Wednesday, September 16

So it begins

When I started graduate school, I made a sort of pact with myself that I wouldn't cut my hair until my next big life shift. I was going to let it grow out and remain in a long fashion till the time when it seemed right.

Then I decided to take a leave of absence and go to Africa to study wild monkey behavior. It definitely felt like the right time for a trim, and I was getting damn tired of the annoyances of long hair.

Most of you who will come across this blog probably know a little to a lot about me, but I'd hate to be unkind to the newcomers, since I'm trying to develop some readership and all. I was born in Oregon, and spent pretty much my entire life there until leaving for college. While I was there, I played the violin in one of the best orchestras in the state, won some speech and debate competitions, played soccer, ran track, and spent plenty of weekends preserving natural Oregon prairieland with the Nature Conservancy.

College turned out to be in Boston, at a place called MIT. MIT was my favored choice during my college selections, though one could say my ultimate decision was made easier by the fact that my dad and brother both attended MIT as undergraduates and graduate students. We're one of those families, even though MIT doesn't really make many allowances for legacies.

My major was in what MIT calls "Brain and Cognitive Sciences," (or BCS, as people tend to call it) which to an uninitiated undergrad just sounds cool. MIT changed the department name from Psychology to BCS in the 80's, before the field of Neuroscience had its own spin-off in the Nature publication catalog. In truth, the BCS department is a lot of neuroscientists, ranging from the Molecular to the Cognitive, with a sprinkling of real cognitive scientists and linguistics hanging around the huge new building MIT gave the department.

I have long styled myself as a "Systems" neuroscientist, taking all the relevant classes, and backing it up by spending a couple years working in a high-profile monkey physiology lab. Those were good times, and gave me my first exposure to monkeys. I'm sure that some classic stories from these years will be retold...

My most fundamental understanding of primates doesn't come from my MIT monkey research, but rather from the innocuously named class "Animal Behavior." It would be unwise to say too much about that class right now, given its impact and subject matter is arguably the dominant foundation for this blog. However, in short, Animal Behavior was the best class I've ever taken. I even had the fortune to TA the class the year after I took it. The amount of knowledge and inspiration I drew from that class over the two years I was involved with it can pretty much never be understated.

So then I left MIT. Not exactly by choice, mind you, but I happened to graduate on time so I didn't have a whole lot of ways around that. I've watched MIT create interesting effects in many people, and I'm certainly one of them. There's still a lot I could have learned at MIT; its an addictive place for a certain kind of person. Some of them continue as PhD or Masters students at MIT, some of them get jobs and just hang around MIT all the time, some of them don't get jobs and just hang around MIT all the time.

I decided to go to graduate school in neuroscience, though at the recommendation of pretty much everyone I've spoken with, I chose to not pursue graduate school at MIT. "Its a good idea to go to a different graduate institution than your undergrad institution." So, I went to Brandeis, another top-notch biology school, just up the river a few miles.

And right now, I'm taking a leave of absence so I can try something that I've always wanted to do - go out into the field and do field research with wild animals. That's why I found myself a nice little temporary field research position, and am going to travel to Cape Town, South Africa to study the vocal behaviors of wild Baboons.

So, that's my life in a nutshell. I'm still in Boston right now, and the end of one of the more interesting months of my life is coming to an end, and then I'll be off to South Africa. I'm going to write about all the primates I'll be working with, the baboons, the researchers, the South Africans, and I'm sure I'll recount some old tales of other primates I've met and lived among.

Right now, I need to go back to packing and trying to be sure that I won't forget something vital, which I'll be half the world away from.

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