This past summer, I was given the amazing opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka and work with elephants. It all started with the International Summer Externship dinner where I watched other students talk about their experiences abroad. Their research and trips sounded so wonderful that they inspired me to look for something similar for my summer too. Since I’ve always wanted to practice in South or Southeast Asia, I started approaching mentors who had active research ties with these areas. Soon enough, I found a project that interested me: elephant transportation in Sri Lanka.
With the help of my co-mentors, Dr. Woutrina Smith and Dr. Eranda Rajapaksha, I planned out a 2-month summer project based at the University of Peradeniya (UP), Sri Lanka. My project involved creating behavioral ethograms of elephants during transportation, collecting elephant saliva samples, and finally, running ELISA tests for salivary cortisol. We investigated stress levels in different populations of elephants and eventually found that working elephants had higher cortisol baselines compared to non-working elephants.
When people ask me what my typical day was like in Sri Lanka, I really cannot give a good answer because every day was so different from the next! Some days I would come into the lab regularly from 9 to 5 to do benchwork and ELISA assays. Meanwhile, other days, I would wake up at 3am in the morning to take a van and follow elephants throughout the night and collect samples. I got a chance to volunteer at small animal clinics, large animal clinics, and elephant foundations. I watched one of the world’s first gastroesophageal tube placements in an elephant. Sri Lanka gave me the opportunity to witness animals and surgeries that I will never see elsewhere.
Apart from expanding my professional horizons, this trip also fostered personal development by pushing me out of my comfort zone. I was travelling to a completely foreign place with not much knowledge of its people or language. Naturally, I approached my trip with great trepidation. However, upon hindsight, I can’t be more grateful that I did it. The people in Sri Lanka were so kind and welcoming; everybody was always willing to lend a hand or point me in the right direction when I got lost. Though I did not speak the same language, the sense of warmth and comfort that I received from the people there was overwhelming. Furthermore, my mentor and the program provided me with a lot of support and resources, if I ever needed any help. During this trip, not only did I live abroad in foreign country, I thrived. I learned a lot about Sri Lankan culture and even picked up a few phrases in Sinhalese!
In retrospect, coming home from Sri Lanka, not only had I gained new technical vet knowledge, but I had also improved upon my soft skills of communication and people interaction. I am so thankful to the Office of Global Programs and the STAR program that I got this incredible opportunity for research.