Studying in Ghana: Highs, Lows, and the Future

(As part of btw’s Profiles of interesting people, we present the final part of an interview with Rob Schubert, who recently completed research in Ghana. Click here to read part I. And click here to read part II.)

btw: What is the most awesome thing that you have seen or that has happened?

Rob: I would have to say that the small fruit-eating Guenons getting into huge group fights has been one of the most interesting things I’ve seen.

The females of each group come close to one another and face the other group, usually across some gap in the forest canopy or some obstacle like the forest trail. The first few minutes usually consist of the two groups making deep grunts at one another. Suddenly, one side will lunge toward the other group that in turn runs away a few feet, regroups, and then lunges back. This can last for nearly half an hour.

While the fighters rarely contact one another, the coordination between group members plays out almost like a scripted play or a planned attack where each side continually adjusts its strategy based on the reaction of the other side. It’s really impressive to see and one of my favorite memories.

btw: What is the most dangerous or surprising thing you have seen?

Rob: I was attacked by two male black and white Colobus, and that was one of the scariest and most surprising things I experienced.

Generally, the black and white Colobus are very subdued, moving only for short time periods and resting a large part of the day. However, males are very protective of newborn babies that often fall from high in the canopy to the ground.

One day while following the Guenons, a newborn Colobus I did not see fell from the canopy. Normally, I would step away. But in this case, I thought it was just the Guenons crashing in the leaves near the ground.

Two male Colobus chased me back and jumped on me to protect the baby. While I wasn’t seriously injured and the Colobus fled back into the forest quickly, the experience was shocking.

I did take away an important lesson from the experience. No matter how well you think you know these animals, they are still wild and can be unpredictable.

btw: How has living in Ghana changed you?

Rob: Living in Ghana has given me an opportunity to see a part of the world that I have only experienced through the media.

While here, I’ve seen the poverty and corruption that we in the United States often read or hear about. But I have also seen hope for the future. Ghanaians care for the environment, and their compassion for others is something that we often don’t hear about. I have built friendships and experienced a different culture and a different view of the world.

I think after leaving Ghana, I will have a greater respect for the opportunities and resources that I have access to, but also a personal sense of the vast differences between the rich and the poor in the world.

btw: What do you miss most from home?

Rob: I miss my family and friends the most. It has been difficult not being able to share both the interesting experiences and the tough challenges that I have had throughout my time abroad.

btw: What would you like to do next?

Rob: I plan to write my dissertation and finish my degree within the coming year. Afterward, I would like to take my passion for science and primates into an educational position as a university professor or through a zoo or natural history museum.

btw: What can students do to prepare now for work in a field similar to yours?

Rob: The most important thing is to keep your passion for the natural world alive. Visit or volunteer at your local zoos and read everything you can about the animals that interest you. Leave your mind open to the many different topics to study in animal research and learn what other scientists have done.

A broad interest in science, including biology, earth science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics, will help you a great deal as you move into a professional career as an animal researcher and will help you find the topics that personally interest you the most.