FIELD Experience: Sebastián Ramirez Amaya

Editors Note

We tragically lost Sebastian in a field accident shortly after the conversation below. We have chosen to include it here, with his family's permission, as his kind and thoughtful perspectives are as important now as ever. More of his lasting positive effect can be found here and here.

Who are you?

My name is Sebastián Ramírez Amaya, and I am currently an international student and a PhD candidate in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, USA.

I grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, and soon after receiving my bachelors degree in Biology in 2012 from Universidad de Los Andes, I started traveling around the world to study the behavior and the ecology of wild primates. Over the last 9 years I have lived in six different countries covering three different continents and sharing field sites with hundreds of people from all over the world. I have spent altogether around ~ 45 months in the field at remote sites: San Juan (Colombia), Tiputini Biodiversity Station (Ecuador), GMERC - Issa Valley (Tanzania) and at Ngogo (Uganda).

What is your favorite field food?

It is Chapati and beans, with Guacamole, coconut milk-pumpkin puree and on the side a Tupperware with fresh chopped red onion, green peppers, garlic and tomato.

Tell us about your field work

I currently work at the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project field site, in Kibale National Park, Uganda. I study the social relationships of adult male and female chimpanzees. I am interested in assessing whether males and females form social relationships with each other, and if they do so, in investigating the nature of such relationships. Are these mainly aggressive, affiliative, or a combination of both?

I love that here at Ngogo we are truly surrounded by chimpanzees. We follow two communities of chimpanzees that live in ~ 35 sq. km. There are over 200 chimpanzees here.

The biggest challenges of Ngogo for me were: Initially, learning how to ID and keep track of so many chimpanzees, and later, being physically fit to keep up with the chimpanzees. Ngogo is very hilly, it is probably the most physically demanding field site I have worked at. On average I would say we walk ~15km a day, going up and down several valleys, grasslands, swamps etc.

How does your identity interact with your field work?

I will first provide some details of my identity and then I will relate it to fieldwork. I am a very curious person and I have always enjoyed being outdoors and spending time with animals. I believe it's the latter that made me a curious person but it could totally be the other way around. I spent most of my childhood on a farm, so I was surrounded by lots of animals and I was always running around. That curiosity is what I think led me to study biology. I was fascinated learning about all the different forms of life, how it works, how it came to be.

I think fieldwork has contributed to shaping my identity as an adult. I have learned lots of lessons from spending so much time in the forest. Two main lessons I can think of right now: First, I have learned to be at ease when being on my own. I have learned how to be patient, relentless, confident, and the value of hard work. In moments when I am not collecting data I have also learned to enjoy many different hobbies. Woodcarving, cooking, and playing the piano —- I now carry around a foldable electric piano that I can charge via USB anywhere.

Second, I have learned how important it is to share life with people when not alone. This is probably something derived from growing up in a very tight and close family. Although my family and I have lived in different countries for a long time, we always find time to keep in touch and communicate often with each other. I value interacting with people, I value friendships. In the field I have often had to share a lot of stuff with people I have probably not met ever before. It goes beyond just sharing things, I think being social and sharing your day to day experiences, and of course having someone that you can cooperate and work with, makes life much easier and enjoyable.

(How) Is your identity recontextualized in this field setting? In other words, do you experience your identity differently at home vs in the field, and if so, how?

I believe I am the same person at home and in the field. I am a welcoming person; I try to always be aware of who I am sharing a space with. For example, at home there is always a place at my table for anyone who wants to come and share a meal. In the forest I like cooking and sharing food with everyone.

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

I think one of the toughest challenges is keeping in touch with my family and my loved ones. I don’t like it when phone signal and connectivity are limited for extended periods of time.

Other challenges I have faced are related to learning how to tolerate people that you don't have much in common with. The way other people interact/engage with, for example, local staff that is on site to help you with daily chores, is a very sensitive subject to me.

How have you overcome these challenges?

I think by learning how to listen. Taking some time to think and reflect, and analyzing the bigger picture rather than speaking your mind in the moment have been key to overcoming these challenges.

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

I think it is important to invest time in yourself when in the field. I would suggest having an activity that you enjoy and can do on your own. Music for me, is that safe space where I can take a pause from everything else that is going around me. Develop hobbies that are not related to collecting data nor depend on someone else. I have found a healthy balance between collecting data but also finding time for leisure and resting!. Books are also very important. Make sure you carry a book that is not related at all with work. I read lots of novels when in the forest.

Resting is also VERY important. Sleep well, find time to rest. Have consistent bedtime schedules. If you don't sleep well your body will give up at some time. A tired body will get sick easier and will make you lose motivation to work.

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

My field experience has made me aware of topics such as diversity, equity and inclusion by relating, living, and working with people from all over the world. From local field assistants that have opened their homes to me, to professors, project directors, and even local politicians.

I have witnessed and experienced discrimination, lack of equity and exclusion at many different levels. A few times from people that I work with, but most of the time I am a passive witness of these when I realize that most of the people I work with whilst in the field have not had the same opportunities that I have had in my upbringing. For example, lack of opportunities to access formal education, which for me implies that people will have to endure situations where these “rights” are compromised (e.g., work extra hours, not be properly compensated, no access to health insurance, etc.). There is no immediate solution to these. To solve these issues changes in local policy are required and this is something so foreign to me that is beyond my current expertise. Instead, what I try to do (and this is something that I am really aware of as of 4-5 years ago) is to try and be a more fair human being, advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion in everyday scenarios with the people that I work and live with.