Posted: May 5, 2017

Name: Jacalyn Beck
Education: B.S. (2011) Penn State University; Ph.D. (current) Michigan State University
SFS Program: Tanzania/Kenya Fall ’10
Current Work: Studying the ecology of carnivores and their prey

Why did you choose SFS as a study abroad program?
I chose SFS because it was the only program that offered a complete immersive experience in the region where I hoped to study. I wanted to get off the beaten path and get to know East Africa in a way that a typical tourist or student couldn’t. I wanted a program that not only allowed me to study under accomplished local scientists but also challenged me to conduct my own research and contribute meaningfully to larger scientific goals. SFS gave me that and so much more. Instead of reading about wildlife ecology, natural resource management, and policy from a book, I experienced it and learned about it first hand through interviews with community members, meetings with local government, outreach opportunities, and countless trips in the field. I felt like there was never a wasted moment. SFS was everything I had hoped it would be and yet more than I could have ever imagined.

What is your most profound or lasting memory from your SFS program?
It’s truly impossible to pick! I could write a novel with all the amazing memories I made during my time with SFS. But what I really believe was most profound is not a memory at all, but a feeling. The thing I cherish over all else is the complete sense of excitement and contentment that pervaded everything we did during the program. Yes, there were times of stress while studying or collecting data, of course there were moments I felt tired or confused or frustrated over some small thing. But really there was never a time in my life when I felt happier or more alive than I did during those months in Kenya and Tanzania. It was the sense of family I built with others in the program, the acceptance and love I felt from the community and staff, the sense of accomplishment in the work I was a part of. As our then-director Dr. Moses Okello would say, “my cup of joy was overflowing!”

What advice would you give to a prospective SFS student?
I would tell every prospective SFS student to never give up on themselves or their goals. SFS students are ambitious, curious, and compassionate. They are the type of people who chase dreams and change the world. If that describes you, then never lose sight of that despite life’s many challenges and setbacks. If you hold on to your passions, work hard, and never settle, you cannot fail.

What are you working on now?
I am currently a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University. I work in the RECaP Lab (Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey — alongside some of the best scientists I have ever met. Together we work to study predator-prey interactions and support the conservation of species all around the globe. The two main ecosystems we currently focus on are the Cleveland Metroparks where we investigate how carnivores and their prey thrive in an urban landscape, and Eastern Africa where our research efforts span from giraffe skin disease to lion depredation of livestock to illegal snaring of predators.

For now, what I do is all preparatory. I began working towards my Ph.D. last fall (2016) and have spent the last two semesters taking a few classes, grant writing, and planning my research. I was recently awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship through the National Science Foundation (NSF GRFP). This was my third attempt at the grant and final year of eligibility. So to finally achieve it on my last try means so much. This is a huge honor and gives me a leg up as I pursue my lion research over the coming years. With this award I am more ready than ever to get back to Africa and get to work!

I will be heading to Tanzania this summer to start the first phase of my study. This will entail direct collaboration with local herders, conducting focal animal observations on the behavior of cattle and other livestock, and collecting data on the biotic and abiotic factors driving direct and indirect interaction between lions and cattle. The main focus this summer will be to investigate the ways in which cows may alter their behavior in locations of high predation risk. This work will be the basis of my dissertation research overall as I dig deeper into how individual variation in behavior plays a role in human-carnivore conflict. I will continue this theme over the next several years by collaring, following, and monitoring the fine-scale movement patterns and behaviors of all individuals within a lion pride. I hope to gain new insight into the ecology of predator-prey interaction that may lead to decreased conflict in the region.

Did your SFS experience contribute to where you ended up?
Absolutely! I always knew I wanted to work with large carnivores and have been passionate about studying African species since college. My time at SFS Kenya/Tanzania, however, really opened my eyes to the human aspects of wildlife management in the region. The people I met and worked with were so passionate about finding solutions to their wildlife conflict issues that I was absolutely inspired to help them achieve that goal, and have been ever since. After leaving Africa in 2010, I worked continuously to build the skills and experiences necessary to qualify me to take on this role as a professional scientist. Now, as a Ph.D. student, I will be doing just that.

And SFS continues to support my efforts and contribute to where I am headed. I will be working in collaboration with Dr. Bernard Kissui (who now holds the title of director at SFS Tanzania, and who was my professor of wildlife management when I attended the program) and the Tarangire Lion Project that he heads. Sharing data and resources with Dr. Kissui and SFS is an integral part of my research design. My partnership with SFS not only influences my success as a graduate student, but also my own sense of personal accomplishment. I am extremely proud to be an SFS alumna and to continue my work with the program!

What advice do you have for other SFS alumni looking to get into your field?
SFS alumni looking to start a Ph.D. should remember to try to be patient. As with the current job market, there are more qualified people pursuing graduate education than there are openings. Be persistent and be professional. Do not get discouraged. Occasionally, all the pieces fall into place and the path leading to a PhD is clear. But more likely, it will require a whole lot of time, effort, and patience on your part.