Lake Victoria !..the follow-up

And…..I’m back (only a month late)! I know, I know, I should have done this post a long time ago. However, things have been very crazy as of late. For starters, my 4-week trip to Tanzania ended up being extended twice, for a total of 6 weeks. Then, after finally making it home, I had exactly 6 six days before I left once again to drive to Switzerland (10+ hour drive) for 4 days, then to a conference for 3 days in the southern part of The Netherlands, which was then followed up by a 2 day “retreat” with my research group. All and all, things have FINALLY settled down which means time for a blog post. So, with that, let’s talk Africa!

Warning: this may not go as you would have expected. In previous posts, I told about my project and what we were doing daily on the lake. For the most part, this didn’t change. So, instead of saying the same thing again, I’ll deviate a bit and focus on a completely unexpected part of the trip. I’ll throw in a lot of pictures along the way.

Have you ever stopped to think about how amazing the world is? Seriously, have you ever really thought about it? I know it’s a pretty generic question. In fact, it’s probably just as easy to argue the opposite – just watch the news. The world is full of some pretty nasty people and places at the moment. However, after spending six weeks living and working in Tanzania, I have to argue the opposite – the world is an amazing place. I had the opportunity to work on the largest tropical lake in the world, day after day, for a month and half. I went days without electricity or running water (on multiple occasions), slept only a few hours a night, burned most days under the African sun, and on the  others got so sea-sick and cold from some of the strongest, nastiest storms I’ve even seen. Every plant, fish, bug, or rock that I touched had some sort of spine, edge, or chemical that resulted in a cut, burn, or rash. If I wasn’t being eaten alive by mosquitoes (with a risk of malaria) then I was being attacked by some of the most ferocious ants I’ve ever encountered. Retreating to the “safety” of the lake (away from most insects) just meant you had to watch the water (where I’m trying to catch the fish I study) for the ever-present threat of crocodiles. Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I spent six weeks in Africa and it is something I will never forget. In fact, I can’t wait to go back!

Now I know what most of you are thinking – what’s wrong with me? To be honest, had I not experienced it myself, I would be thinking the same thing. None of the things I listed above sound fun, nor where they fun when they were happening. However, I think it is more about perspective than it is actual inconvenience. Despite all of the hardships and difficulties that I list, I was never in any danger. Never did I feel unsafe, or did I go hungry or thirsty. I simply had to do without most of the modern conveniences that I (and most of you reading this) am accustomed to. For everyday day that I went without Internet access, TV, or a hot shower (or without a shower at all), I was continually rewarded by the opportunity to live and work in a place we only see on the Discovery Channel. It’s Africa, it’s the where we all come from (aka the origin of the human race), and it’s a completely different way of life. Things I would never even think about in ‘normal’ life became commonplace. For an example, let me share a quick story:

Some days we would not go out on the boat and would instead sample at a near-by stream. This stream was only a few minutes walk from our rest house and was off of a fairly busy road. As such, we would often draw a lot of attention to ourselves by simply fishing in this small stream. On one particular day, I was alone fishing and soon had a group of 6-8 children (probably 8-12 years old) watching me very closely. Being that I had a lot of supplies that these kids did not have, I gave each of them some hooks and worms so that they could catch fish as well (they were there to fish for themselves and their families so that they could eat). I couldn’t help but notice that one of the kids kept hanging quietly around me and did not join his friends to use their new angling supplies. Not only did he watch me very closely, but he also was very intent on checking out all of my belongings (not uncommon, we “scientist” had a lot of strange things). It was only after a while did I realize that of particular interest to him was my unopened, 1.5 liter bottle of water. When I opened the bottle and offered it to him, he quickly drank ~1/4 of the bottle, before turning to share it with some of the other kids as well. It was only at this point did it occur to me that we did not have running water at the moment and that it had been out for a day or two. Whereas we had cases of drinking water in our rest house, there was a good chance that these kids were not as fortunate. For me, a lack of running water just meant I couldn’t shower and had to risk smelling for a few days. For these kids, it may have meant little, if any, drinking water. Before leaving for the day, I gave the boy all the bottled water we had with us.

Talk about putting things into perspective….

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t say these things or share that story to make myself seem all knowing or above anyone. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I share that story to highlight what I experienced from the people of Tanzania. Despite all of these hardships and inconveniences that would have most of us running away (believe me, I was ready to be back!), the people that I interacted with daily where some of the nicest, happiest people I’ve ever met. A lack of running water or the absence of electricity wasn’t a reason to panic and be angry, it was just a fact of life and life went on. One other thing that really stuck out to me was the theme of various conversations that I had with any number of individuals who wanted to talk (and everyone wanted to talk to the American!). The common theme of just about all of these conversations? Race…but not in the way that you’d think. To summarize what I was told on no less than 5 separate occasions, usually while having my white arm directly compared to their black arm: we all need to realize that, regardless of color, we are all human. Black, white, yellow, or brown, it doesn’t matter, we are all human. I being from America and they being Tanzania meant very little. I was simply a friend that did weird things with small fish.

Again, it’s all about perspective…So in case you haven’t been able to tell, my time working on Lake Victoria was nothing short of amazing! For this biology nerd, it was truly a once in a lifetime trip and I’d go back tomorrow if I could. It sounds a bit cheesy to say, but I couldn’t help telling myself that this is what I want from life. I mean I spent six weeks in Tanzania, “working” on Lake Victoria. How cool is that?! And the fact that I did this for my PhD thesis makes it even cooler. It’s crazy to think that fish, by working with them and knowing a bit about them, have taken me all over the world. How is this even fair? As I said before, I think the world is and is full of amazing places. For a biologist, the wildlife and scenery that I was able to see in Africa was absolutely incredible, but then again, watch the Discovery Channel can see you that. For me, the unexpected surprise was the people. And to be honest, it was sad to leave. I spent nearly everyday working hand and hand with two local Tanzanian men, our boat drivers Mhoja and Muhammad. Mhoja and Muhammad have been working with cichlid biologists for over 20 years (30+ for Mhoja). For this reason, they are an invaluable resource when trying to complete our research. Not only are they the steady hand driving the boats in rough water, but also their knowledge of the fish is second to none. Their know-how and skill is impossible to replace.

We also had a TAFIRI scientist, Godfrey, joining on most days to learn more about the cichlids of Lake Victoria. Godfrey, being very well spoken in English, was a key resource for our work, both on the lake and beyond (ever tried to speak Swahili?). Outside of the boat team, there were countless people at TAFIRI who made our job much easier (and many of which we made their jobs extremely difficult – with no complaints at all). Individuals such as Makoja, our driver picking up things in the city while we were out sampling and Leticia, our house “mom” who kept food on the table and our rest house clean, made it possible to complete the amount of work we were able to do (and believe me, there was a lot). Even if we were not working directly with them, you were never offered anything less than bright smile and an extended greeting to see how your day and work was going. All and all, the people* are what made things bearable and kept you going day after day.

On the science side of things (aka the whole reason for going), I was able to collect all of the fish and samples that I need for my PhD project. In fact, I got more than I had planned and will basically spend the next three and a half years trying to analyze all the data – yay science. I also collected ~100 live fish and, despite being shipped all over the world (Tanzania – Switzerland – The Netherlands) they are now in our aquarium and doing well. If all goes as planned, these fish will establish lab populations that will can be used for years to come.

So now that life is more or less back to normal, it seems I can get back to work on this whole PhD thing. Granted all of this fieldwork was directly related to my project, it didn’t feel like it. I got to spend 6 weeks in Africa, “working” on the largest tropical lake in the world, interacting with amazing people, and having the time of my life! If this is what ‘work’ will be for the rest of my life, I think I made a wise career choice…we’ll just overlook the whole ‘hard to find a job in academia thing’.

Until next time!


Lake Victoria !

Greetings from Tanzania!

I would do a Swahili greeting but I’m still working on that one. From my understanding, it is ‘habari’ which means hello/how are you? The problem is, ‘habari’ is typically followed by more specific things like how is your work, how is your family, etc. I haven’t mastered that part yet… Greetings!

I don’t have the best Internet connection here so I’m going to keep my text short and just upload some pictures (it’s better than my describing it anyways). As a quick overview: I’m two weeks into my stay and have two weeks remaining. So far, work has been going very well as I’ve been able to collect a large portion of the samples and data that I need. A typical work day consists of packing the boat full of gear and people, traveling to one of four islands, setting up an “office” on the rocks, and processing samples and fishing all day. We generally leave between 6-8am (depending on which island we go to) and then return around 5-6pm. At this point, there is usually lots of fish that need to be sorted and processed so it’s not unusual to work until 10 or 11 at night. After a quick dinner and shower, it’s off to bed to repeat the process again the next day. It may sound boring, but it has actually been quite fun. I’ve seen lots of wildlife and the scenery is amazing. Most days are very hot and sunny (I’ve gotten a nice tan), while other days are nothing but wind and rain. Regardless of the weather, we are on the lake, working as usual. Wind, waves, and rain just mean you wear a rain suit and hold on a little tighter. There have been a few days where we all got a little seasick, much to the enjoyment of our Tanzanian boat drivers. Nonetheless, it really has been fun and I’m glad I got to come.

Below are some pictures of Tafari (the research station near the house), the boat, and various pictures of the lake and islands we work on. There has been a lot more that I’d love to have a picture of but I don’t dare have my camera out when the weather is bad. I guess sunny weather makes for better pictures anyway…

The main gate to Tafari.
Office and lab space at Tafari.
The hatchery where we keep live fish. You can see the lake in the background
Our boat full of gear. The only thing missing is 6 people.
A typical “office”.
A tornado on the lake!
It takes an hour to get to one of the islands which means some extra sleep.

Until next time!


Tanzania, here I come !

Well, it’s official; I’m heading to Africa!

This time next week, I’ll be on my way to Tanzania for fieldwork. Despite a few months of uncertainty and a significant amount of delay (to be expected when working with African nations), I’ll leave Sunday, September 21st and won’t return until October 20th. Living in Africa for a month and working on the largest tropical lake in the world? I’ll take it! To follow is a brief overview of where I’m going and what I’ll be doing.

Where am I going?

As I just mentioned, Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world (by surface area) and it is located in East Africa, bordered by the countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. It is home to around 500 different species of cichlid fishes (among numerous other types of fish), most of which have come into existence within a very short period of time. Geographical data has shown that the lake was completely empty for several thousand and only refilled about 12,000-13,000 years ago (no water = no fish!). For this reason, Lake Victoria is an excellent place to study how new species comes into existence. Speciation is typically a very, very slow process, taking millions of years to form separate species. Cichlids in Lake Victoria have formed 500+ species in only a few thousands of years (a very short time frame in terms of species development) and therefore give those interested in studying it an opportunity to observe speciation in ‘real-time’. This is what my project focuses on, speciation of cichlid fishes.

I will be living and working on the southern portion of the lake, near the city of Mwanza. All work will be based out of a research station, and from my understanding, I’ll be living in a house nearby. I’ll be joining a group of researchers from Switzerland, most of whom traveled to the lake last week. In addition, there are a few locals who we will rely on to drive the boats and serve as our general guides on the lakes. All in all, it seems I will be working with a diverse group, many of which have lots of experience on the lake

What will I be doing?

Cichlids are a diverse group of fishes that are found all over the word, in South America, India, and Africa. I would venture to guess that anyone reading this has actually had close interactions with a close relative of cichlids, tilapia.   Yep, the same tilapia you fix at home or order at Red Lobster is actually a close relative (in scientific terms: an ancestor) of the fish I will be studying. Cichlids of the East African Great Lakes – Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria – represent about 2,000 different species and have been studied extensively for a number of years. As I mentioned previously, Lake Victoria is an extremely young lake, whereas Malawi and Tanganyika are millions of years old. Additionally, Lake Victoria is relatively shallow and the water very turbid. In comparison, Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika are among the clearest lakes in the world. For this reason, the speciation processes that act in Lake Victoria are much different than those that act in Malawi and Tanganyika (and seem to act at a much faster pace).

I will be working with two very closely related species of cichlids, Pundamilia pundamilia and Pundamilia nyererei (Latin scientific names – no common names such as bluegill or bass). For simplicity, P. pundamilia is the ‘blue’ fish and P. nyererei is the ‘red’ fish. The two fish are very similar, differing mostly in the bright coloration of males. They occur at the same locations in the lake, with the blue fish in shallower depths and the red fish existing much deeper. Being that they are found at such different depths, the two fish live in very different lighting environments. Previous work has shown that the females of each species prefer the specific color of their species (red females prefer red males) and the way they perceive color differs (fish in deep water can see red much better while fish in shallow water can see blue much better). The purpose of my project will be to test how the different light environments has played a role in the formation of these two species (this is putting it very simply as there are lots of factors involved). This matters because Lake Victoria has recently undergone a dramatic change due to human activity around the lake. Increased agriculture and deforestation has caused the lake to become progressively more turbid. If vision and coloration is key to new species arising and maintaining their separation, then human activity could have detrimental effects. There is also the fact that the processes underlying speciation are of great interest but that only matters to science nerds like me.

My work will consist of not only collecting live fish to ship back to Groningen, but also taking light measurements at different depths in the lake and numerous preserved samples to be used later in molecule work. Outside of this, I’ll also be helping the rest of the members of the group with their respective projects. I’m not sure what all this involves but it will let me see much more of the lake and numerous other species of fish.

Males of each species we have in lab. The red one didn’t want his picture taken…


Since I am frequently asked about travel, I figure it’s worth sharing quickly. To get from Groningen to Mwanza, I have to do the following:

  1. 2 hour train ride from Groningen to Amsterdam Sunday afternoon (Sept. 21st)
  2. Leave Amsterdam at 9:00pm and land in Nairobi, Kenya at 6:10am (Sept. 22nd)
  3. Leave Nairobi at 8:10am and land in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at 11:05am
  4. At this point, I have to collect all of my luggage and change airlines to a domestic carrier. This means rechecking in and going through security again. No worries, I have a 7-hour lay over…
  5. Leave Dar es Salaam at 6:50pm and land in Mwanza at 8:20pm
  6. Hire a driver to take me the research station at Lake Victoria

For those of you keeping track, that means a full 24 hours of travel from Groningen to Lake Victoria. Yay science!

Other News

Aside from prepping for the upcoming trip, life in Groningen is still going great! We now once again live in a college town, as school has restarted and all of the students have returned. I think we got a little spoiled with everyone being away for summer holiday and the streets being relatively empty. Biking now, with thousands of students, is quite the adventure. Weather wise, it’s already starting to get cooler here and most of the trees are beginning to drop their leaves. I’m sure by the time I return from Tanzania it will be quite cold.

Whitney is now two weeks into work and seems to really enjoy it. There was a bit of an adjustment for her, going into industry after being in academia for so long (industry is much more strict) but luckily it wasn’t too bad. She seems to really enjoy the people she works with and has already made plans with a work colleague to go clothes shopping once they get paid (I’m very thankful for this…better than me!). Being that she works with a small group of people, all of which are Dutch, she is really starting to get the hang of the language. In fact, she was able to order all of our meats for groceries in Dutch, without having to repeat anything! At this rate, I’ll have my own personal translator by the time I return.

So with that, I’ll call this post finished. If Internet is freely available at the research station, I’ll try to do another post while I’m in Tanzania. If not, I’ll take plenty of pictures and update in October.

Until next time!