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About the Event

Shauhin Alavi is a biologist at Rutgers University. Currently he is finishing his PhD research on orangutan ecology and cognition. He spends his time between teaching and lab work and the university and field work in the jungle. We asked him a few questions about himself and his STEM career to get to know him and his work a bit better before his live event.

What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
Guitar, Martial arts, Fitness, Salsa Dancing

Do you play any musical instruments?
Guitar

Do you play any sports or do any athletic activities?
Martial Arts and weight lifting

What is your favorite non-science book, magazine, or blog?
The Malazan series (fantasy book series)

What song do you listen to most often?
Waves – Guthrie Govan

Who do you look up to and admire?
My parents

Highest degree attained    
BA

Degree currently pursuing, if any
PhD
    
Schools attended
UC Davis, Rutgers University

What kinds of challenges did you overcome during your education?
Balancing work and school can be one of the hardest things for students to accomplish. I certainly made mistakes and there were times when my grades suffered for it, but I was able to find that balance and get into graduate school.

Official title
PhD Candidate 

“Layman’s” title
Biologist

Years in this organization/position
4

What does your organization do?
Research and education

What is your role in the organization?
I am both a student, a researcher, and an instructor.

Describe your work environment
Very physically and intellectually stimulating!

What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?.
Statistical Programming, Laboratory skills, Traversing difficult terrain.

Describe a typical day in your job
When I’m in the US my day is mix of analyzing data, working in the lab, and teaching. When I am in the field my days consist of running through the jungle collecting data on which ever species I am studying at the time.
    
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role?
I am proud of the publications that have come out of my work, the kind teaching reviews I have gotten from my students, and seeing students I have trained go on to be successful.

What projects or goals are you currently pursuing?
I am currently finishing the last year of my PhD, and am finishing my research on orangutan ecology and cognition. I am also part of a team about to start an exciting and important project monitoring the forest fires in Indonesia.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
The biggest challenges are a mix of coping with the physical challenges of working in jungles, and the challenges associated with respectfully coordinating with the local people and local governments of the places we work. 

What is the most exciting, most amazing, or scariest thing that has happened to you during your work?
One of the scariest moments was when I was collecting data in Africa. Our study subjects (baboons) would routinely sleep in part of the elephants’ daily travel rout. Because elephants are faced with so many poachers, they can be quite fearful and hostile towards people. There were several times where I was attempting to observe the baboons, and the elephant herd would come through. They would get very upset upon seeing me and would constantly charge me. Quite the adrenaline rush!

What would a teenager find interesting about what you do?
Getting to travel to so many places and live amongst some amazing wildlife while also building a variety of skills!

What’s the coolest part of your job?
Getting access to all of the wildlife and producing knowledge for the rest of the world to read.

What are some of the perks of your job?
Traveling and networking with people all over the world.

What are the downsides of your job?
I often have to collect data for long periods of time, sometimes more than a year. Being very isolated and far from people you care about for that long can be quite lonely and challenging. Other than that, working in labs and forests do make you subject to some health risks that you have to consider before committing to the job. 

If asked to “sell” this career to someone, what would you say to convince them to pursue it?
Do you want to learn, while at the same time travel the world and go to places few other people will ever get to go? Do you want to see animals that might not be around in the next decade and potentially prevent their demise? And do you want to be able to teach young people about all you have learned about biology on your adventures? Then this is the job for you!

What’s something that most people don’t know about your job/work?
You need to learn some basic computer programming, and some basic accounting/management skills!

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your job/work?
That jungles are as romantic and easy to work in as documentaries make it look.

What personal traits make you well suited for the work that you do?
I enjoy both mental and physical challenges, and being a field based scientist requires both physical and intellectual skills. I am also a bit of an adrenaline junkie!

Previous employers and positions that have lead to your current role
I worked as a research assistant at the California National Primate Research Center, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 

Other positions not necessarily related to your current career
In the past I have worked as a payroll assistant for UC Davis, a telemarketer, and a marketing manager for a computer company among other things!

Best job you’ve ever had and why    
My current job, I absolutely love it! It is rewarding and exciting.

Worst job you’ve ever had and why    
Telemarketing. It is a frustrating job and most people are upset when you contact them. 

What were you like as a kid?
As a kid I was very quiet, and the only things I wanted to watch on TV were Animal Planet and martial arts films. I was also very competitive.

What were your favorite books/shows/movies when you were a kid?
Favorite books were anything written by Jack London and the Anamorph Series. Favorite movies were any action/adventure, scifi/fantasy, or martial arts films. 

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up at age 12? At age 15? At age 18?
When I was 12 and 15 I thought I would be a professional guitarist. When I was 18 I thought I would be a computer engineer. 

When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
I didn’t consider my current career until I took a primatology course in college. I needed to take one more course to complete my credits for that term, and I signed up for the class without much thought. I was fascinated by the course material and when I finally met with the professor he explained that he actually goes to the field regularly and that it is his real career. I was hooked and changed majors. 

Who inspired you on this path?
My undergraduate advisor and current friend Dr. Andrew Marshall.

What did you believe about this career before entering into it that proved to be different once you were in?
I didn’t have many preconceptions about the field, but I was most surprised by how different working in a forest really is compared to what it looks like on TV. I was also surprised by the additional responsibilities I had outside of the pure research.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what other career(s) might you have pursued?
I would have either been a computer scientist or a musician.

Why did you agree to become a STEM Role Model?
Many students don’t really know the variety of career options that are available to STEM students or how to get started. Being a STEM Role Model sounded like a great way to let students know a little about what my experience was like. 

What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing your career?
Do your best to start building your resume, and consider getting good at statistics. You won’t believe how marketable it makes you!

What advice would you give students in general?
Don’t be shy, talk to your teachers and professors! Network, meet people, and you will get opportunities to start getting work experience. Also, hands on experience is a great way to confirm whether or not you actually enjoy working in the field you are pursuing.

What are some interesting places you’ve traveled?
I have been lucky and have been able to visit over 18 countries. Some of the most interesting so far have been Panama, Kenya, and Indonesia.

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