FIELD Experience: Kayla Kolff

Who are you?

Being part Dutch and Kenyan, I grew up for most of my life in Kenya. During my childhood we often went on safaris with my family, and each time I was amazed by the different animals we spotted as we tried to catch sight of the Big Five (lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, elephant, and the buffalo). From a young age, I adored animals and initially wanted to become a vet to help save them when they were in need. However, after attending a career workshop when I was in high school and hearing what the life of a vet is like, I realized that performing surgeries was not for me. Despite this, I still wanted to devote my career to animals. During my bachelor's in Liberal Arts and Sciences, I recognized that there was the option of studying animal behavior, which I went for and this ranged from observing red firebugs to zoo-housed gorillas. I am currently a PhD researcher at the University of Osnabrück studying the communicative interactions in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in relation to the origins of human language. More specifically, I focus on turn-taking (argued to be a precursor and underpinning of language) interactions in adult male chimpanzees. My interest in chimpanzees stemmed from my master's when I observed zoo-housed chimpanzees at Royal Burgers Zoo (The Netherlands) and Leipzig Zoo (Germany) and I wanted to learn more about them, but this time in their natural environment. So, I was fortunate enough to meet and observe the Western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) at the Tai National Park, part of the Tai Chimpanzee Project. This experience broadened my view of chimpanzees and their behaviors which helped me with the opportunity to continue working with wild chimpanzees but now with their Eastern counterparts for my doctoral research.

What is your favorite field food?

My favorite field food is chapati with bean sauce. Reminds me of back home in Kenya and my childhood when my mother prepared a similar meal for lunch or dinner.

Tell us about your field work

I am currently located at the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project at the Kibale National Park in Uganda. Being here is a wonderful experience where you get to be fully immersed in the experience, surrounded by so many wild chimpanzees in their natural environment. Of course, it is mentally and physically demanding. Kibale National Forest is full of hills that either gradually incline or are very steep, and especially when following the chimpanzees up these hills, it can be challenging to keep up with them. Of course, one major thing that I miss from the outside world is the various options of food. From my experience so far, a scary but exciting moment I had was each time I encountered elephants on my way from/back to camp. Once, together with a field assistant Diana, we encountered a group of about 15 individuals including calves. It was quite an extraordinary moment to see this entire family, while maintaining our distance to avoid alarming them.

How does your identity interact with your field work?

I have had some experiences where I was treated slightly differently because of my gender being a female. I got the impression that often I was not listened to compared to other male researchers when I was out in the field compared to being back home. Thus, I push myself to become more out-spoken compared to how I usually am. Also, being in the field, I try to put myself out there more and socialize compared to the outside world, as you frequently encounter people in the same space.

What identity-based challenges have you faced in the field? How have you overcome these challenges?

I am very family-oriented and try to visit my parents as often as I can, but whilst being in the field, this is not the easiest option. So, any chance I get, I try to stay in touch with my family to keep each other updated. I often enjoy having time to myself, where in the field it might not be easy to do so, or you might come across reserved. However, being in the field, it is important to balance time for yourself and time spent with others, which is something I have learned how to balance. Hence doing things you enjoy doing during the time you have to yourself is also essential, like reading a novel or watching movies. I sometimes have a short attention-span and often need change or variation, which is a challenge in the field (of course depending on the field site, health regulations, and with the current pandemic), where it is not so simple to leave for a short bit and return back. So, it is easier staying at the field site until you depart or take a well-deserved break, where either way you have something to look forward to, e.g., visiting a new environment or returning back home and sharing stories about your field experience to others, plus treating yourself to good food and the luxury of civilization.

What advice might you have for someone preparing for a similar experience?

To go into the field open-minded with little expectations and to try enjoy the experience to the fullest despite the hardships one may encounter. Not only is your physical health important, so is your mental health. In the field, it is much easier for unpleasant situations to get to you, so it is also important to care for your mental health and to support one another. Another vital activity is taking rest and breaks, as it is important to stay healthy and fit in the field.

How has your field experience influenced your perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion?

From my field experience, my personal view is that field sites and environments have become much more diverse, where people from different backgrounds, genders, universities, and academic phases come together and frequently interact. However, based on individual differences, I believe that people do not necessarily receive the same treatment or opportunities as others, which I think still needs attention. One aspect that I believe that contributes to inequity and exclusion is favoritism, where certain people get chosen over others based on certain individual differences (e.g., backgrounds and cultures). Here it is key to appreciate each other’s differences. So, in the realm of inclusion and equity, I believe it is still an area that needs further awareness and more advocates.