FIELD Experience: Sharmi Sen

Who are you?

My name is Sharmi Sen and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I was born and raised in Kolkata, India and did my undergraduate studies at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali. I am currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan. My research broadly examines life history traits and social behaviors evolving under sexual selection in non-human primates. I am the first person in my family to obtain a postgraduate degree, to move abroad for a higher education, and pursue an academic career.

I began fieldwork when I was in my second year of undergrad, starting with a fellowship from the Indian Academy of Sciences where I worked on a project examining sloth bear occupancy in northern Karnataka. Prior to this, I had never done fieldwork and didn’t know that there was a field of scientific research that entailed long term monitoring of animals in the wild. In the next few years, I worked in Bandipur National Park where I assisted a Ph.D. student in collecting behavioral data on vocal and gestural communication in bonnet macaques. This was my first fieldwork experience related to primates, and I knew instantly that I really enjoyed stalking monkeys! As I began learning more about primate research, I began to appreciate how multifaceted Primatology was - what started out as a discipline in the behavioral sciences in early 1950’s had now incorporated interdisciplinary approaches that involved endocrinology, genetics, genomics, social networks, epidemiology, conservation, wildlife management, etc., to study the lives of our closest living relatives and better understand our own evolutionary history. After finishing my BS-MS, I decided to pursue a PhD in Biological Anthropology in the US with a particular focus in getting an interdisciplinary training in Primatology that was not available to me in India at the time.

What is your favorite field food?

One of my favorite dishes from my fieldwork in India is idli - a quintessential south-indian dish but very much present and liked in all parts of the country. Idli is a steamed rice cake that is usually served with different kinds of chutneys (or sauces). As an undergrad doing fieldwork in remote areas, idli was also one of the more affordable and easily available food items. I remember having idlis for days at a small stall run by an old lady during my first field stint. Since this was in a town in northern Karnataka, bordering Maharashtra, she spoke both Marathi and Kannada. I only knew a few phrases in Marathi and didn’t speak Kannada at all but I always remember how enthusiastically she responded each time I spoke to her in broken Marathi. She made fresh fluffy idlis everyday with a variety of chutneys and steaming cups of filter kapi (coffee) at her breakfast stall. People (mostly men) on their way to work would stop by early in the morning to grab breakfast. This was my first time being in a completely remote town where I didn’t speak the language so I was still trying to get the hang of it all. But I remember that this lady was always super sweet to me, her only regular female customer, and she would always talk to me asking me about my day, making me feel at ease.

In Ethiopia, my all-time favorite meal is ful - another breakfast dish that is made up of mashed and spiced fava beans and is served with bread. During our monthly trips to the nearest city, Gondar, we would stop at the Tele Cafe - a cafe that was right at the city center and was a good spot to meet up with friends and colleagues while running errands. Tele Cafe served the best ful in Ethiopia - in my opinion. Trips to Gondar were few and far between, so anytime when I was able to visit the Tele Cafe, it was super special!

Tell us about your field work

For my doctoral dissertation, I have been working at the long term field site of the Gelada Research Project which is located in the Simien Mountains National Park in northern Ethiopia. The long term project consists of an interdisciplinary group of researchers from three different US institutions that work in partnership with the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority to answer questions related to the behavioral ecology, cognition, development, and high altitude adaptation of gelada monkeys. This research has been ongoing since 2006. The Simien Mountains National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and we are extremely lucky that we are able to live and work inside the national park. Our field station is located in Sankaber campsite where we study 19 groups of gelada monkeys spread across two different parts of the park. Over the past 16 years, we have followed the lives of hundreds of individually known animals – each replete with their own drama! During my time in the field, I followed around 15 units where I would collect data on the behavioral interactions of dominant leader and subordinate follower males, collect fecal hormone samples to measure testosterone and glucocorticoids in adult males, and fecal DNA samples from infants and males to assess paternity. I’ve always found fieldwork as a great way to reflect and meditate about life. I feel really privileged to have lived and worked in places that are truly remarkable. In the field, you get to measure your existence against everything that surrounds you - you are no longer the protagonist anymore and with every passing day, you are made aware of other forms of life thriving around you. Everytime I am in the field, I am reminded of all the unique ecosystems that exist in the world that desperately need to be protected; I am humbled by the vastness of nature that surround me, reminding me of my place in the world; I am awestruck by the absolute darkness that descends every evening when there are no city lights or traffic noise to interfere, giving me the rare opportunity to look at the breathtaking starlit sky.

In the past six years, I have mainly worked at the field site for the Gelada Project in the Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. As a person who already loved mountains and monkeys - when I found monkeys that are endemic to mountains, I knew I had landed something special! I remember applying to graduate school to work with my advisor solely thinking about the geladas and the opportunity to go see and study them in Ethiopia. I had never heard about the University of Michigan before applying, or even knew where Michigan was! When I got accepted into the Anthropology program, I remember that my friends and family were excited about my prospect of going to the “land of opportunities”, but I was most excited about going to see the geladas in Ethiopia. To this day, the highlight of my graduate career at Michigan has been going to Ethiopia and studying the geladas!

As far as primates go, geladas make the perfect study subjects. They are primarily terrestrial, which means you can follow them on foot for an entire day, and don’t have to crane your neck to find them on trees. They are very chatty making them easy to locate - in fact, we often hear them before we see them. And they live in the most majestic ecosystem, so every single time you take your eyes off the monkeys, you will always find a breathtaking view to gaze upon. Geladas also have a very easy daily routine - they are never up too early and make it relatively simple for us (gelada researchers) to have a normal schedule. This may sound like we are spoiled as field workers and there may be some truth in it! I always sympathize when I hear fellow grad students talking about how they wake up at 4 am to find their study groups or camp overnight at sleep sites to make sure they get data the next day! As gelada researchers, we are able to go back to camp each evening, cook a hot dinner, prepare for the next day, rest, and wake up at a perfectly reasonable hour in the morning to find our study groups slowly making their way up to the cliffs.

Apart from the geladas themselves, another reason behind why I love fieldwork in Ethiopia is our small tight knit community in the Simien Mountains. We live in a permanent campsite with our long term field assistants, local staff, and a few families of park rangers who have known the project since the very beginning. This community knows the terrains of the Simien Mountains as well as its history very well as they were born and brought up there. Our field assistants know our monkeys the best as they collect data from them almost everyday. Being able to rely on their knowledge, expertise, and friendship has been a huge blessing to me when I was doing my fieldwork.

Most of the time, people get intimidated by the physically demanding nature of fieldwork and although it can be challenging at times, I genuinely believe doing fieldwork does not rely on any kind of physical prowess or athletic fitness - which some people seem to think is a prerequisite. What is more challenging about fieldwork is that it is often dictated by a multitude of factors beyond your control! You need a massive amount of patience and mental fortitude to be able to say “OK, that didn’t work. Let’s try something else!” I found that as soon as I was able to leave my destiny in the hands of the “field gods” and not get frustrated by obstacles, I was able to enjoy the field even more. Although it did take me a while to get there!

For international researchers (especially from non-western countries), obtaining permits is a non-trivial task that involves copious amounts of planning and paperwork. During my field seasons in Ethiopia, I could not get permission to conduct my research as easily as other American researchers in the project could. As I was an Indian citizen, I always needed additional rounds of paperwork to get permits and approvals. Often this entailed waiting for months in order to get a piece of paper signed so that I can submit the next form, or unplanned trips to India to get documents approved from the Ethiopian embassy in New Delhi. For several international researchers from developing countries, seemingly run-of-the-mill tasks like obtaining a research visa or a permit, can be really nerve wracking especially when your entire project depends on it. It also made me realize how international collaborations lead to the dominance of researchers from the global north as it is much more difficult logistically for people belonging to developing countries to engage in fieldwork abroad and build those international networks (because of the power that their passports and respective institutions hold).

One critical factor associated with fieldwork that I never considered before I moved to the US was expenses. It was relatively simpler for me to do fieldwork in India - even though I did not have a salary in the field, I had a monthly fellowship (~95 USD) that covered my basic expenses. Learning how expensive doing fieldwork in well established field sites (outside of India) was a revelation to me. I’ve been lucky to find funding at the right time for all of my field trips to Ethiopia through grants and fellowships. Had I not received the monetary support through these funding bodies, I would not have been able to do field research as a grad student. Raising funds to conduct fieldwork was always a daunting task because my citizenship precluded me from applying to many funding opportunities that were otherwise available to American students. Although, now there are programs through agencies like the Leakey Foundation and IPS that specifically fund students from developing countries, these are still competitive grants and there needs to be more awareness about how citizenship can affect international students who move to get training abroad.

Another aspect of fieldwork that baffled me after I moved to the US was how field research positions (especially in Primatology) were inaccessible to a vast number of people. Most people apply for field positions to gain fieldwork experience and many do so without any prior experience - that was my case in undergrad too. I noticed that a majority of advertised positions for primate field sites are volunteer positions that ask researchers to pay their way to the site to be reimbursed later and also require previous experience in the field. Volunteers either pay out of pocket, or are able to use their family funds to support such research experiences, or have been assistants previously working with well established PIs in the West who use their network to support their application. I found that such an exclusive system provides opportunities only for the privileged. Especially in primatology, this is truly disheartening as there is no way a recently graduated undergrad from developing countries (that also happens to include most primate habitat countries) can afford such an experience. This seems to be the biggest challenge facing primate fieldwork today - there should be avenues to bring in, train and support more students from primate habitat countries so that we truly have a global research community. Unless we do this, we are only going to make primate research more and more exclusive.

Lastly, a hidden challenge of fieldwork that people rarely talk about is navigating social dynamics, especially conflict in the field. Fieldwork often entails learning to live with people you have never met before, working in an entirely different cultural setting than you are used to, making friends on the go, balancing professional and personal boundaries in an unusual setting. Being socially adept at navigating changing social terrains is also a challenge on its own.

How does your identity interact with your field work?

In India, my identity as a woman stood out as I navigated field sites in remote villages. Honestly, I was not that surprised to find that pursuing fieldwork for women (like any other career) is often laden with obstacles. What surprised me though was that it was not a one-off thing but an everyday battle. We need to constantly battle everyday sexism from all sides - from family, peers, local assistants, wildlife officials, and sometimes even professors! There’s always more negotiation involved if you want to do fieldwork as a woman. A man doing fieldwork is often thought of as being very brave for opting for unconventional career choices, passionate for being able to voice his opinion, curious, and resourceful for being able to figure out solutions to problems. Those same adjectives are not conferred to women wildlife researchers. Growing up in India, I was not completely unfamiliar with how everyday sexual harrassment and sexism plays out. I always had to be super vigilant while doing fieldwork and limited my social interactions - which was not ideal for my mental health. Another aspect of my social identity that also contributed to my experiences is my caste. I was not from an upper caste but I was also not from a lower caste either - so being in the middle brought its own set of privileges and securities.

In Ethiopia and in the US, I had to figure out how my identity changed based on different social contexts. Initially as a PhD student, I found myself struggling with this idea and would often get confused when I had certain interactions with colleagues and friends in the field. Being a researcher was my most important identity at the time, as pursuing research and higher education was what brought me to these spaces. But I later realized that that was a poor way to represent who I am, and indeed it is possible to hold more than one social identity at any given time. Since starting my PhD, I have been gradually learning how different parts of my identity constantly intersect with one another and how these social labels can change when you change the context against which you see them - as an Indian researcher in Ethiopia, an international PhD student in the US, as a woman living in a foreign country, as a brown woman in a predominantly white research team and institution, as a scholar from a developing country trying to fit into a US institution, as the only non-American in an American research team, as a first generation academic, as a person growing up from a working class family - all of these identities impact how I am seen in the world and how I interact with the world around me. And this list can grow based on my future experiences as well! As I continue to learn more about myself and how the world perceives me, I feel more prepared to face challenging social situations and call out problematic behaviors when I see them.

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

In India, one of the biggest challenges I faced was related to my safety. Sometimes when I look back, I feel shocked at how little consideration was taken about the safety of female students when we were sent to the field. There were no laid out plans, no safety guidelines, no policies against sexual harrassment, not even any kind of training on how to not put yourself in danger in the forests. Most of the time, we relied on a senior student or a researcher who had been out to the same field site and had prior knowledge. Depending on who you were working with, professional boundaries in the field could often be blurred and you could find yourself in unsafe situations. Although I was lucky in not having any jarring experiences in India, I have often heard from other colleagues how poorly such situations are handled at the institution level.

In Ethiopia, I came to understand and appreciate how intersectional my identity is. Within the same day, I would have multiple encounters that would teach me a little more about myself and the perception that people had of me. As I was the only non-American researcher most of the time at a place where all foreign researchers were either American or white, I often realized that I viewed things around me differently and our perspectives on a social situation would be entirely different. Whenever I encountered foreign tourists in the park, I would often get asked why can't I do fieldwork in India instead or where I was actually from if I told them that I was from the University of Michigan just like my peers. Sometimes it was really challenging navigating certain experiences with people that you had to interact with everyday and maintain a working relationship - especially when those interactions were discriminatory and biased in nature. But I think these same experiences helped me figure out my values as an individual. Although it was mentally exhausting at the time to live through those experiences, it made me stronger as a person.

How have you overcome these challenges?

Most often, my field related challenges have had nothing to do with the fieldwork itself but with other factors that directly or indirectly affected my ability to do fieldwork. This ranged from receiving funding rejections, juggling bureaucracy, to handling problematic individuals in the field. For the first two, I always tried keeping my eye on the prize - which was to do fieldwork. This allowed me to focus on my goal and pursue alternative options when something did not work out. The third challenge is more complicated and since it often shifts based on how my identity is placed in a certain social context, it is something that I still haven’t quite figured out yet.

Navigating conflict is messy, and most people tend to take the easier route which is to let things fester. When I was younger, I would have opted for the easier route as well to avoid conflict. But I have now realized that since there is really no way to avoid such difficult and/or awkward social situations in the field, it helps to engage in open conversations with respect, practice kindness, and acknowledge when harm has been done. I think when a team includes people from different cultural backgrounds, it allows people to learn from each other and practice how to respect as well as celebrate differences and similarities. Whereas when a team is fairly homogeneous, then the dominant culture (to which most people identify with) may dictate the social dynamics within the group. This can lead to clashing viewpoints, cliquish mentality, and a general apathy towards others. Even when there is homogeneity within the cultural backgrounds and identities of team members, there is always the possibility of conflict, as we are all humans.

I always find people’s first reaction to anything conflict related is to justify their behavior which causes even more distrust and miscommunication within a team. Different people process events and situations differently, so I give myself some time to really think about how and why something has happened instead of jumping to conclusions or reacting. And then I find ways to initiate a conversation. Although it is really hard to do this without getting defensive, I think communication is an important way to repair any kind of conflict especially when it is identity based. Another important takeaway about conflict in the field is to learn when to give up. Because it is entirely possible that people that you work with are not willing to engage in difficult conversations or even acknowledge a problem that they have created; in such situations, I have prioritized my mental health and avoided unnecessary social interactions. I always defaulted to fieldwork as an escape route to overcome all field related challenges. Being outside reset my brain and helped me relax. Spending all of my time watching the monkeys or birdwatching was one of the main ways I coped in the field. But whenever I felt like I was on the verge of a burnout, I spent time away from the field to give myself a break.

Another way of overcoming such challenges in the field is by setting up professional boundaries and expectations from the very beginning - I think then the conflict feels less personal.

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

I often get emails from undergraduate students on how to pursue field experiences in Primatology. As most field related jobs and positions in Primatology are for longer periods of time, created for people who either have the resources to support themselves while in the field, or already have prior field experience, first time applicants (especially from non-western countries) often feel discouraged from pursuing such positions. I think it's mostly important to remember that a field experience is a field experience no matter what you are studying. So I encourage students to apply indiscriminately when looking for field opportunities. It doesn’t really matter if you are watching monkeys or catching snakes or recording bird songs - at the end of the day, what matters most is that you know if fieldwork is meant for you! And that is something worth figuring out before you commit to fieldwork for the long term.

Most often people also focus only on the field part of a field experience and get intimidated by the physical challenges. But an equally important part of the field to be aware of are the social and mental challenges that come along with it. Getting data in the field is not always straightforward as there are multitudes of variables (that may not be even remotely related to your actual research) that will affect your work. There is also the social aspect of the field where you will be working with and living with the same people in close quarters and you don’t get to choose these people. Being socially adept, kind, and sensitive to the sensibilities of people around you is critically important.

Finally, the pressures in the field may vary from day to day and some days can be exceptionally challenging and/or exhausting. It’s really important to constantly ask yourself whether you are happy in the field - as there is nothing more important than your mental health - and ultimately allow yourself the space away from the field when you feel emotionally drained. It would also help a lot if professional societies mandated all fieldsites to have thoughtful set of guidelines in place to create truly inclusive spaces and hold researchers accountable for discrimination, bullying, and harrassment.

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

My field experiences have helped me see the problematic practice of scientific research not only in Primatology but also largely in the field of wildlife research. Recently, there have been many more conversations about increasing inclusivity and diversity in Primatology and in Biological Anthropology, however, such conversations are only meaningful if they are actionable and impact those who are affected the most.

For Primatology, even though our study subjects are widespread across the world and come from a diverse range of locations, this diversity is not reflected in the researchers that study primates. The predominant reasoning behind this has to do with resources. As primates are incredibly intelligent, it takes time and patience to habituate them before we begin to study them - a process that might take anywhere from a few months to several years. As they are long lived, it is difficult to get data from them continually without investing resources upfront in establishing a field site and setting up amenities to support researchers to collect data. Despite having rich primate diversity, primatologists from other developing countries do not receive the support or resources they need to run such long term establishments that are really expensive. Almost all well known long term field sites in Primatology are run by western researchers (predominantly from the US, UK, and Europe). I sincerely hope that in the coming years, we get to see more long-term field sites run and managed by primatologists from more diverse countries. This can only happen if the field at large consciously makes an effort to train more international students and provide real opportunities to those who are passionate about primate research.