Past to Present

May 21, 2013

It’s May 21, 2013. I am sitting in the waiting room at the local periodontist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. I pass the time with a Better Homes and Gardens magazine while my grandmother talks to the receptionist. She’s here to have her teeth cleaned, but all she seems to want to talk about is her granddaughter’s upcoming adventure. The woman behind the counter entertains her story, taking the time to nod politely in my direction every time my grandma says “chimpanzee” and points at me. I look up, incriminating myself as the granddaughter in her story, and quickly try to escape into an article on the value of no-bake pies. Sitting between a collection of lightly-scented fake flowers and a diagram detailing the intimacies of adult onset gingivitis, I can’t help but to think how different my life will be in less than one week. In a matter of days, I will be hiking after wild chimpanzees in an African forest—an ironically stark contrast to my current state of affairs.

From time to time, someone will ask me how I came to study chimpanzees. Truthfully, I owe much of my strange career trajectory to the very woman who is currently bombarding the receptionist with a description of the African sub-continent. Since I was a child, my grandma’s home was stocked with issues of National Geographic. One of my earliest memories is of her helping me to remove a map from the center of the magazine, laying it out across the coffee table and painstakingly exploring every inch with me. She was a registered nurse, but at heart she was an explorer, a voracious reader and a would-be scientist. The need to know was instilled in me from a very young age, and the rest is history. By the time I headed off to college, I was determined to answer one of the most intriguing questions the natural world has to offer: how did we get here?

And what better place to start than in a department devoted to the exploration of human evolutionary origins? At the Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology here at George Washington University, researchers from a variety of sub-disciplines ranging from paleontology to developmental psychology seek to inform our understanding of the human lineage and its evolution through time. Nestled comfortably within this department is the Primate Behavioral Ecology Laboratory, and what my extremely biased opinion leads me to believe is the coolest lab in the bunch. Powered by a long-term behavioral dataset from Gombe National Park, Tanzania, we are able to explore the behavior and ecology of our closest living relatives, a potential model for understanding our own evolutionary origins.

Back in the present, in a life that will be normal for another seven days, my grandmother’s appointment is over and we head out to the parking lot. We launch into the details of her conversation with the receptionist. Ever the devil’s advocate, she asks me why people should be convinced that evolution is an important subject. “And for that matter”, she asks, “Why should anyone care about chimpanzees?” She likes to push, just like me, reminding me that all that I am is a function of that which has preceded me. To understand myself, my current interests, goals and ideas, I can look into the past. As I drive along the road beside my predecessor, a woman embroiled in my history who has greatly influenced my present, I decide that the goal of this blog is to try to answer these questions. As I head to Africa, and into the forest to begin my own research, I hope that I can provide an interesting look into the lives of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, and a commentary on their value in reconstructing our own human evolution.

So kiss your grandmother goodbye and follow me as i embark on my first field season at Gombe National Park, Tanzania!

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