Computer Science major Sara McCullough ‘06 planned to write a software program for her Alumnae Regional Scholarship internship at a tropical rain forest station. She didn’t expect to fall in love with huge fruit bats, too.
Top: "Tribby Lee" sleeps in his cage. Sara McCullough '06 at Bryn Mawr.
Alumnae Regional Scholar Sara McCullough ’06 looked forward to her internship last year at a tropical rain forest station in Australia. A computer science major, McCullough had signed on to write software for a radar project.
“I expected to be challenged intellectually,” she said. She did not expect that during her nine-week stay she would learn to capture pythons in pillow cases, raise orphaned flying foxes on her porch, and feed fully grown adults, which have wing-spans of up to three meters.
The Cape Tribulation station is the only independent research facility in the tropical rain forests of Australia’s coastal lowlands, and it focuses
its current work on flying foxes. Often called “fruit bats,” they are the
only primates in Australia, with a 98 percent DNA match to the lemurs
Flying foxes keep the rain forest alive by eating fruit and dispersing the seeds, but exotic fruit farms set up during the last 10 to 15 years have put pressure on the animals. The foxes travel in packs of thousands. When they descend on an orchard, they completely destroy it and in turn, the farmer’s livelihood. To combat this, the farmers get permits to put up electrocution fences, which kill the animals by the thousands. The females can nurture only one young a year, so the number of flying foxes is rapidly diminishing.
“It’s a rough time now for them,” says McCullough.
Life with the ‘batties’
McCullough arrived at the station in the first week of January, which is the peak of the wet season in the rain forest.
“We didn’t have power at night,” she said. “The station was a five-hour, treacherous drive from the nearest town. The road was impassible in rain anyway, and it rained every single day for the first two weeks, so there wasn’t much coming and going. It’s a very small operation, with two scientists and a veterinarian. I was the only intern for most of the time I was there, so they were happy to see me.
Infant flying foxes housed on McCullough's cabin porch.
“On a typical workday, I got up at sunrise to feed the orphaned and injured bats. This involved cutting up fruit for about half an hour, blending it for the babies, and cleaning up afterwards. There were about 27 to 30 fully-grown injured bats in residence when I was there, and they had to be fed three times a day. Some could never go back into the wild because they had such serious injuries. Most couldn’t fly. We raised the babies and then tried to release them back into the wild before they were six months old (otherwise, they had to remain in captivity). There were six babies living on the porch of my cabin.
“Every day, I took an adult and a baby bat to the Bat House, an environmental information and interpretation facility that helps fund the station.” For a $2 fee, tourists can get to know the “batties,” who have names like Chloe, Pushkin and Rex.
At the Bat House, McCullough gave speeches about the bats, their situation and the rain forest in general. “As ambassadors of the rain forest, flying foxes are unrivaled—friendly, intelligent and definitely with personality plus,” she said. “In the wild, they’re aggressive and don’t like people, but once they’ve been in captivity for a while, they interact quite well with humans. They are talkative—lots of squeaking and chattering—will rub their necks against their humans to leave scent marks, and chase imaginary snakes. They are great for getting visitors to start asking questions about rain forests, as well as losing any fear of bats.”
Loving the wildlife
“The adult flying foxes are huge,” says McCullough. “One of the challenges I faced was going to feed the fully grown bats. They got very excited at the prospect of food, and would crawl all over the cage and then jump down on me. They had no intention of hurting me, but they have very sharp claws so I had to learn to handle them in a certain way. It took me a couple of weeks to get comfortable in the bat cage. The whole time I was there my arms were covered with cuts.”
And then there were the snakes. The wet season is when pythons come out. Flying foxes are pythons’ favorite meal, and they can smell the fox scent from miles away.
“During the peak of wet season in my first three weeks, we pulled three or more pythons off the cages on my porch every night,” McCullough said. “They usually ranged in size from two to four meters. We put them into pillow cases, tied them up and gave them to tour operators, who would release them into the wild when all of the tourists were watching from the bus.”
There were other predators, for example, cassowaries, which are massive birds, five to six feet tall, with huge claws.
“They’re very inquisitive,” says McCullough, “but dumb and aggressive. When they saw me, they came up to me to investigate but then they’d attack. Their base was close to our station, so they were around every single day. Whenever I left my room, I carried a huge umbrella; if they came close to me, I would open it to make myself bigger so they would go away.
“I also came into contact with crocodiles. I was stung by a jellyfish, a life threatening experience. There were spiders in my room. Accommodations at the station were basic. You could see through the walls, so I just had to learn to live with the wildlife; there was no getting away from it. I loved it!”
Another day in paradise
McCullough worked at the Bat House until noon, then checked on the station’s regeneration project. Much of the surrounding land had been clear cut, so the station was replanting an acre a year.
“At one point we had a week of harsh sun and no rain. The trees I had worked so hard to plant were dying, so I made shields for each. Then when we got heavy rains, I also had to make sure none of the trees had been drowned out
After checking the trees, McCullough headed toward the lab.
“I had always been interested in doing something with the rain forest and conservation,” she said. She was already in Australia for her junior year to study at the University of Sydney. “When I contacted the station director about possibly working there, he told me about one project that they especially wanted to get underway.”
The project involved testing non-lethal deterrents in an orchard they had set up. Radar monitored flying fox activity, but what was lacking was the software to transform the information from the radar for use on a computer. McCullough collaborated with a full-time employee at the station who also had some experience with C computer programming language.
“I was not sure I would be able to complete the project with my somewhat limited programming experience,” says McCullough. “But we did complete the project and I learned more about the C language than I had in the three courses I took on it at Bryn Mawr.”
Working as part of a team to write a program was another new and real world experience for McCullough. She and her co-worker split the program into several parts and worked individually on each, helping each other with problems all the while. When each part of the program was completed, the station director, a biologist, looked over the work to make sure it could do what he wanted it to do.
“I found this very hard to deal with because he knew nothing about computer programming,” she says. “He would make unreasonable requests, from a programming perspective, and would complain about the readability of the program.” (C is now considered a relatively low-level programming language, meaning that the code is closer to the machine language of the computer hardware and seems cryptic to nonusers.)
“In retrospect,” she says, “I’ve come to appreciate the lessons learned from the dynamics of a small research team.”
It also became McCullough’s responsibility to adjust the solar panels six times a day. “I’d never done that before and had never been in a place that ran completely on solar power, so I learned a lot about it,” she said. “One of the full-time employees had set up the power system for the entire station but he ended up taking a leave so I pretty much took over the solar power.”
Funding the experience
The Alumnae Regional Scholars Program began more than 80 years ago. It raises money through direct appeals, book sales and benefits, and committees of regional representatives choose recipients from among those recommended by the Dean’s office on the basis of academic performance, personal and scholarly initiative, and demonstrated creativity and leadership. Each student chosen is guaranteed a funded summer internship during her time at the College to enable her to explore a career option or enhance her academic program.
“Internships are highly competitive,” said Dean of the Undergraduate College Karen Tidmarsh ’71. “Students who need to earn money in the summer in order to help finance their tuition costs cannot afford to take unpaid internships, and in many fields those are the only ones available. It is wonderful that Bryn Mawr is offering paid internships.”
McCullough hopes to return to Australia next January to start a masters program in design computing at the University of Sydney. “I’m looking into scholarships and other funding options now, and I plan on working and saving as much as I can from the time that I graduate in May until the program starts next year,” she said.
“The experience I had as an intern at the research station was one of the most amazing of my life. What stands out the most about the time there is how much I learned about myself, what I’m capable of and how far I can push myself. I never could have imagined living in a place like that and being able to handle it. And I never would have been able to do this without funding from ARS.”
Erika Fardig ’06, a history major, completed an internship in 2004 with the United States Capitol Historical Society in Washington, D.C. The fruits of her labor appear in the organization’s 2006 calendar. She acquired new insights about her future, she says, and can now answer the question, “what does one do with a history major?”
Rebekah Schulz ’06 spent last summer working for the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and learning to be a cog in the wheels of a non-profit operation. The Institute, which purchased the historical Bryn Mawr Theater in December 2004, shows first-run independent and foreign films as well as special cinematheque and classic Hollywood programs. Over the course of her project, Schulz got to maintain a database, wear a ball gown and up-do, and track who to shake down for cash on the Main Line.
Amanda Young ’06 spent eight weeks last summer at the Frick Collection in Manhattan, working on digitizing and archival projects, which “sharpened her vision” to subtle differences within an artist’s oeuvre and between different periods and schools. She also assisted the curator of the Collection in preparing for an upcoming exhibition of late Goya works. The experience “cemented my desire to spend my life working with and around art, artists, and art historians,” Young said.
Samira Zamani ’07 interned for Health Care Center #3, one of eight public health centers in Philadelphia under the department of public health. Her time there familiarized her with not only the daily operations of the center’s activities, but highlighted the importance of the physical space and personal services which form the basis of community outreach.
Return to May 2006 Highlights