Blog: Where Am I Now? An RA’s Journey!

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Where Am I Now?
By Dan Brubaker

Back in 2012, when I was a research assistant for Think Elephants International, I wrote a blog post about how I ended up working with elephants in the Golden Triangle of Thailand.

Now, two plus years after my time with TEI, I’m working at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta as a behavioral specialist (more on that in a minute). I’m also applying to an online master’s program in science writing.

Dan1

Proof of my time with TEI

If you’d accosted me when I first landed in Thailand and asked me where I thought I’d be in 2015, I don’t know what my answer would have been. But I assure you it would not have included the words “science writing.”

For someone with interests in behavioral evolution, communication and linguistics, I was under the impression that my future would require earning a PhD, landing a professorial position, and churning out top-notch research for the rest of my career. I blame this ignorance in part on myself (1). But I also blame this ignorance on the university environment (2).

What do I mean by blaming the environment?

I mean that when your formal exposure to science and research comes from university professors, the PhD path can seem like the only path. But it’s worth recognizing that—apart from the associate professor who was denied tenure and regrets his career choices—the professors you encounter reside in the camp of success stories. They’re going to push you to follow in their footsteps, if for no other reason than that it worked for them and it’s the path they know best.

Now, before I go on to talk about TEI, I want to make one thing very clear: It’s easy to look back on the previous chapters of your life and see how one leads into the next—how X obviously led to Y, and Y to Z. Hindsight is delightfully skilled at threading disjointed chapters into a nice little narrative. But when you first arrive at point X, I’ll bet you arrive there with future plans—not of attaining Z or even Y, but of reaching G. And it’s only after experiencing X that Y emerges as the blatantly obvious next step. Looking back, G just sounds ridiculous. We like to forget we even considered it.

It’s useful to know this about hindsight. Don’t be afraid that taking detours and exploring side paths will leave you looking like some directionless fool at your next job interview. By that point, you’ll be able to see the big picture; you’ll understand how one experience led to another.

The truth is, I wouldn’t have moved to Thailand if my wife (then fiancé) hadn’t moved to Thailand. Sure, I also probably wouldn’t have boarded that plane had I not known Dr. Plotnik was based in the Golden Triangle and had I not already known him personally. But make no mistake, the lucky coincidence was that TEI existed, not that my wife was also living in the country. TEI wasn’t even a blip on my career-path radar.

So how did an experience—one that I only had because I moved halfway around the world to be closer to a loved one—reroute my career path?

That’s a great question. Let’s see if hindsight can help me answer it.

Dan2

A different kind of hindsight

The first point I’ll make is that this was not a typical research assistant position. For one, Dr. Plotnik treated us more like graduate students than RAs. It wasn’t just data entry. Working for him in this position gave me a greater sense of what I could expect as an MS or PhD student. Returning to the XYZs I mentioned earlier, some aspects of my experience with TEI (let’s call it X) gave me enough exposure to PhD work (let’s call it G) for me to realize that maybe G wasn’t for me.

Want another reason why I think ‘research assistant’ was a misnomer? This wasn’t a position held at an American university. This was international non-profit work. It’s a different rule book with vastly different goals. Sure, there was still the research side of things. But the other half of TEI’s conservation mission comes through education. I was just as much an education assistant as I was a research one.

Part of TEI’s education work involves raising general awareness of the elephant’s plight: the land struggle between humans and wild elephants, the tourism market for those elephants in captivity, the booming ivory trade. But education also comes from the research itself.

It became so clear to me that it’s one thing to carry out important research, to find answers to questions, and to share these answers with other academics in our respective fields. But scientific discoveries deserve more. Sharing new information through journal publications is great, but it assumes that the information is only worthwhile for those who actively seek it.

Academic journals neglect audiences who can’t access their publications; either financially it’s not a priority, or professionally they can’t sort through the jargon-laced analysis. Academic journals neglect audiences who would find their publications interesting if they only knew they existed. And worst of all, these journals neglect audiences who won’t seek out their publications but absolutely need to hear about the findings within their pages.

Someone needs to take up the torch and relay research findings to broad audiences in terms they will understand. Good science writers do this. They can help the public access and learn about topics outside of their areas of expertise.

Think of science writing as a tool. Used correctly, it can help us assemble research findings into common knowledge. It can help us dismantle misconceptions. But using it haphazardly can also be dangerous. Press releases may exaggerate results; they may fail to mention a study’s limitations. An explanation of a complex concept may grossly oversimplify things.

So while we need science writing, what we need even more are people who know how to use it safely and effectively. We need people who understand how research works and have a knack for communicating it clearly—liaisons between scientists and the public.

TEI allowed me to practice wielding this tool, bringing our research findings to general audiences, both orally and in writing. In day-to-day interactions with tourists, I had to figure out how to explain our experiments in plain English. By writing posts for this blog, I developed a voice and style—a way to keep readers engaged while walking them through a problem or specific study.

Working for TEI was one of the most informative experiences of my life. Whether intentional or not, Dr. Plotnik helped remove the binoculars from my eyes. No longer was my focus on the world of academia—what had seemed like the one and only option, looming large and right in front of me. Suddenly, I could see other career options and better appreciate the distance between where I was, where I am now, and where I think I want to be.

After leaving TEI and returning to the U.S., I worked as a writer and producer for a small media company in Atlanta. My blogging and education experience with TEI helped me secure that position, at least in part (3).

With some professional writing experience under my belt, I was keen to reenter the world of animal behavior and communication. So I jumped at the opportunity to return to Yerkes (the research facility I’d left to move to Thailand) to work in their behavioral management department.

My job now has me working alongside a team of behavior experts and animal trainers. I spend my days observing primate social behavior and immersing myself in relevant research. The end goal? Making life as natural and comfortable as possible for the animals that are enabling scientists to make medical breakthroughs with research on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, HIV, malaria, addiction, aging, and more.

Dan3Photo Credit: Yerkes NPRC

I’m hoping to enroll in my first formal science writing course next summer. This new job and the plan to return to school part-time, this is my new X. It’s too early for me to tell how wrong I am about where I’m headed. But that’s what makes this whole career journey interesting. I’m just going to continue taking steps in directions that seem to make sense. I’ll let hindsight tell me they were the right steps to take.

 
(1): …largely because it seems like the grownup thing to do
(2): …because it’s easier, and I’m only 27
(3): Full disclosure: I already knew the company’s CEO—once again reinforcing this trend in my life whereby leaping from job to job has required tugging on my social network, like some sort of career-driven Spider-Man.

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