May 07, 2013

Doctoral student lives in wild Tanzania for primate research

Posted: May 07, 2013
Samantha Russak, who will receive her doctorate in anthropology, had a rather unusual class curriculum; Russak spent one year on her own in western Tanzania to do firsthand research.
During two different stays at the Goodall Institute, Russak stayed in Goodall’s house overnight and met and spent time discussing her research with Dr. Jane (left) herself.
The tent that Russak lived alone in as she completed her research in Tanzania.

When people would ask Samantha Russak, of Flemington, N.J., what she was doing for her graduate research, she would get many looks like she was a bit crazy. After all, spending a year living alone in a tent in a remote area of a foreign country with no running water or electricity is not for everyone.

As a doctoral student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Russak has been steadily working towards being able to have this experience from the time she decided to be a primatologist. She turned down admittance offers to both Stonybrook and Cambridge to attend Arizona State University after receiving a personal phone call from Kaye Reed, a professor and advisor in the ASU school and a research associate in the Institute of Human Origins.

Russak successfully defended her dissertation and will graduate with a doctoral degree in anthropology this month.

Russak spent 12 months from 2010-2011 in the backcountry of western Tanzania investigating the community ecology of chimpanzees, near the village of Issa in the Ugalla region, by observing resource use by both the chimpanzees and their competitors. Because chimpanzees are often used as models for early hominins (human ancestors), observing how chimpanzees live and share an open woodland environment with other animals can inform hypotheses about how our ancestors lived in similar environments. It is this connection between chimpanzee ecology and human evolution that made this a good project for her dissertation research.

During her time in Tanzania, she got to know many new people and experience new cultures, so different from what she had known in the United States.

“The most difficult part of the whole process was trying to get used to the laidback, ‘no hurry’ attitude most people had," Russak says. "In the U.S., everything has deadlines and needs to be done within a certain timeframe; there, things got done when they got done. I heard ‘come back tomorrow and it will be ready’ many times.” 

In addition to hiring local field assistants from the surrounding towns, she met other researchers who were affiliated with the Jane Goodall Institute in nearby Gombe. During two different stays at the Goodall Institute, Russak stayed in Goodall’s house overnight and met and spent time discussing her research with Goodall herself. 

Living in the remote forest, Russak got the data, and the experience, that she was looking for. She lived among chimpanzees, baboons, bushpigs, birds, and lizards and walked up and down hills to survey and make observations. Russak admits it was a difficult but rewarding year.

“It is a very humbling experience to spend time in a third-world country,” she said, “an experience that I feel more people (especially those from the western world) should have. I am very grateful for having had the chance to meet many of these people and for being able to make connections with people around the globe.”

Sam wrote about her year in Tanzania in a blog for the ASU Institute of Human Origins. Read more about Russak’s year in the field at http://asuiho.wordpress.com, under “Tanzania.”

Julie Russ, jruss@asu.edu
Institute Of Human Origins