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Research in The Jungle

6 Jun

Hello from the USA. I have been home for a while now, and I am missing Australia. Therefore, to mitigate the feeling of reverse culture shock, I want to continue blogging about my study abroad experiences.

web photosFor the last month of the program, all of our academic time was designated towards directed research. After we came back from our mid-semester break, we dove directly into our research projects. Each student was assigned to one of the three professors at the centre. I was assigned to our rainforest ecology professor, Siggy.

Siggy had eleven people under her for research. Two students, Brone and Felicia, did research with leeches, three students, Devin, Kristin, and Crystal, looked at tree-kangaroo behavior, one student, Nickie, looked at how to differentiate between tree kangaroo poop and pademelon poop (Yes! She had to dissect poop!), another student, Monisha, dissected cane toads to determine food diversity in relation to the presence of lung worms, two other students, Alan and Hannah, looked at stress pee in cane toads, and another student, Graham, and I looked at microhabitat preferences of skinks.

If you don’t know what a skink is, it is a really small lizard. In order to test our scientific hypotheses, Graham and I had to set up traps to catch skinks. We used pitfall traps with drift fences, which are basically fences that guide skinks into a hole in the ground that have buckets placed in it to catch the skinks that fall inside the trap.

We had some students help us set up all of our traps, but I most specifically remember Helen because she unfortunately had a leech attach to her eye while we were setting up traps. Instead of hyperventilating, Helen just shrugged her shoulders and kept on working.

Graham and I caught a total of 26 skinks during our 10 days of trapping. We caught 4 different species (Carlia rubrigularis, Saproscincus basilicus, Saproscincus tetradactylus, and Glaphyromorphus fuscicaudis). The only Glaphyromorphus fuscicaudis we caught had a snout to vent length of 8.4 cm! It was the biggest skink we found during our trapping period and was quite a giant.

For our assignment, we had to write a research paper, give a presentation to the professors, and make a poster to present to the surrounding community. My specific project looked at the effect of forest edges in restoration sites on skink populations. I found out that edges of restoration sites actually benefit skinks.

This portion of my study abroad experience was very beneficial to me because it allowed me to see if research was something that I wanted to do in my future. It was a unique experience that is not usually a typical part of studying abroad, and our end product or our paper was very rewarding.

It feels so odd being back in the states, and sometimes I still wake up and initial feel like I am still in Australia. The experience is something I will always treasure, and the benefits of my experience will aid me in my future.

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Traveling North Queensland

26 Apr

Hello all… Time is flying over here.  I can’t believe my study abroad experience is almost over.  With so little time left, I feel it is a perfect time to share and reflect on all the experiences I have had and all the places I have visited.  Even though I have spent the majority of my time in the rainforest at the School for Field Studies center, we have had the opportunity to visit much of the surrounding area of North Queensland.  Some of our trips were through the SFS program and some were off-program time trips. 

We have been on two program trips.  outbackOur first trip was to Chillagoe, which was northwest of where the center is located.  Chillagoe offered some scenery that we cannot see in the rainforest.  It was a spot-on representation of what I pictured the Australian Outback would look like.  The landscape was beautiful with the occasional kangaroo hopping across the savanna. 
crocOur second program excursion was to the Daintree rainforest.  This was north of Cairns along the coast.  Daintree has some of the oldest rainforest in the world.  The highlight of this trip was the abundance of wildlife that we spotted.  We were able to see a 5 m saltwater crocodile in the Daintree River.  We also were very fortunate to see a cassowary cross the road when we were driving through the rainforest. 

However, my favorite trip was our mid-semester break to Magnetic Island.  I spent five days on Maggie Island with a small group of the students from my program.  We stayed at a hostel that was located on the beach.  We spent the majority of the time hanging out at the beach and eating food at all the local pubs.  We also went on a hike were we saw a koala foraging in the wild.  However, my fondest memory of my time at Maggie Island was renting scooters.  scooterAlmost everyone that I went with rented a scooter on our second to last day, and we ripped around the island in a giant scooter gang.  Later that night, I went out with one of the other guys, and we went on a night ride.  It is one of my most enjoyable memories of my time in Australia so far. 

Though all these places are magnificently beautiful, these experiences would not have been even remotely as memorable without the people I enjoyed them with at the time.  I was recently writing a postcard to send back home, and I was thinking about how fortunate I am to have such wonderful people in my life both at home and here in Australia.  I realized that it is not so much where I go or what I am doing that is important and memorable to me, but who I am with and sharing the experience with at the time.  I might someday forget the majority of the experiences that I have had here in Australia, but I will definitely remember all the people here at SFS.  The community that has formed from complete strangers in just 3 months is incredible, and it saddens me that it will soon come to an end.  However, my journey is still not over, and I plan on enjoying every last minute of it.

Within the Rainforest

11 Mar

photo credit to Kara Chester
photo credit to Kara Chester


Hello all, it has been awhile.  I have been off the grid due to our poor and sometimes lack of Internet at my current location.  My study abroad program has been going on for about a month now and is in full swing.  My program is through the School for Field Studies (SFS).  We are located in the Atherton Tablelands among the World Heritage listed rainforest of Australia.  The closest town is 15 minutes away.  The best way to describe my current situation is isolated. 

However, I am not alone.  I share the field center with 30 other students (There are 7 guys and 24 girls this semester, which seems to be a common trend), 4 interns, 3 professors, a cook, a maintenance worker, and the field center director.  Within the last month I have become really close to everyone here, and I am looking forward to spending the next few months here.  The center is becoming home to me and everyone else. 

The only way to reach the center is to travel through the windy back roads of the Gilly’s Highway.  Then you must enter the site by driving on a gravel road through the middle of the rainforest, while making sure to not run over any pythons.  The gravel road opens up to a perfect view of the center’s nursery for plants, and then around the bend is the main building of the center.  We have our meals and classes at the main building.  Within the main building is our classroom for lectures, the computer room, and the common room. 

It is around a 5 minute walk from the main building through the jungle to the guys’ cabin.  Unfortunately for the women, they have a 10-15 minute walk up a monstrous hill to their cabins.  The guys are allowed to shower at the main building, but the gals must shower up by their cabins. 

We have three separates classes this semester: Rainforest Ecology, Natural Resource Management, and Socio-Economics.  Each class is unique in its content, but they all relate to the rainforest.  These classes will last one more month, and then we will have our final exams.  After the classes are over, we begin our own directed research.  This research relates to one of the three professors own research, but we do have some flexibility with the specific scientific question we get to ask. 

Though we have a large amount of schoolwork, most of us did not come halfway across the world to spend our entire time studying.  We are always finding new ways to enjoy ourselves.  From watching Game of Thrones to doing zumba (Yes, I have done zumba), everyone is always hanging out with one another.  We have also been on some exciting trips, which I will talk about in my next blogs.


photo credit to Kara Chester

photo credit to Kara Chester

The opportunities here and the experiences I have already gained are beyond my initial expectations (Though as you know from my first blog, were not that specific).  Studying abroad is opening my eyes to the possibilities for my future.  We visited a fruit farm the other day, and the owner gave us some insightful advice.  He said, “Get a life, not a career.”  Though these words are simple, they are very perceptive.  I believe that studying abroad is showing me the importance of living and enjoying each day rather than working to enjoy the future.


Australia Day

4 Feb

Greetings, from the land of OZ.  I have been in Australia for a week, and I am currently on vacation with my family.  They simply could not let me visit the island continent without them coming along for a few days.  I still have a couple of days until my study abroad program begins.  It is starting to feel weird not having been to class for almost two months!  I am ready for classes to begin again, but first my family and I are going to visit Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef.  We were just in Sydney for a week, and we are taking a flight up north to Cairns. 

To me, Sydney was very similar to Chicago, but with the Pacific Ocean bordering it, instead of Lake Michigan.  Also the cars were all on the wrong other side of the road.  I am still trying to get use to being on the left side of the road and especially on the left side of the sidewalk and stairs.  Even so, I enjoyed the city life of Sydney. 

On only our second day in Sydney we were lucky enough to witness Australia Day.  Some of the Australians say it is a cross between our Independence Day and Columbus Day.  Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the convicts from Great Britain to the shores of Australia on January 26th 1788.  However, there seems to be some controversy in celebration of Australia Day due to the discrimination against the Aboriginal people in the past, which is somewhat similar to our past relationship with the Native Americans. 

I wonder if we sent a couple shiploads of our American convicts to an island, if the same result would occur.  I’m pretty sure it would not… there would definitely be football on TV instead of cricket.  That sport is still beyond my comprehension but hopefully not for long.

Anyhow, this day seems to also represent the national pride felt by many of the Aussies.  There were many concerts, fireworks, and beer (apparently real Aussies don’t drink Foster’s) to celebrate the day, but I spent the day seeing the sights and enjoying La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House.  The opera was pretty moving, which was very befitting for Australia Day. 

It is also very moving to see the pride that people have in their country, and it is always extraordinary to be apart of something like Australia Day that exemplifies these feelings of pride.  Even though I love to travel, America will always have a special place in my heart, and the pride that I feel for the United States is the same pride that the Aussies’ have for their country. 

With the Super Bowl this weekend, I leave you with this… a link to my personal favorite demonstration of national pride, Whitney Houston’s rendition of The National Anthem of The United States.  If it is Australia Day or the Super Bowl, the feelings stirred up by our connections to each of our nations is definitely something to marvel over.

Expectations of Australia

18 Jan

MattFarrAustraliaThe hour draws near with less than a week until I leave for Australia.  It has been hard to comprehend what I am about to experience, and I have honestly not put much thought into specific expectations.  However, I have received plenty of comments from friends and family on what they expect me to experience during my tenure abroad. 

My father believes that I will succumb to the dangers of the Australian Outback and perish from a gruesome death in the jaws of a crocodile or by the venom of the brown snake.  Whereas, my mother has reminded me that I am supposed to be studying abroad and not studying a broad.  However, my friends believe that I can somehow manage both.

Contrary to the statements above, most of the expectations of others are positive and involve some measure of enjoyment or happiness.  But, with all these expectations, I am beginning to feel overwhelmed and wonder how I might possibly accomplish enough to live up to these predetermined expectations. 

I believe the answer to this problem lies in simply reducing my expectations but not by quality but rather by quantity.  Instead of turning my time in Australia into a checklist of expectations, I hope to come away with an experience that has stirred me emotionally.  I believe my childhood friends, Calvin and Hobbes, hit the nail on the head on what I expect from studying abroad with this insightful statement:

“That’s the difference between me and the rest of the world!  Happiness isn’t good enough for me!  I demand euphoria!”

But how might I possibly achieve euphoria on a daily basis?

Jimmy Valvano summed this up in his famous ESPY speech:

“There are three things we all should do everyday… Number one is laugh.  You should laugh everyday.  Number two is think.  You should spend some time in thought.  Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy.  But think about it.  If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day.  That’s a heck of a day.  You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

I know that every second will not be euphoric, but I believe if I strive to accomplish these three things everyday that I truly will have experienced something special and possibly euphoric.