There are a number of things you tend to notice talking with Nicole Gross-Camp, PhD ’09 about her doctoral research in seed dispersal ecology in the forests of Rwanda. There’s the ready smile that constantly plays at the corner of her mouth. There’s the tale she tells, of re-locating her husband and toddler to Rwanda for a year of field research. There’s the excitement in her voice as she describes in detail the day-to-day grunt work of her field research. Most of all, there’s the sense that nothing much could faze this young woman, least of all the business of balancing academic life with family life.
Gross-Camp first arrived at AUNE as a master’s student in the conservation biology program, attracted in part by the opportunity to work with faculty member Dr. Beth Kaplin. She notes, though, “I loved Beth, but the institution itself is what sealed the deal. AUNE’s intimate size and flexibility allowed Nicole to design a course of study that concluded with a master’s thesis on seed dispersal by chimpanzees in the montane forest of the Nyungwe National Park in southwestern Rwanda.”
There’s Much to Learn About Wadges and Dung Piles
Her master’s research led to a more in-depth doctoral proposal because, as she says “The more you know, the more questions you have.” Her expanded research would require a year in the field, so with husband Simon and daughter Senna in tow, she decamped from Keene to Rwanda from March 2006 through April 2007. Seed dispersal ecology is a fairly rarified concept for the untrained ear, as it tends to mask just what Gross-Camp’s fieldwork entailed. In tropical montane forests — those above 2,000 meters or so — more than three-quarters of the seed dispersal that takes place is courtesy of animals.
Animals, monkeys among them, eat fruit and dispose of the seeds either by spitting or defecating. Chimps, in particular, form what are known as ‘wadges’ — think of placing a fleshy fruit between cheek and gum and sucking the juice out of it. What’s left behind is a ‘wadge.’ A wadge can be the size of a softball and stuffed with seeds. For a year, wadges and dung piles, and the fate of the seeds held within, were the focus of Gross-Camp’s fieldwork.
While in Rwanda, she lived dawn to dusk research days, overseeing the efforts of four crews of field assistants. One crew tracked chimpanzees, documenting their diet, obtaining GPS readings on any wadges or dung the chimps left behind, and flagging them for follow-up examination. (The secret to flagging dung piles in montane forest, she says, “flagging tape, lots of flagging tape, bright pink!”) Another crew followed a different species, L’Hoest’s Monkey, collecting similar data. A third team undertook ‘focal tree watches,’ which entailed dawn to dusk observations of fruit-bearing trees and their animal visitors that ate fruit and in the process carried away seeds. A fourth group undertook field experiments designed to determine the fate of seeds deposited in dung and wadges. She spent her days coordinating logistics for all the crews, overseeing and rotating among them and all the while establishing a family life a few thousand kilometers from home.
Combining Theory and Practice
At first glance, her research in Rwanda may seem wholly academic, but the fate of chimps and other monkeys currently threatened by hunting and habitat loss has direct impact on Rwanda’s tropical montane forest ecosystems. If such a forest burns — as much did during Rwanda’s dark year of 1994 — there is little chance for regeneration of primary forest, save through the seed-dispersing habits of chimps and other animals. This academic topic has real-world consequences for the forest and for the country of Rwanda. That is a blend of the theoretical and practical that Gross-Camp seeks in the future.
“My goals go beyond seed dispersal ecology,” she says. “I’m very passionate about ecological research, but it is not the end all and be all of who I am. I really want to find a career that enables me to do ecological research that is meaningful for management decisions. So not just doing ecology for the sake of doing ecology, but really applying it in ways that help the world, that help communities, that help conserve protected areas, meeting the needs of more than just the natural world.”
Shortly after returning stateside in the spring of 2007, Gross-Camp learned that she had been awarded a Switzer Environmental Leadership fellowship, one of just twenty awarded across the nation each year. The award allows her to continue her doctoral work at Antioch as well as to develop her leadership skills, working toward her professional goal to obtain a position with an international conservation organization.
Speaking of Antioch and of her peers and mentors at the school, she says, “You’re respected for the individual, your life, and your life choices beyond academia. I’m speaking very directly to my choice to have children. I do think we are seeing a change in women in academia, women in the sciences in particular, but it’s a slow change. Many of my friends in other institutions do not experience the psychological freedom and support that Antioch affords. I just value that so much: That there is life beyond academia-you can have your career and your family.”