Back from, and onward to, the Orient

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July 19, 2017

Thomas Connor is a PhD student studying with Jack Liu. He's doing field work in and around Wolong, China.

My China fieldwork this year splits into two trips – June to August, then January to October of next year. These will differ from my previous trips in that this time, I am funded directly from government sources (An East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute [EAPSI] fellowship this summer and a Fulbright grant next year).

For both of these programs, I used my dissertation research as the core of my applications – understanding the effects of habitat quality and human disturbance on the connectivity between wildlife populations. To do this, I am studying giant pandas across a network of nature reserves in Sichuan, China. Specifically, I am collecting their poo throughout the wilds so I can extract DNA.

This will tell me what features across the landscape or landscape characteristics inhibit (or enhance) movement between areas and between populations. Adequate levels of gene flow are important for wildlife to survive and adapt in changing environments, and my dissertation aims to better understand this gene flow process in one of the world’s most iconic species. I believe my research on giant panda populations and habitat fragmentation within telecoupled human and natural systems has importance for ecology, conservation, and sustainable development in China and beyond, and it feels validating to get external funding for your work.

I am now no stranger to extended periods in China, as last year I spent seven months there to collect data,Thomas Connor and colleague collecting in Chinese forest develop collaborations, and learn Mandarin. I relish the physical labor and natural beauty that comes with my fieldwork in the mountains of Sichuan, but I have found that such long periods in a foreign country takes an emotional toll, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time back in my home country. That said, the people of China are overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming to foreigners, which I am endlessly grateful for, and I have true friends and colleagues there that I cherish. The inner struggle between the sense of isolation and the sense of welcome is perhaps worth a blog post of its own, but here I diverge.

From climbing the gorgeous mountains of southwest China in search of panda poo for DNA samples to scouring satellite images for information on human land use and bamboo growth, I find myself lucky that my life has come to this point and this project. As I enter the middle stage of my degree program, and despite the challenges, I am excited to return to China and complete the fieldwork and lab research for my dissertation.

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