Who would expect that a carnivore, like the yellow mongoose, would share sleeping quarters with a rodent, the Cape ground squirrel? Who would expect, growing up in Oakbank, Manitoba, that you would one day have the opportunity to be part of a project studying these strange bedfellows in a South African nature reserve?
This basically summarizes Sarah Makenbach’s Honours Thesis research project and the path that led her to her South African adventure.
Sarah graduated from Springfield Collegiate Institute in Oakbank, Manitoba and is a B.Sc. Honours Co-op student in the Faculty of Science. Like many students starting university, she didn’t have any definite career plans or program choices in mind.
For her undergraduate degree, she knew she wanted to stay in Manitoba, and, as Sarah explains: “I had always loved animals, plants the outdoors and camping, so for me, a science degree was a natural fit.”
Sarah chose the UM because she liked the campus, and she knew other students. However, it was the number of program and course options, and the UM’s reputation in health-related fields that finally tipped the balance.
Sarah heard about co-op degree option in one of her classes, and decided to make further enquires. She thought it would be a great experience, because she would get relevant work experience, rather than just continue the job she had in high school. Once in the program, she found the break in the terms, from academic terms to work terms, rejuvenating. The fact that the co-op employment helped cover the cost of her tuition was a huge bonus.
It was through her co-op experience that Sarah also learned what she didn’t want to do. “I spent one of my work terms in Cape Cod (the movie location for Jaws) working on a great project studying unicellular organisms. I learned a lot of lab techniques and a lot about the lifestyle of a researcher. I also learned that I was not a microbiology person, and preferred working with larger organisms.” It was an important lesson.
Armed with this personal knowledge, for her Honours Thesis project Sarah did some of her own research (via the website) on the different interests of professors in the Biological Sciences Department, and she made a list of Professors who worked on projects that interested her. The first person on her list was Professor Jane Waterman whose works on behavioural, ecological and evolutionary research – and larger organisms, of course.
She met with Dr. Waterman; discussed various projects and was stunned when Waterman asked: “Would you like to come to Africa?” They discussed the different projects that Waterman had going, and the different possibilities and interests. As Sarah explains: “I left the room in a daze. I couldn’t believe this was really happening.”
“I would get up early and take the field vehicle out on the nature reserve, set up the blind, the chair, the spotting scope and any other equipment I was using and observe animals all morning. It was amazing.” Besides the yellow mongoose and the Cape ground squirrel, the subjects of her study, she had sightings of ostrich, wildebeest, zebra, antelope and jackal. Because there were no big predators on the reserve, she could move around on her own studying the different Cape ground squirrel burrow clusters.
“I was given independence, and Dr. Waterman entrusted me with a lot of responsibility. I was given the freedom to just go and work on my project. There’s a huge learning curve, but the highlight of the trip was when I was in the midst of the project. With Dr. Waterman’s help, guidance and problem-solving suggestions, I was working on experiments, knowing what to do and how to observe. It’s an incredible experience to be working in the field with a scientist and have the one-on-one opportunity to learn.”
“There wasn’t as much culture shock as one might expect,” explains Sarah. “The landscape, the topography, the open fields, it almost felt like a prairie landscape. That part surprised me. I learned a lot about research, and I learned that it was a lot different from what I imagined in high school.”
Now back in Winnipeg, Sarah is finishing up her degree and writing her Honour Thesis. Her research has already had promising results. Her poster presentation: “For Crying Out Loud”, won first prize in the Natural Sciences Category in the University of Manitoba Undergraduate Research Poster Competition.
Although she may take a year off, Sarah plans to go on to graduate school in her quest to learn more about larger organisms and to continue on her path of discovery.
Sarah Makenbach in South Africa
South African Sunset
Vehicle with hide
Take advantage of co-op programs. No matter what you do, they will be useful.
Take advantage of travel opportunities, the experiences are priceless, and it helps you understand what you want in a career.
Approach your professors; learn from them; get their advice about graduate school, careers and research projects. Take advantage of volunteer opportunities they may have in their labs or with projects. Do this early in your academic career.
Listen to the announcements in classes and the opportunities that arise. It’s up to you to take the initiative: to look and see, to discover what works for you.
Apply for research jobs. I was told that it was very competitive to get a job at the Woods Hole Oceonographic Institute, and I got the position! If you don’t apply, you won’t get it. Remember the adage: nothing ventured, nothing gained!