Photo: A. Perl

student stories

From terrorist attacks in Kenya to earthquakes in the Philippines

Former centre Master's student Ashley Perl shares the biggest challenge she faced in her Master's thesis work and her best advice for those about to start their projects.

Story highlights

  • Be prepared to adapt to unforeseen events when palnning your fieldwork
  • Fieldwork and lab work are not always the same - cherish the encounters with people on the way
  • Don't be afraid to make mistakes but be sure to learn from them

Former centre Master’s student Ashley Perl tells the story of how her fieldwork landed in the Philippines by ways of Kenya and terrorist attacks

The 2-year Master’s programme Social-ecological resilience for sustainable development (SERSD) admits 18 students each year. The first year of the programme is dedicated to courses in theory and methods and an internship. The second year is entirely for the student’s Master’s thesis.

The research questions the students engage in are transdisciplinary, and their field sites are found all over the world. The finished theses are interesting to read, but oftentimes the stories of how they came about in the field are equally exciting.

Former centre Master student Ashley Perl presented her thesis in the fall of 2015. She had looked at how different elements of community-based management of Marine Protected Areas (MPA:s) promoted or hindered recovery from an earthquake in the Philippines – but that wasn’t the original plan. One of the key components of resilience is adaptability, something that is often required to succeed in resilience research too. Here is Ashley’s story:

A windy but exciting road ahead
"Crammed shoulder to shoulder with seven others in a habal-habal, a Filipino motorcycle taxi built for four, was not what originally came to mind when planning my Master’s field project. In fact, Bohol, Philippines as a field site was a complete surprise, as I had been ready to go to Kenya and work with the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, where my supervisor, Tim Daw, had a long established working relationship.

However, the Kenya project came to a halt a few months before I was set to depart. For the past several years, Kenya had been dealing with attacks from militant terrorist group Al-Shabab, but in Spring 2014 attacks were happening nearly biweekly. Unfortunately, some of which were close to the coastal villages where I had been planning to compare the effectiveness of different community-based MPA management strategies. It became clear to both my supervisors and myself that circumstances were too risky, and that alternative project arrangements would have to be made.

A lot of anxiety and questions came from losing the Kenya project. Should I forget about fieldwork and do a desk-based thesis? Do I want to choose a project I’m less excited about? Should I delay the stat of start of my thesis? How would delaying affect my student VISA status? How would I budget for extra time? Despite all uncertainties, I decided I wanted fieldwork and a big challenge, and that the only way to accomplish that was to approach other NGOs.

The next few months, I contacted at least a dozen different organizations. Most emails went unanswered, some received a response but with were met little enthusiasm or follow up. However, one NGO, Project Seahorse Foundation, appeared hooked and connected me to their longstanding partners, the Zoological Society of London – Philippines, and my eventual co-supervisor Heather Koldewey.

Although I was thrilled to have made this connection, it still came with a number challenges to overcome: I had to adapt my project to incorporate how a 7.2-magnitdude earthquake affected MPA management; delay the start of my thesis project, and consequently graduation; and find employment in the meantime to supplement living costs and cover outstanding fieldwork expenses.

Luckily, with some time all of these missing pieces fell into place. I got to experience the challenges of fieldwork, and examined how different elements of community-based MPA management promoted or hindered recovery from the earthquake. I was able to find a job at the SRC working on the Planetary Boundaries MOOC – a job I was able to hold part-time while writing my thesis – and also work with a number of people around the SRC that I otherwise may not have interacted with.

While the road to ending up in a packed habal-habal in Bohol, was winding, involved some sacrifices, and patience, in the end it turned out to be a welcomed surprise."

Learn more about education at the centre here

Published: 2016-05-18