A True Field Experience

A Research Project Reflection by Megan Dollenmeyer

As a part of my STEP Signature Project I traveled to the Mamiraua Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon to participate in field research led by Dr. Pedro da Gloria on rural dental health. Most of my trip consisted of assisted Dr. Fernando Nogeira collect saliva samples to analyze pH levels in lactating, pregnant, and non-lactating or pregnant women. I also analyzed the data we collected on the Bolsa Família program, food insecurity, dietary data and anthropometric measurements. I am currently working to analyze the data we collected, in addition to data collected on a second trip to the same site, which I hope to utilize for my senior research thesis.

This trip turned out to be one of the most challenging and life changing experiences I have had to date. Not only did I meet some of the most incredible people, who truly changed my entire perspective on life, but I also faced some of the toughest challenges that I know made me a better person. My research adviser and I arrived in Manaus a day late, as our plane was delayed in Charlotte, NC, which made us mix our flight from Miami to Manaus. This delay also caused a hiccup in my baggage delivery, which was held in Miami. I went into the field without any of my stuff, except for the outfit I was wearing, a few items I bought in Tefé, and my backpack. After living in two outfits for three weeks, until my luggage arrived in the field, I truly learned the meaning of humility and generosity. People in the communities in which we studied heard my story and offered me their own clothes, even though they didn’t have enough to give any away. I also never realized how much I took for granted all the “normal” aspects of my American life, like sleeping in a bed or drinking liquid milk. In fact, my time in the Brazilian Amazon completely upturned my sentiments toward these “normal” parts of life. Now, I would much rather sleep in a hammock than a bed and I would rather have powdered milk with my coffee than regular milk.

My missing luggage wasn’t the only part of the trip that went wayward. I also accidentally walked in “tall” grass full of bugs and promptly became covered in bites, got sick from working with saliva samples, and had to leave the field a couple days early to register my visa in Manaus. Through all of this, I learned the value of “tudo bem” or that “all is good”. I learned to live with the circumstances, even if they were uncomfortable, and to make the best out of the worst situations. For a formerly anxious and high-strung person like me, this was a huge transformation.

Overall, I learned more about field research than I ever thought was possible. I learned about the integrity of data collection, and how gender can influence the research. For example, my Brazilian research adviser, Pedro, faced problems when asking women questions about pregnancy and lactation. On the other hand, my Ohio State research adviser, Dr. P, was able to effectively relate to these women as a women, to record accurate data. Prior to this, I hadn’t really thought about how gender influences data collection. In a field such as anthropology, which has been traditionally male-dominated, it is extremely important to recognize the different biases in work, and how personal attributes of the researchers can influence the data collected as well as the data presented.

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There are more relationships and interactions that led to my transformation than I can even describe. Firstly, my relationships with two women who worked for the Institue, Dores and Caila, who helped me navigate the Amazon and showed me the true meaning of what it means to be a woman. They were considered the “mothers” of the group, and they truly were there with me along the way while I grew as a person. They showed me more compassion than I ever could have imagined, including making me a paste for my extensive amount of bug bites and showing me how to “treat” a fish. More importantly, they comforted me when I had problems registering my visa and helped me navigate the bureaucracy of Brazil.

The other friendship that significantly changed my perception of the world, and even what I want to do with my life, was my friendship with a young girl in one of the communities. This girl and her siblings would wait on the banks of their community for our boat to come every day. From the time I arrived, to the time I left, my “fan club” would follow me around, teaching me new little words in Portuguese and asking me different things about the US. At times, being the only English speaker in the group was difficult, so chatting with this groups of kids, and spending time with them each day, made me happier and feel more at home in a strange place. After hearing all of their different stories, they helped me come to the realization that everything will be okay in the end, as long as you have friends by your side.

Paired with the other friendships I made while in the Amazon, especially those of Rafaela and Camila (two undergraduate researchers from a university in the northeast), I learned more about fieldwork and myself, and living in extremely close quarters, than I could have ever imagined. Although the events, like losing my luggage and having problems with my visa, affected my view of the world, the people that I met had much more of a profound impact than any of these little things. If I could go back and do it again, I would without hesitation, even if it meant going through all the obstacles along the way.

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This transformation was extremely valuable for my life, as it has without a doubt influenced my future career path. After my experiences with my “fan club”, I have decided to apply for Teach for America following my graduation. My time with the kids in the communities helped me realize the value of education and see the multidimensional challenges that these kids face just trying to go to school. Hopefully following my time with Teach for America, I would like to go to law school or graduate school in order to continue working in the area of food security and social welfare policy. Academically, my time in the Brazilian Amazon has inspired me to continue learning Portuguese. This past semester I managed to take two graduate level Portuguese classes, a feat I never would have been able to accomplish if I hadn’t learned in the Amazon. Additionally, my personal academic goals include completing my honors thesis by the end of my senior year and graduating with Honors Research Distinction. My personal goals include returning to the Amazon as soon as I possibly can, whether to do more research or just for a personal visit. Additionally, I would

Learning to “live with the uncomfortable” and that all will be good in the end has helped me navigate the past two semesters as I encountered some of the hardest challenges of my life. After losing two close family members, traveling back and forth to Cincinnati during the week to care for one of these family members and trying to keep up with my work in 19 credit hours with 3 graduate level classes, I don’t think I would have succeeded without the lessons I learned in Brazil. Going forward, these experiences will continue to impact my life daily, as they have completely changed my world perspective.

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One thought on “A True Field Experience

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection, Megan! It’s great that you are now more comfortable with the unexpected. And, I appreciate your observations about the ways in which identity (for example, gender) impact how we show up in the world. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of close family…sending you strength!

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