Student to spend six weeks in Borneo researching orangutans

Senior psychology major Megan Draper is embarking on the trip of a lifetime as she heads to Borneo, in Southeast Asia, to study what she loves: orangutans. The self-described "lover of primates" is ditching the desks of Penn State Brandywine to conduct research alongside world-renowned scientists at a remote field site in the rain forest, and she's earning credits for it, too.

Draper will spend six weeks (beginning at the end of September) working with the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop), an organization that seeks to protect, conserve and restore Sabangau, a peat swamp forest that is home to the world's largest orangutan population.

Draper's work will focus on studying the wild population of orangutans, Bornean gibbons, red langurs and other native primate species. She hopes to also help conduct research on other animals in the area, such as the clouded leopards and other wild cat species and insects, such as beetles and butterflies. "There are a ton of insects in the rain forest," she said, "and I'll [research] the trees in the region and the peat swamp habitat. It's under threat of commercial agriculture, especially by palm oil plantations," so there is much research being done on the ecology of the region as well as its animals.

"I am really excited to see orangutans and gibbons in their natural habitat," she said. "And I am interested in talking to people who have researched these animals. I know I have so much to learn."

Her exact duties and responsibilities are a bit unclear, but Draper has a good handle on what to expect.

"My impression is that as undergraduate research assistant volunteers, they will have us help a little with everything," Draper said, referring to a group of volunteers from around the world who will also be studying at the facility. "The point is to have us cycle through everything" to gain as much experience as possible.

This unique opportunity was handcrafted for Draper as part of her honors research project. A bachelor of science in psychology major and Cooper Honors Scholar, she worked with Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Cynthia Lightfoot and Associate Professor of Psychology Pauline Guerin to tailor this program to fit into her curriculum. Draper will earn 12 credits and will be required to complete coursework both before and after her trip. And while internet access will be limited to the small town located an hour boat ride from the research compound, Draper will check in periodically with her professors via Skype and email. She also will use the experience to write her mandatory senior honors thesis next spring. Her on-site project is titled "Enthography of the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project."

So where did this love of primates originate?

"When I graduated from high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. I wasn't interested in anything," Draper explained. She decided to take a year off to decide. Her supportive parents encouraged her to explore the world, and so she did.

Draper spent two weeks in a rain forest in Ecuador with Earth Watch, where she served as a basic field assistant conducting research alongside scientists. She helped with surveys and collected camera traps. She later spent one week in Mexico on a building volunteer project. But it was during her month-long trip to Northeast South Africa (outside a small town called Phalaborwa) that her love of primates was solidified.

Draper worked as a volunteer for the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (CARE), where she provided basic care for orphaned baby baboons. She essentially served as a baboon babysitter. "They need round-the-clock care," she explained. "The ultimate goal [at CARE] is to eventually release a whole troop of baboons into the wild so they need to be socialized with their species and need loving care." She bottle-fed them, cleaned their cages and provided daily basic needs. She loved every minute.

While OuTrop is located in a remote area of Borneo, Draper will be staying in a cabin-like facility equipped with basic plumbing and electricity (most of the time). Not to mention the essential mosquito net on her bunk to keep away the malaria-ridden insects.

She expects to spend the majority of her time on the compound and in its research labs, but said she'll likely take overnight treks into the forest for what she called "behavior follows" and data collection.

"I'm excited to go to a totally different part of the world than I've ever been," Draper said. She's also looking forward to seeing "new species of primates that I've never seen before. I want to go to grad school for primatology but I'm not sure which species I'm most interested in ? I'm really excited to meet orangutans and gibbons because I want the opportunity to observe different species to determine which to study as a career."

Ideally, Draper would like to pursue a career in field research in a remote facility such as this one.

She credits her classes at Brandywine with helping to prepare her for this journey (including her animal minds class with Lightfoot) and her professors for encouraging her unique interests.

"One thing I have liked about [Penn State Brandywine] is that my professors have been really supportive and flexible about my goals," she said. For research papers and assignments, her professors helped her "explore how I could make the subject relate to psychology and what I'm interested in. Professors let all students here tailor assignments to their interests. My professors have been really great about that."