mar, Detroit
Several times during her summer internship in Detroit, Amy Mar boarded the “toxic tour” bus. Her internship advisor led passengers such as LSA professors,high school students, and community residents through Detroit neighborhoods, pointing out urban industrial sites including the wastewater treatment plant, steel factory, power plant, and petroleum refinery. Mar saw a factory fence abutting one resident’s property line and petroleum coke (a dusty byproduct of oil extraction from tar sands) piling onto people’s porches. The toxic hazards were closer to Detroit residents than she’d imagined — literally in their back yards.
Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), Mar spent two months working closely with the Environmental Justice Program at the Detroit branch of the Sierra Club. “I had never considered environmental justice before,” she says. “My idea of it was nothing like what it turned out to be.”
Her internship focused mainly on grassroots organization and community outreach in three downriver areas of Detroit — River Rouge, Ecorse, and 48217 in Southwest Detroit, the most polluted zip code in the state.
One major outreach project, the White Cross Campaign, raises awareness about unusually high cancer rates in these communities and the link between environmental pollution and public health. White crosses are distributed to residents, who place one in their yard if a family member has been diagnosed with cancer. The extent of the disease is visible as the crosses line some city blocks; the scene facilitates conversation and illustrates the shared experience of many in the community.
“The work they do at the Sierra Club is very closely tied to public health,” says Mar, currently a junior studying biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience. After getting her bachelor’s, she intends to pursue a graduate program that will build on her environmental justice experiences. “I want to learn more about what’s going on in our local community, because there’s so much that is happening outside of the college bubble,” she wrote during her internship. “Reading about it is not the same as seeing it in action.”
Paul Stromberg, Guatemala
In the violent chaos of the Guatemalan civil war, radio was a savior to the indigenous populations experiencing genocide. Guerilla fighters in the 1980s and ’90s established temporary radio stations by hiding antennas in the mountains. They transmitted updates on the location of military forces, along with other news about the war.
An important guerilla radio program in these efforts was Voz Popular, and recordings of its broadcasts still exist.
Through the support of a Raoul Wallenberg International Summer Travel Award, history senior Paul Stromberg helped to preserve these taped broadcasts during his internship at an indigenous radio station outside of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Last summer, Stromberg digitized the recordings, working with veteran guerilla fighters and younger members of
“The purpose of the project was to digitize and categorize the tapes so they wouldn’t continue to deteriorate,” Stromberg says. “They were literally in somebody’s basement, because the government didn’t want them exposed. As I spent time with the veterans, they started talking to me about the importance of the historical preservation project and the importance of teaching their children and their children’s children about the genocide, because it hasn’t been discussed that much. The ex-guerilla fighters understood their role in the radio station as part of the arc of history.”
And the arc of history continues with the younger generation in the indigenous community. Stromberg taught local kids basic radio techniques, such as editing audio using computer software. Stromberg drew from his own involvement at WCBN-FM, the student radio station at the University of Michigan.
“I’ve listened to public radio since I was in the womb,” he says. “[This project] was kind of too good to be true.”
Salima Sewani, Alaska
When people think of hunger in America, they probably imagine homeless families or the elderly struggling to choose between prescriptions and groceries. Chances are, they’re not picturing the Inuit, the indigenous people who live in the arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. For the Inuit, food insecurity has complicated causes, and addressing them requires thinking about hunger from a non-Western perspective. It means more than filling in the holes in a food pyramid or on a plate.
Just ask LSA senior Salima Sewani, who assessed Inuit food security as a summer intern with Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) in Anchorage, Alaska, through the International Institute. “To the Inuit, food security means subsistence hunting and fishing that’s done in specific, traditional ways,” Sewani explains. “For example, they only hunt for seal over ice. They prepare the meat a certain way. They say particular words in their native language, Inupiaq, to honor the animal. They offer meat to the elders before it’s consumed. Every step has an important cultural meaning.”
The Arctic region in which the Inuit live is at the far edge of the food supply chain. Food that doesn’t emerge from the environment has to be transported there, creating, in effect, a broad food desert surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean, tundra, or ice. Not only does a gallon of milk cost $11 in the local grocery, but warmer annual temperature averages make sea ice less stable, killing the animals the Inuit have hunted for thousands of years.
Through her research, Sewani uncovered a connection between food insecurity and mental health — especially in relation to substance abuse and suicide in young Inuit men. “Climate change, modernization, and increased federal and state regulations are all factors,” she says. “In addition, many younger Inuit don’t speak the traditional languages. They were sent away to high school, and they don’t quite feel like they belong when they come back.”
During her internship, Sewani aggregated data from primary sources to build a way to understand food insecurity from an Inuit perspective. These data are part of a larger research project that ultimately aims to increase the Inuit role in policy decisions, such as federal and state hunting regulations. “Before my internship, I only thought of food security in the Western way: in terms of calories or nutritional requirements. But, as a scientist with an interest in advocacy, I saw the value in different kinds of data. I learned I might get a better understanding of an issue if I’m open to all of it.”
A neuroscience major and community action and social change minor, Sewani sees herself eventually attending medical school, where she can continue her work helping minority populations navigate the health care system while supporting their values.
“Sometimes doctors make recommendations in opposition to patients’ cultural practices — and, of course, they don’t work. I don’t want to be that kind of doctor. This amazing intercultural experience made me think about health differently, and it will help me to be a better doctor.”
To read more stories from LSA Magazine, click here.
Video by Katherine Barkel.
Photo credits: Thumbnail, courtesy of Caleb Vogt. First in-text photo, courtesy of Caleb Vogt. Second in-text photo, courtesy of Amy Mar. Third in-text photo, Corbis. Fourth in-text photo, courtesy of Salima Sewani.
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