So…

I have some explaining to do.

First, I no longer study monkeys. My departure from the project was sudden, surprising, complicated, ugly, and rather personal. In fact, it had little to do with monkeys at all. I no longer even live in Guanacaste. By leaving the project, I was also leaving the project house and was left without a place to stay or a means of transportation, and there were few options left in the region for me to support myself.

But I’m not here to talk about what happened. I’m going to talk about what happens.

Every year, around the world, hundreds if not thousands of people–young and old–live and work abroad contributing to the concept known as “Research.” These people live a life utterly alien to most people, in that the work they do does not immediately contribute to their well-being. In some cases, it’s the opposite. These research assistants are rarely paid, and only sometimes compensated for travel or basic living expenses. Their hours may be long, or independent of normal human schedules. They may live in very remote, primitive, or crowded conditions. Maintaining good sanitation and mental health is an ongoing struggle.

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With some significant challenges.

Yet despite their work, research assistants are hardly ever considered “employees.” As such, they are not paid and–more importantly–they do not have the same rights. Even if they work for a massive wealthy institution.

Research assistants work under a Principal Investigator, usually a professor. This person may have sole oversight of a project, and may be the only connection between the project and its backers–usually a large university or foundation. If the study is long-term, the project may provide housing, but the PI is effectively manager, director, and landlord at all times. There is little distinction between work and life.

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The jungle doesn’t clock out. Why would you get to?

Can you see where this is going? Can you imagine what could happen in this situation where a single person could have complete control over the working and living conditions of people who have zero leverage? How there would be little oversight? Especially in a foreign country?

In the last five years or so of my career, the amount of abuse I have witnessed in such situations has been staggering. I have seen people overworked to exhaustion to squeeze out a few more lines of data for the PI’s thesis. I have seen students coerced into altering “independent projects” so it contributes to a Professor’s project. I have seen–and experienced–sexual harassment. And I have seen too many assistants scared to complain for fear of retaliation, of dismissal and eviction into unemployment in a foreign country, or of sacrificing their precious “Letter of Recommendation.”

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Yeah, this was my reaction too.

Now, most of the PI’s and researchers I’ve worked with over the years have been great people. I’ve made some valuable friends that way. There’s no way I would choose any other way of life. But I see a dark future for the next generation of hopeful researchers, and for science in general if this is allowed to continue. And I’m rather jaded right now about my prospects of returning to academia, which looks to be trapped in a downward spiral of less funding, less support, and less cooperation.

Me, I’ve landed on my feet. The work environment I just left was toxic. If nothing else, I’m resilient after putting up with things like this for so long. But all I have to show for the past seven months is recurring nightmare of psychotic monkeys.

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Thanks for the memories.

My biologist friends out there: you don’t have to put up with this. Don’t whine, but it’s OK to complain when things are wrong. Stand up for yourselves. We may not live like normal humans, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t people. You deserve to be respected for the work you do at the very least, especially if you are working voluntarily for someone else’s career.

Seriously, though, I’m fine. I’m down in the South Pacific of Costa Rica working at an animal sanctuary. Very serendipitous how it happened, and I may go into it someday. It’s nice here, even if the work is a little more managerial than I’m used to. I’ve taken a break, but will continue to write unless I go ballistic after too long in an office.

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Although it does come with one hell of a view.

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