I woke up early after spending the night on Justin’s couch and let myself out around 7:30, long before he and his roommates would be up. I ate breakfast at a coffee shop near the Southport station and boarded a train around 8 am for the 90-minute ride to O’Hare. I wasn’t planning on taking any chances with my flight this time, arriving at the airport a full 3 hours before my 12:30 departure. It was a new day after all and therefore represented a chance to make a fresh start at getting my overseas trip back on course. I figured that if something had to go wrong during our trip, we might as well get it over with at the very beginning! Rather than describe any of the details that took place during my 12-hour flight to Tokyo, my 3-hour layover, and my final 6-hour flight to Singapore, maybe now would be the time to describe our stated goals in a bit more detail.
Our trip was part of an initiative at Monmouth College called SIRT, Summer International Research Trips and represented the second installment of this particular program. The first trip had been led by Prof. Kristin Larson, who had taken 3 students to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur a few years before to study cultural psychology as well as to investigate methods of traditional Eastern healing. While we also planned to visit these two locations, our research goals were much different this time. As a biologist, I am interested in biodiversity, especially that of the tropics. I had recently realized that the biodiversity of a given area could be measured by isolating leeches from that locale. Since leeches sucked on pretty much anything that moved and also retained traces of their last blood meal for approximately a month, they seemed ideal for detecting what animals had frequented a particular area. The sheer density of plant life in a rainforest makes it very difficult to make an accurate survey of wildlife based on visual identification. If we could sample a group of leeches by sequencing part of the DNA found in their stomachs, they would reveal much to us concerning biodiversity. In addition to this specific agenda, I also sought to understand the interaction that national parks had with the indigenous peoples who inhabited them and how this was affected by such things as government, religion, and culture.
I therefore had assembled a multidisciplinary team of researchers that only a small liberal arts college could provide. Becky, for her part, is an English and political science double major with a minor in 19th century studies. She represented my expert in politics. Ade is a biology major with an interest in Eastern religions who has recently taken coursework on Buddhism. She represented my expert in religion. Zach had come with me to the Galapagos in 2011 and, as biochemistry major, would be in charge of the DNA analysis once we returned to the college. All had been recommended for service by three different department heads at Monmouth College- two had never been to Southeast Asia before. Ade, being a Filipina/American, had visited the Philippines on a number of occasions but had not been to the Asian mainland. I was encouraged when I checked my Facebook in Tokyo to find that the students had boarded their flight for Singapore earlier that day, apparently having survived Hong Kong without me. I had given them a difficult assignment once they arrived in Singapore- to spend the day at the beach at Sentosa Island. That way we could begin the real work on Thursday morning after I arrived and they could have some time to recover from those really really long flights. By the time I arrived in Singapore and had made it through customs and immigration, it had just turned Thursday. Since the last MRT train for the night had already left Changi Airport by that time, I took a taxi to the Service World Hostel in Chinatown, arriving around 12:40. Andrew Yip, the proprietor of the hostel, was patiently awaiting my arrival. He was the former Director of Planning for Singapore and now ran a hostel in his retirement that he freely admitted was more of a hobby than a business venture. He offered me a Tiger beer and led me to the dorm room where my students had completed their assignment with flying colors and were waiting up for me. It was good to be reunited with my team!