Thursday, November 10, 2016

New beginning in Borneo

I became a biologist to work in conservation.  In grad school, however, especially at a research-oriented campus, most of the training and mentorship you get revolves around landing a tenure-track job and working as a professor.

The reality, of course, is that most scientists will never get a tenured position, either because they don’t want one or because the jobs aren’t available.  All the same, it can be daunting for grad students to go against the institutional grain and speak up about alternative career aspirations.  Even if they do, it can be difficult to get advice about non-university jobs.

In my case, I knew I wanted to do a combination of research and conservation, ideally working with local communities.  I shared my goals with my committee early in my graduate career and they agreed that I could spend much of my time pursuing side projects with NGOs.  The plan paid off.  In addition to the six papers from my dissertation research, I also produced a handful of publications on biology and conservation in places as far afield as Madagascar, Suriname and Guyana.

Those side projects also laid the groundwork for applying for NGO jobs in my final year.  At first I spent a few months applying to jobs I wasn’t very excited about, including a few post-docs that came with low job security and little independence.  Eventually I decided to revisit something I’ve been passionate about for the past five years—Indonesian conservation issues.  I began looking for NGO jobs in Indonesia, and it all worked out from there.

I soon found a job with an organization that works with rural communities in Borneo to conserve forests and improve local access to healthcare.  The organization offered me a job as Conservation Director and offered Sara a position as well.  Now we live in Indonesia, speak and work in another language, and face new challenges every day.

We are working to protect and restore forests in and around Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesian Borneo.  The forests here, while nominally protected, are subjected to illegal logging and the constant encroachment of farmland.

The peat swamps and upland forests of Gunung Palung are home to one of the largest remaining populations of Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), as well as endangered Bornean agile gibbons (Hylobates albibarbis), proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus), Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), and helmeted hornbills (Rhinoplax vigil).  They also contain an unknown number of ant species waiting to be discovered.

The job came with some benefits people might normally associate with a tenure-track position, such as lab space, travel and equipment budgets, and fiscal autonomy.  But it also came with a few extra perks—a house, an experienced staff, established field sites, and foreign language training.  At the same time, it offers a host of different challenges.  We have to navigate cultural and linguistic divides, live in rural conditions far from family, and quickly learn skills outside our areas of expertise.

The biggest difference, of course, is a sense of mission.  Indonesia is at the forefront of tropical conservation issues, and our task is daunting.  We grapple with a seemingly simple purpose—halt deforestation in West Kalimantan.  But halting deforestation means delving into a range of other problems.  In addition to basic ecological questions, we also have to deal with poverty, law enforcement, gender equality, and politics.  Basic research is one part of a much larger solution, and we face that reality every day.

In spite of (or because of) these challenges, I’ve learned a ton in just a few weeks on the job—about the ecology of Bornean rainforests, agriculture and agroforestry techniques, the economics of logging and community development, Indonesian customs and language, and even how to ride a motorcycle.  At the very least, this job will be interesting, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.

I look forward to writing more about our life and work in Borneo.


  1. Sorry I am just now reading this. Amazing, Jackson, amazing. I see your path you've ventured as an alternate future of my past self. I would've been very satisfied with such an outcome to my Master's in Zoology.

  2. Thanks! That means a lot Mark! I'm not sure about long-term plans or how long we'll stay here. But for now everything feels like a great fit. I suppose we'll continue doing this as long as it's fulfilling and we're still making progress.