On The Front Lines of Primatology With Alicia Rich | Vol. 3 / No. 39.4

Photo: Amit Patel, CC BY 2.0

PhD candidate and friend of This Week In Tomorrow Alicia Rich is trying her hand at community-funded science with a kickstarter-like campaign to fund research needed to keep protected chimpanzee populations genetically-diverse and healthy. In the interview below, she explains her research, the way funding works (and doesn’t) in the post-2009 world, and why she’s turned to crowdfunding her science. Read on, and please consider donating to her campaign, which can be found at experiment.com.

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So you’re a PhD candidate in anthropology, but some of our readers might think of that as the study of humans and human culture exclusively. You study chimpanzees. Can you explain bioanthropology briefly? What is it and how does it differ from other kinds of anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of humans, and anthropologists typically approach that from either a cultural, linguistic, archaeological (historical), or biological perspective. Biological anthropologists then typically try to understand human behavior and evolution by studying the human fossil record, modern humans, or our closest living relatives.

Primatology is at an odd junction on the fringe of biological anthropology, biology, and ecology. Some primatologists are more focused on using knowledge of non-human primates to understand human evolution than others. Because this is the way the field was born, most American primatologists operate out of anthropology programs. In Europe and elsewhere primatologists are usually categorized under wildlife biology. Being a primatologist requires that you become skilled at cross-disciplinary research, and you get used to being the odd one out in your program. We never seem to completely fit in with biologists or anthropologists. Primatology is also undergoing a shift toward more and more molecular, noninvasive techniques, which means that many of us have to become strong experts in both social and natural sciences.

How does funding usually work in the field?

Traditionally, PhD students in biological anthropology relied on major grants to fund their research. Many students were able to secure funds from the National Science Foundation, the Leakey Foundation, or the National Institutes of Health. Grants for biological anthropology PhD dissertations from these organizations may award as much as $15,000-20,000. Because many primatologists (like me) depend on long trips into the field to study primates as well as expensive laboratory analyses to study genetics, hormones, or nutrition, every bit of those research funds were needed.

We also often apply for smaller grants from organizations like the Indiana Academy of Sciences, the Animal Behavior Society, or the American Society of Primatologists. Awards from these organizations might be enough to cover a round trip flight to Africa or enough kits to extract DNA from a subset of the samples we collect.

Why are you turning to crowdfunding rather than more traditional means?

The great thing about this new crowdfunding movement in science is that it forces us to bridge that gap between the academic bubble and the general public that support us. My career started in a conservation education department at a zoo when I was just 14. After I left my job there for graduate school I never stopped missing that chance to educate the public about research and conservation. This crowdfunding project has rejuvenated my passion for conservation research, because now every step of the way I am trying figure out how to explain and relate what I am doing and why I’m doing it to my backers.

That’s the happy side to crowdfunding. The sad part is that it has emerged out of a science funding crisis in our country. I started graduate school in 2009, just as people were beginning to realize this problem. I was assured that my odds of securing $20,000 from the NSF to complete my large dissertation would be quite good. That was the first year, however, that the NSF’s biological anthropology dissertation grant funding-rates plummeted. These days the odds for anyone, even the best students in a department, are incredibly low. The only PhD candidates with much hope for major grants are those working in labs where their advisor has secured funds from the NIH or NSF for decades. The rest of us are often told not to even bother trying for major grants like that anymore.

One of the ways in which the NSF has tried to cope with their own funding crisis is to decrease the number of application and disbursement cycles each year. Now you only get one shot each year to apply for a major grant with them. If you are rejected you have to wait and try again next year. Unfortunately, the deadlines for each of the major funding agencies all tend to fall around that same time, so what often happens is that you apply for several major grants at once. Then you wait for many months only to find out that you were rejected by all of them. Even if you are awarded funds, the time between your application and your award will likely be at least 6 months or more.

The timing of waiting, applying, and waiting really started to slow down my work schedule. I would reach points where I could not move forward at all in the lab, because I still didn’t know if I was going to be getting more money soon. The nice thing about crowdfunding is that the researcher is back in control of the timing. It seemed like the only way I could keep my current progress moving forward without stopping again for another year, so I thought it was worth a try.

More about your work: what’s “connectivity” and why is researching it so important?

Imagine you work for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) or the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), and someone comes to you and says, “We just conducted a census of chimpanzees all over Uganda and discovered that their numbers are declining rapidly. We need to come up with a plan to save the chimpanzees we have right now,” what is the first thing you would want to do? Your first instinct would probably be to create a safe zone for chimpanzees. You might contact the government and find out about setting aside a big piece of ideal habitat and keeping out hunters, farmers, or other threats to chimpanzee survival. Well, this is just what conservationists focused on doing in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

What we now know, however, is that creating these big bubbles of wildlife safe zones is maybe not the best long-term solution for maintaining natural, healthy populations. While male chimpanzees do stay with their home community for their whole lives, females are expected to move away and find a new community before they start to reproduce. This protects them from the effects of inbreeding, which could become a major problem on the individual and population level over time. If a female has to cross many miles of unprotected, human-inhabited land in order to reach a new community she may either stay at home or die during her trip. A good friend and colleague of mine, Nicole Simmons, studied a very small population of chimpanzees living in a park called Kyambura Gorge in Uganda. Those chimpanzees have become completely isolated from other populations over time, and now the effects of inbreeding are threatening to kill all of her study subjects. She is concerned that those chimpanzees may not be around for many more decades. In addition, the affects of climate change are altering formerly ideal habitats; yet chimpanzees are unable to shift their range-use to better areas when they are limited to one isolated tract of protected land.

Thus, conservationists are beginning to look for the best ways to connect chimpanzees between protected areas. The WCS has been especially focused on this goal in Uganda, where I study chimpanzees. They have been busy searching for existing corridors that chimpanzees might already use to travel between protected areas and coming up with way to conserve those passageways while also designing new corridors to connect currently isolated populations.

My research currently focuses on how chimpanzees might cope with this corridor habitat structure, which is quite different from what most of the well-studied chimpanzees in Africa contend with.

So you already have your samples, and the work that’s yet to be done is analysis?

I’ve extracted and purified DNA from about 50 of my 400 samples. I also just finished measuring the amount of DNA in those extracts. I still need to extract DNA from another 350 samples. Then I will be measuring DNA amount in each extract so that I know which samples will be most useful for future analyses. Next I will be using something called microsatellite genotyping to generate a genetic fingerprint for each individual that I’ve sampled. I’ll use those data to get a basic population count and to figure out how many communities are living in the reserve. I’ll do some more genotyping work on the Y-chromosome to look at patterns of genetic diversity and kinship in male chimpanzees. Finally if I have the time and the money, I am going to throw in some sequencing of the mitochondrial genome to look at long term population history and genetic diversity. This will also generate data that are more comparable to a wider range of studies on other chimpanzees in Uganda over time.

Backers for the project will get a lot more details on these methods that are broken down for non-specialists to understand the goal of each step.

You write that you’re going to present your research at Pittsburgh Zoo when it’s done. Why there?

Pittsburgh Zoo is like my research home. I started as a volunteer there when I was 14 and then worked and interned for several different departments all the way through high school and college. When I found myself in a funding crisis at the end of my field research they stepped in with their Conservation and Sustainability Fund to provide the funds necessary to get my laboratory research moving forward. They have always supported my goals, so it seems only fitting to return and share these results with them as soon as I’ve completed this project. I’m hoping to do a presentation just for zoo staff, one for kids, and one for a more general audience.

Give us the pitch: Why should we help? What’s in it for us?

Every time I’m at a party I tell people what I do their response is something like, “Oh WOW! That is so cool! I’m totally jealous!” They think the idea of studying poop to understand conservation, behavior, and health is pretty fascinating and fun. Now I’m giving those people a chance to join me in this study. For the price of a movie ticket they can get on board and watch me generate results in real time. In the end, they get the satisfaction of knowing that they are contributing to the conservation not just of this population of chimpanzees, but chimpanzees all over Uganda. Also, they are helping me get my dissertation finished so that I can move on and answer many of the other big conservation questions I’d like to look at.

And as an added bonus, people that donate $20 or more get a print of one of the Semliki chimpanzees. My friend Caroline Deimel takes some amazing photographs of those chimps, so it will definitely be a beautiful piece to hang in their living room as a reminder of the integral role that they played in this research project.

Last question, more of a comment, and mostly unrelated: you run ULTRA-marathons?(!?!)

Ha, yeah, that’s my other great passion! I’ve found that the skills and temperament that both field primatology and ultra running require are quite complimentary. When I’m in the US I desperately miss long days on the trails tracking chimpanzees. Ultras fill that void and keep me focused and motivated. Plus those runners are the most supportive community I’ve ever encountered. I promise, it’s not as crazy as it sounds!

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Once again, you can donate to Alicia’s crowdfunding campaign over at her experiment.com site, where she has progress, funding breakdowns, reward amounts, and more. You’ll be funding vital research to help some of our species’ closest relatives survive the devastating effects of, well, us.

You can also check out her personal blog (where she also discusses more on the ultramarathon topic) at Trails and Grit.

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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