The search to make this world a better place takes Queen’s researchers all around the globe, and not always in the comfort of modern hotels.
Faculty and students alike hike into jungles, travel Himalayan roads on horseback, visit scorching farm fields and desert diamond mines, and climb the sides of still-hot volcanic lava flows.
Earth and its inhabitants still hold many secrets waiting to be uncovered, and researchers can’t do it all from a lab or library – sometimes just reaching a destination in one piece is a struggle.
“Just me and my backpack”
Years back, Dr. Chris Spencer was doing geology research on Mount Etna, a volcano in Sicily that had recently erupted. He thought he was avoiding the recent lava flows – until he caught a whiff of burning rubber and his boots felt heavier. He had stumbled into a very fresh flow hot enough to melt the rubber on his boots.
Just another day not at the office.
Dr. Spencer does not live for office work. Growing up in the mountains of Utah steered him into geology, a field in which he now studies what geochemistry can tell us about mountain-building processes at tectonic plate boundaries.
He has travelled the world – often the Himalayan mountains, Japan, and New Zealand, but also Namibia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Western Australia, northern and southern China, the American Southwest, and much of Europe.
“What I love is being in the deep wilderness, where there are no roads and it’s just me and my backpack, and no contrails overhead,” he says.
Along the way, he has had adventures. Take Namibia. He was travelling in a zone forbidden to most outsiders because it’s near diamond mines (though he had permits to explore there). Just him and a truck. And, of course, the truck got stuck in sand.
“I was alone, which wasn’t the smartest thing at the time,” he says. He dug fruitlessly for a day, then loaded up on food and water and started walking.
A day and a half later he reached a road, where some diamond mine security guards eventually turned up and couldn’t believe this stranger was hiking through the desert. The men had AK-47s, so it was lucky he had the permits handy. His new friends “were very kind. They were just flummoxed, like what on Earth are you doing here?”
They generously took him to the mining camp for food and a shower, and drove him out the next morning to rescue the truck.
We had to ask: Have you ever been hurt in the wilderness?
“Um, hurt?” He pauses, thinking. “No, nothing that serious. I mean I’ve had cholera, I’ve had malaria several times,” – but was never injured.
His wife and two young sons not only approve of Dad’s adventures; they tag along, camping, while he is in the field. His wife (trained in dance, not geology) was his field assistant before the boys were born.
“Every time I’m at my desk, I am scheming ways to get away from the desk… it’s all about planning the next bit of field work.”
The Mount Etna boots, somewhat melted, lasted the field trip. Barely.
“Monkeys have kind of haunted me”
When Siobhan Speiran ventures into the jungles of Central America to study ecotourism, she knows she is being watched.
Quite frequently, in fact, she finds herself under curious scrutiny by monkeys that have captivated her since she first idolized Jane Goodall, the primatologist and anthropologist who became world renowned for her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees. And trekking through the Costa Rican jungle brings her to the lives of monkeys and the delicate task of trying to balance tourism with the welfare of wildlife.
“Monkeys have kind of haunted me my whole life,” says Ms. Speiran, a PhD candidate in environmental studies.
“Jane Goodall was a major hero to me growing up,” she says. “She didn’t even have a university degree when she went [to Africa]. She went alone with her mother to do her field work and that’s what I did with my PhD. I went with my mother to Costa Rica. My mother was a botanist.”
“I really grew fascinated with [Dr. Goodall’s] perspective on how important it was to improve the lives of the local humans in the communities in order to address the chimpanzee conservation issues stemming from the bushmeat trade and deforestation.”
She once intended to study wildlife tourism in Botswana, but ended up specializing in the monkeys of Costa Rica that are a prime attraction in that country’s ecotourism industry. She deals with howler monkeys, capuchins, squirrel monkeys, and spider monkeys.
It’s illegal to own, feed, or touch wildlife in Costa Rica. But some monkeys live in sanctuaries after being confiscated as pets or brought in from the wild after injuries.
She interviews the staff and owners of sanctuaries at every chance and has done volunteer work with them. “The broader effort of my research is to really look at the sustainability of Costa Rican sanctuaries” for tourism.
But she also goes into the jungle to see wild monkeys. This is sometimes a grey area, as some tour operators bait monkeys with bananas to bring them close enough to pose for photos with tourists – “wildlife selfies.”
“What I like about monkeys is that every single one is really a person to me,” says Ms. Speiran.
After watching them for months she sometimes thinks, “I can’t believe I couldn’t tell them apart [in] the first few days!”
They assess her at the same time. The watcher becomes the watched.
“They return the gaze, whether it’s the tourist gaze or the gaze of the researcher.”
This relationship can only be built by being physically present in the jungle. For instance, one monkey she had been watching for a long time reached out its tail to touch her arm. She was startled, thinking it was a snake, and brushed it away.
“The next best thing for field work would maybe be a live camera feed. [But] there would be something missing in that interaction.”
“They try to proposition me”
A penny-pinching Greek farmer once forced Dr. Reena Kukreja to work a day picking field greens in return for letting her interview migrant workers on his farm. He thought her interviews were costing him “lost time.”
“It was horta – Greek for greens such as dandelions, chicory, and dill,” she recalls. The men in the fields thought her day of hard labour was funny and ironic.
Dr. Kukreja, from the Department of Global Development Studies, researches the lives of poor and undocumented South Asian farm workers, following them in Greece. She will soon add Spain, Italy, and Portugal to her research focus. Dr. Kukreja sees these workers as mirror images of the workers from Mexico and Central America who harvest crops in Canada and the United States.
“It’s absolutely similar – their wretched existence, the way they are exploited by the state, the way agri-business and farmers use their temporary status to give them low pay [and] deny them labour rights; [these] are common everywhere,” she says.
And meeting them where they work is critical.
“I work with marginalized populations who have no access to Zoom [or] internet, and they need face-to-face trust-building.”
Raised in north India, Dr. Kukreja speaks the languages of these workers – Urdu, Punjabi, and Bangla.
“They can speak to me without worrying how their words will be interpreted,” she says.
Even if these workers had internet access, she would never get their full story from a distance.
She has to “physically hoof it there in the field, and sit with them in their dormitories, go with them in the field, feel the heat of the sun with them, and listen to them when they are free.”
Her interviews are “semi-structured.” There’s a guide, but she welcomes changes of direction when the farm workers bring up topics she hasn’t thought of. Again, this works best face to face.
The dormitories are an example. She knew they were primitive, but only realized how bad they were when she saw Bangladeshi men on Greek farms sleeping in shacks made of plastic and cardboard, the rain leaking in and soaking their beds, and fetid drainage outdoors carrying disease.
“If I hadn’t stepped inside I would not be able to write about the immense heat,” she says.
Greek men have sometimes assumed that if she visits migrant workers, she is a sex worker.
“They try to proposition me, so I’ve faced a lot of tricky issues.” Greek police stop and question her too often.
This June she heads to orange and olive farms in Greece to meet workers from Pakistan, Albania, and North Africa.
In the meantime, this professor who studies these farm workers has been gardening.
“I’m a keen veggie grower. Actually, I’m late putting in my lettuce.” (This was April 30.) “That’s OK. Everything just evens out.”