Sol Milne '10
I’m working as a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, with my project focused on a very un- Scottish animal - the Bornean Orangutan. I’m happy to say that studying at Brentwood played a big role in opening up the field of science.
When I was very young, science was portrayed as a grown-up, impenetrable kind of subject, which only old people who had done lots of exams could do. I was happy to find that science is really about applying your thinking to a real-world problem; that makes sense to someone with no experience in your subject. Some of the most effective researchers I know aren’t professors or working in labs, but people who can think in pragmatic and creative terms and are passionate about their work.
Biology class with Mr Pennells at Brent- wood was great because we actually talked about the subject - “What does this do? Why is it there on the body? What’s the point in evolving something like this?” I learned that biology requires thought that doesn’t necessarily origin- ate from a textbook, and that natural processes are really just a long, slow and inelegant series of mistakes.
Untangling this beautiful mess is what biology, especially my field of ecology, is about. I’m an ecologist because there is nothing more precious to me than the interactions between animals and their environment, refined through evolution across unfathomable reaches of time. I want to learn more about the inter- connections between animals and their landscape and to develop the tools to protect them into the future.
I work in Sabah, the northernmost Ma- laysian province on the island of Borneo. In a nutshell, I fly drones over large areas of forest to map out the habitat of orangutans and learn how human activ- ity is affecting this species. Orangutans make nests in the treetops every night, creating a bed, roughly the size of a dinner table, woven from branches and leaves, sometimes luxuriously equipped with a leaf umbrella! By learning where they make their nests, we can under- stand what kind of forest they prefer, where they forage for food, and their movement patterns across large areas.
I study orangutans for a lot of reasons; they are highly intelligent and share a huge amount of knowledge between generations about where to eat, when fruit comes into season and how to eat branches of toxic tree species without becoming sick. They are also beauti- fully expressive and at times hilarious when playing with each other. I work with these animals mainly because they are an ‘umbrella species’, which means the habitat that is suitable for them can also provide a refuge for a huge range of other animals. So, if we focus our conservation efforts at maintaining the forest in good enough condition for or- angutans, we will protect a huge number of species. Considering Borneo is one of the most biodiverse places on our whole planet, this makes it a worthwhile conservation strategy.
One important part of my work is learn- ing how orangutans are coping with palm oil cultivation, which has resulted in the loss of more than 70% of the island’s rainforest. We’re developing ways to make the industry more sustainable by not logging more forest, and trying to link up patches of forest using strips of forest known as ‘dispersal corridors’ so that animals can travel between these patches in areas where it has become fragmented. The forest that has already been logged is gone, but we can focus our efforts on restoring as much as we can, and making sure what remains is protected by law. My work focuses on how orangutans use forest that has already been degraded, so we can understand what aspects of forest are still useful for them.
As an ecologist, I travel through the forest and make my own observations, whether it’s from the lens of a drone high above the forest canopy, or from deep within its confines, following GPS coordinates along trails to find orangutans in the wild. Field- work, however, is the best and sometimes the worst part of the job, and every time we go to the forest, inevitably something goes wrong. I’ve had bridges collapse right beneath me as we drove across, been chased out of the forest by elephants, and, ironically, also trapped in the forest by ele- phants blocking our truck. I’ve been bitten by lizards, snakes, dogs, cats, monkeys, rats, spiders, scorpions and once an actual Jaguar. Ecology isn’t for everyone, but once you get involved and tumble through the inevitable plethora of accidents and fieldwork failures, you end up with some fun stories, and a few bruises.
Having worked in this part of the world for five years, as a research assistant and now as a PhD student, my per- spective has shifted significantly since I began. I started with the understanding that humans and their environment were separate and that boundaries had to be maintained in order to allow other species to survive; when I saw images from my drone showing vast stretches of forest divided by the deep gashes of logging, this view was reinforced. I de- veloped a misplaced ideal that humans must be kept out. When I flew the drone I saw the beautiful, old growth forest, mysterious and shrouded in mist, juxta- posed against the secondary forest laid open and fragmented.
However, the more I worked in forests that had already been impacted by humans, the more apparent it became that there is still a huge number of ani- mals within these areas that don’t seem like less valuable habitats. They are just home to a different community of species. The bird calls in secondary for- ests were distinctly different, and when we went on night walks, we could see different animals; more cats and fewer monkeys. I realised that human-im- pacted habitat isn’t worthless, but still extremely valuable, opening a new set of niches for different animals to exploit. A huge range of habitats exist between a forest that is pristine and that which is highly degraded, and every step across this spectrum is valuable in its own right.
On reflection, I realize I was more motivated by the prospect of working in some exotic, remote place, or with a charismatic animal, than by the notion of discovering something. It feels obvious now how full the world is of unanswered questions, so much so that your own insight is already fitted to some small gap in our knowledge , and if you’re interested in any aspect of scientific research, you can work to widen that niche and push our understanding forward. To anyone interested in getting involved in any facet of science, read up on the field that interests you and learn as much as you can about it. I was never a particularly sharp student, but there is an important distinction between how quickly you pick up a subject and how driven you are to take the time to understand it. Learning by the book is vital, and Brentwood is full of amazing people who take time to make sure you understand something (shoutout to Mrs. Herman for the hours you spent helping me understand molarity equations!).
At the moment I’m analysing my data (which mostly consists of me getting increasingly angry at my computer until I get my head around the statistics) with the goal of communicating these findings to policymakers, to ensure that the habitat requirements of orangutans are considered in future land-use decisions in this region. After this adventure, I’m heading to Myanmar to explore opportunities to use both flying and submersible drones to find and remove lost fishing nets from coral reefs. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to protect our environment and using robots to study our surroundings is turning out to be a useful way to do this.
My journey so far has been by no means conventional, and there have many steps back for each step forward, but it is part of the process (especially in conservation). I’m grateful for the time I had being close to nature in Mill Bay, and the appreciation it gave me for the environment just outside, giving me a chance to to develop my interest in ecology in such a beautiful part of the world. I hope the current students are enjoying their time in such a great place and I’m looking forward to the next chance I get to come back!