Elephants & Engineers Combining to Save the World (& help me answer inquisitive doubters)
One of the questions I'm most often asked (along with 'when are you going to pay your bill & leave?', 'what time do you call this?' & 'how did you think you're going to get that out?') varies along the lines of, what is someone with the engineering degree doing looking after an elephant camp?
This problem cropped up yesterday when I put on my best elephant carer suit & accompanied Dr Josh Plotnik to the National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT) to talk to them about some upcoming research we plan to do in camp. Josh, you may remember, is the guy behind the study which showed that some elephants can recognise themselves in the mirror, a skill which sets them apart from most creatures apart from ourselves (most mornings) & other primates, clever crows & the odd dolphin - since then he's been in Thailand at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre & Elephant Nature Park studying elephant behaviour in many clever ways that we can't talk about yet until his studies are published.
Rest assured, though, when I tell you, he is what certain Antipodean owned newspapers would describe as a boffin.
Now, few people know it, but the NRCT is a Government body set up to assist researchers, foreign & Thai, in their research within Thailand, they are a quiet organisation who help with networking between researchers and use their experience of the country to guide projects into the type of studies that will not only be interesting but will be useful for the world. They also are the only body that can allow legitimate scientists to perform research of any kind in Thailand - if you ain't got their permission (& a photo card from them) then you ain't doing research.
Given the position of our little camp, trying to drive not only the conversation on elephant welfare, mahout ambitions and thoughts on the future of elephants but also, our little (but stated) ambition to become a centre of excellence in elephant research, clearly, we had to meet.
As you'd expect from a National Council into anything, but particularly something scientific, the people on the top floor are boffins. As you know from my writing & slurred dialect, Engineering Degree or no, I am not. Luckily I had just returned from very high altitudes so the rarified air on the 175th floor didn't harm me but it was abundantly clear that I was a walnut sized brain amidst those dealing with planetary sized grey matter.
Luckily Josh has done this before so had answers to most of their questions but eventually the spotlight turned to me, those laser-like eyes probing my every eye movement & bead of sweat, rapid fire questions, our motives? our organisational chart? why a foreigner? why an engineer? what do you know about elephants? why research? why this research...
...clearly my lopsided grin, half a joke and a bluff wasn't going to cut it, I had to get serious & rigorous - luckily, somewhere back, under the gallons of coffee there remains the engineer, the scientist, I once was & we got it done, it looks as though the research will take place & we'll get our license.
Now, despite ample evidence to the contrary, this isn't an article to justify the dry cleaning bill of my sweat-soaked suit to my bosses (honest, though, it needs to be cleaned) this is about how we do believe that the only way we're going to help the elephants is by ignoring specialisms, put all the specialists in a valley with some elephants, stir the pot with a bit of wi-fi internet, a few imaginative laymen & artists and perhaps we'll find a way forward.
I made this claim, somewhat pathetically, yesterday with no evidence to back up my misty eyed idealism.
Then, this morning, uncharacteristically late, some wily German scientists provided me with the answer I had been floundering after, I think the video is self explanatory so, for once, I'll shut up.
This is why we encourage scientists of all stripes to visit the camp, we're not clever enough to change the world, but we are clever enough to provide opportunities for those that are....
PS. Look, Mum, see what a truly clever ele inspired Materials Scientist could achieve! (full article)