Sunday, September 28, 2008

Pitching a Tent (no, really)

As some of you may remember, some time ago Adam and I were considering what kinds of tent to bring with us.

I’d had bad memories, remembering struggling to erect a metal-pole tent when I was camping in the Pacific Northwest. If I love my technology so much, why can’t I have a technological tent?

We did indeed decide to go with the Nemo Morpho AR tent -- revolutionary for its LACK of metal tent poles, opting instead for very sturdy, durable air-poles. That’s right -- tent poles made from AIR!

(I swear, we’re living in the future!)

Not wanting to be behind the times, or caught unawares, while we were over at Shimin’s house putting things in her fabulous basement, she offered us her front yard in which to pitch our not-so-proverbial tent.

A good indicator of the field it was! I sat in a mushroom and browned my pants. We stirred up some sort of hungry, bloodthirsty colony of mosquitos. And Adam almost stepped in deer poop.

But the tent worked great! Not only can it be inflated and deflated from the outside, but it can be inflated and deflated from the inside too!!

Oh no! Trapped inside after foolishly over-deflating!

Adam bravely comes to my rescue.

It’s a two person tent, but we all three sat inside quite comfortably! (though it was very hot)

We're all so green!!

...JUNGLE green!

Adam looks especially cute while he’s pumping it up!

Sadly, picture instead of video fails to capture the booty shake he did inadvertently while pumping up the tent poles.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Silver Lining

I should mention, however, that I got a phonecall from Tom Gillespie today at Emory (the primate parasitologist) regarding my PVA-query (this was obviously before I discovered the closet full of red tape).

Not only was he incredibly nice in answering my questions, but he took additional time and asked me really thorough questions to help me formulate my tangential hypotheses.

I will probably be analyzing my samples next summer at his lab at Emory too. The good news was so invigorating and thrilling to hear -- I am trying to remember what that felt like before my phonecall to Fisher Scientific and subsequent frustration.

On Stress and Bureaucracy

I’m overwhelmed. I handle stress well usually, but I need my five minutes to freak out. And right now, my freak out is bleeding into everything else.

Choosing between formalin and PVA is becoming less and less of an issue, because, according to the US government, PVA is a hazardous material. Even in its modified, no-mercury state.

It means that I’m a unabomber, as far as Fisher Scientific is concerned --

After numerous transfers and phonecalls with Fisher, I discovered that they wouldn’t ship my two-vial parasitology kit to me because of its PVA content. But I could contact a local distributor and see if I can get it from them.

Now, here’s where the ridiculousness comes in ... the distributor calls Fisher, who calls Remel, the makers of the kit. They drop ship it to Fisher, who ships it to the distributor. Who ships it to me, who will already be in the f&$king Congo.

I called Remel directly to see if I could bypass some middlemen, but they won’t ship to me either because they’re FDA regulated. You’d think I was ordering cyanide!

I got a call from the distributor, who was definitely very nice and trying to help me, telling me that Remel was OUT of the two-vial collection kits anyway. They wouldn’t have any more until Late October.

That puts me SOL. Absolutely.

I’m a problem-solver, surely. I told him to please check on the individual single-vial kits -- one for 10% Formalin and the other for modified-fixative PVA and then I’ll just take 2 cases instead of 1 case with 2-vial sets. Right?

I haven’t heard back from the distributor yet (I’m hoping to hear tomorrow) but I’m crossing my fingers.

I’ve got friends and contacts all over, who’ve been supportive and might hopefully be able to get me out of this multi-situational pinch.

If I don’t have collection vials and preservatives, I am really going to be screwed. I realize I have very little time left to go. There is always the option to forgo the protozoa and just do the helminths (only use formalin and not PVA) but it’d be nice to have the full spectrum.

I just feel like I’m constantly being reminded that the system is not built to accommodate people like me -- everything is rigged under a system of Umbrellas. Students are usually under the umbrella of a professor or researcher, who is under a University Umbrella, who is under some sort of Huge Corporate or Government Umbrella.

And I’m just getting rained on, with no recourse.

Cross your fingers for me. 9 days and counting.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

PVA Yo Momma!

General Pre-Post Disclosure:
Adam and I understand that the bulk of people reading this blog are not scientists. While the purpose of my portion of the trip is primarily to take samples for my thesis research, the heavy/dry science side of the trip is not the primary focus of this blog. The experience of traveling to Congo is by far the more exciting topic for the average reader, but in the spirit of accuracy, posts like this one are somewhat necessary too!

Preservation of poop is just as important as preservation of accuracy of what doing field science is all about! Feel free, of course, to skim, but note my helpful dandy links too!

I’ve worked in a genetics lab (loved it) and I’ve been in the field collecting poop before -- for paternity/DNA analysis -- but I’ll admit, I’ve never done primarily parasite work and I’m a bit out of my element.

Of course, it’s not like it’s easy to figure out yourself. And now that my IRB proposal is 90% done, I have to decide on a firm choice for my field faecal collection protocol. Once you submit your IRB, you can’t really change it without resubmitting it for re-approval.

My previous experience has involved storing faeces in silica beads or ethanol, so after pouring over the protocol supplied to me by the very experienced primate parasitologist I met at IPS in August, I discovered that a) silica/ethanol wasn’t going to cut it and b) I needed to start over with my thinking process.

There’s nothing quite like being humbled back to your scientific roots, but it’s all part of the process.

I mean, I thought silica was complex! It comes in all these different meshes and what-not. Silly me.

So I’ve been researching the process of formalin-preservation, as well as its complement, PVA (polyvinyl alcohol). Science is very much about repetition. Buffered formalin is preferable for the preservation of helminths, while PVA is the top choice for the preservation of protozoa. Ergo when you take samples, you take two samples and put each in a separate tube. Same poop, different preservation technique.

Seems simple enough, right? You’d think you can just buy some Falcon tubes and some chemicals and be on your merry way!?


Seems that most fecal collection materials are sold almost exclusively in kits. Kits! Sounds easy! Right?


The kits do seem inordinately expensive though not unreasonably so (all lab materials are, in my experience, inexplicably expensive). But the PVA seems to come in several mixes -- varying viscosities, contents, etc. I’ll admit that I had to send off an email to ask what kind of PVA I was aiming for!

It’s sort of nice to get pre-buffered formalin, though. At first, I wondered whether there would be a huge difference depending on whether I buffered it with milli-Q water versus standard DeIonized/Distilled water. Or how I’d get any of that out in Aketi!?

Until email reply, I leave myself just a few hours less until I need to have everything together.

I am also triple-dipping on my samples and buying some Whatman FTA cards and doing onsite smears to catch any potential bloodborne pathogens and give DNA information to any other researchers who might need it, as some have already expressed interest in having access to my samples for DNA analysis.

And just to reassure any worried advisors/readers reading this post, most of the milling in thought of protocol has been happening for several months now, but since I am down to the end, I must actually make a decision and go with it, hence the post now. Hehe.

It might be nice, not being up at 4:15am, Thomas-Aquinas-ing all my research choices.

And right now, I have only 10 days left.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Yay Visas!

Adam got the news today -- our visas are official -- stamped and French, and most importantly, done.

One less thing to worry about! Tomorrow, discussion of the process of getting IRB approval as I muck through the self-taught course, "How to be a legitimate scientist"

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Visa.... Can't leave home without it

Well yesterday was an adventure to say the least.

I was trying to get our visas yesterday in downtown DC. After getting everything together, I hopped on the metro for the embassy. The website I looked at said it was at 1800 New Hampshire Ave NW. I got there only to find the building empty and abandoned. WTF!!!

I went to a hotel half a block away and they said they were located at 17th and M st. So I walked there and tried to find the embassy. But I couldn't seem to find it, so I went to the National Geographic Museum nearby. I asked them "Where is the Embassy of Democratic Republic of Congo?"

They told me that the embassy moved to 16th and Colorado, like 40 blocks away. I took a cab there and discovered that the embassy was the Embassy of the Republic of Congo, not the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So I called the number that Laura gave me, which was the number for the Democratic Republic of Congo Embassy. They said they were going to close in like 20 minutes but that they would wait for me. I took the cab to the address they gave me, which was a half-a-block away from where I was before at 17th and M.

I got there and gave them the paperwork. They said for payment they only take money orders. So I ran 2 blocks to a liquor store. I tried to pay for the money orders with Laura's check card, but they said they only took cash!!!!!

I ran another block to an ATM and withdrew $190 for the money order. I ran to the liquor store, then to the embassy. When I got there the guy told me to relax and that he was waiting for me. He then told me that I have enough money for one person, not two. He says he will wait for me while I get another money order.

I go to the ATM, then the liquor store again and get the second money order. After that, I head to my friend's house, tired and sweaty, to play some D&D. How exhausting!

We should find out about our visa status tomorrow!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I am pretty excited about the trip. There is a lot of stuff we still get done but most of the prep is done. I got to visit my parents and my brother today. I threw the football with him all afternoon. I was so happy to spend time with him. Also it was nice for Laura and I to have dinner with my parents last night. I would like to thank all the people who came out to our parties, either in Maryland and New York. It really meant a lot to us for you to come. If we don't see you before we leave, we will miss you and see you when we get back. Anyways, we are in the final stretch with our tickets and preps. I can't wait for this trip!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, September 11, 2008


We went to the Ethiopian Airlines office today to "verify" my credit card, and finally got our tickets issued!

We leave October 4th! Can't believe it's finally all in motion!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


View Larger Map

We've had some funny dialogue with friends as of late about sending us mail while we're away. They're astonished that they're unable to, because they cannot fathom a place without mail!

So here is my attempt to chronicle the remoteness of Aketi.

Cleve said to me 2 weeks ago, "I'm so excited you're coming! I'll send a guy out to clear the airfield!"

Yes, they need to re-clear the airfield, because it's been SO long since a plane has come out.

View Larger Map

As you can see from the Google map, Aketi is near a river, a road, and not much else. The "roads" are really glorified trails, and, during the rainy season, become impossible to travel on, especially by motorbike.

Buta, the town to the right, is travel-able in about a day. Points not along the thin line of road? A lot longer.

Cleve has gone up to CAR (Central African Republic) on the motorbike, along thin, pseudo-paths that wind through thick jungle and across swampy bogs. But it isn't easy!

Sure the Post Office pledges, "Come rain, come snow..." but nowhere in their motto is "Come bog, come jungle"!

And yes, it means too that there is no visiting this go-round!

Hope this clarifies :)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cleve and Mangé

As I mentioned previously, the Aketi Two has recently become the AKETI FOUR!

One of the dangers of starting a sanctuary or taking in chimpanzees is that, if you put an inadvertent placard outside your door, you will be swimming in orphaned chimpanzees in no time.

Cleve has already been offered 23 chimpanzees for sale in the last six months alone.

And, for those not in the know, Never, Ever, Ever pay for an orphaned chimpanzee. It sets a very, very dangerous precedent.

Baby chimpanzees should never been perceived to have a value, or it will encourage people further to slaughter their families and pull them from their jungle homes.

Mangé just arrived at Aketi -- as you can see, he is incredibly small. Cleve was not sure he would make it, but thus far, he is doing fine.

Wow! A Productive Day!

It’s the last day in Maryland for Adam and I before we go to New York City to say goodbye to our family and friends. We come back through PA and NJ to say goodbye to Adam’s family on our way back down on Saturday, and then have Sunday only before I go back to Johns Hopkins for 12 more days.

And our plane tickets are for October 4th!

The takeaway message here: there isn’t much time left before we have to go.

Thankfully, being in the JHU study and Adam leaving his job last month has actually left us with the time to go through the multitude of crap we’ve accumulated separately and together, throw 90% of it away, but 5% of it into storage bins to deposit in friends’ basements, and 5% of it into suitcases and ready to go to Congo.

It’s going to take a little bit of extra time, but we decided instead of throwing a bunch of stuff away that we’d donate it to Furniture and Goodwill banks -- Adam has hordes of old VHS tapes and 3 winter coats he’ll never wear again -- not to mention books that he’s outgrown, and we thought it’d be the better thing to do.

We officially know every piece of clothing that is coming to Congo with us. We made a list:


and tallied everything that went into the suitcase. According to airline regulations, we’re each allowed 2 32kg bags (~70 lbs/each bag) to check under the plane, and 2 smaller-sized carry-on bags.

ALL of our clothing is in ONE bag! For Two People! I’m really impressed with us.

More importantly, this leaves us with 3 other bags for our sundries. I’m also leaving extensive amounts of empty space in ONE of our bags, because it will allow me to carry my (fecal) samples back to the US and not worry about running out of space.

It’s a lesson I’ve only ever learned the hard way: If you overpack your bags GOING to a destination, where do you put all the crap you accrue while you’re there in the luggage for the ride home? :)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Expense of it All - Preparation Continues

Suddenly, our schedule is counting down days and weeks instead of months. How time flies!

And now that Adam and I are both not working, and just relying on study money and savings and “miscellaneous“ (parental donation fund), collecting our various Congo necessities.

It’s quite different for me this time, which I think I’ve mentioned before, because I’ve lived in various countries in Africa before, but never anywhere quite so remote.

In Entebbe, we could go up the road to ”The Indiscriminate Pharmacy“ as we called it, and get any sort of drugs we needed. Aketi is a village, not a town or a city. Buta, the closest town, is far enough away that I’d rather make my visits there less frequent.

There is also no guarantee that many of our standard ”necessities“ are available in Buta.

Ergo, we must bring everything with us. Pharmaceuticals? Chargers? Extra batteries/bulbs/hodgepodge? Yup, Yup, and Argh. Yup.

I’ve not bought stock in Ziploc, but I have separated all of our various needs into blanket health categories, like:


in attempts to provide us with our own little Western-quality pharmacy-in-a-suitcase.

But it all adds up.

Dear Cthulhu/<Insert Deity here>, why must you make me shell out cash now for drugs I might need when I have diarrhea 7 months from now?

Sometimes, life is cruel.

I’m also going to have to wean myself from the internet. Because while we’re in Aketi, we will be using a BGAN primarily for internet. The good news is that our NGO is
providing us with the actual hardware -- the potentially bad news is that we might be paying for some, or ALL of our monthly BGAN service charges.

The thing I am learning all-too-quickly is that everything having to do with the BGAN costs a helluva lot. It is, literally, a hefty price to pay for being connected with the outside world.

Do we pay $130/month and get only 20MB/month or do we spring for the ”big“ bandwidth and pay $500/month for 100MB/month?!

We’re selling Adam’s car, which will give us a bit of a bubble, but we’ve already paid $300 for a tent, and we’ve still got to sign up for International SOS ($300/person), get hiking shoes, and a sleeping bag!

I haven’t even had any children, and I’m already feeling like I’m hemorrhaging money!

(Time to call Bill Gates, maybe?)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

New Chimpanzee

Introducing now the AKETI FOUR!

Django Mayanga was recently confiscated and brought to Aketi. He is apparently from Bili, and is currently being nursed back to health.