Robinson Twp. native researches abroad with Fulbright award

Krystle Wagner • Nov 20, 2018 at 1:00 PM

A Robinson Township native is studying orangutans in Indonesia.

Rebecca Brittain received the Fulbright U.S. Student Program award from the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and U.S. Department of State to conduct research at the Universitas Nasional and the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station.

According to a press release, Brittain is one of more than 1,900 U.S. citizens to conduct research, provide expertise and teach English abroad during the 2018-19 academic year as part of the Fulbright program.

Brittain said her aspect of the research — focusing on the microbiome — is one piece of the efforts to collect information about the health and nutrition of orangutans.

After graduating from Grand Haven High School in 2001, Brittain spent five years in the U.S. Air Force before going to Grand Valley State University. She received a bachelor’s of science degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in biology from GVSU. Now, Brittain is a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she is studying biological anthropology.

Prior to going to Rutgers, Brittain piloted her research in Indonesia, where she worked at the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station. She worked in the forest collaborating with peers from the University of Indonesia.

Days spent in the forest can range from 11-15 hours, Brittain said. The day begins with waking up at 3:30 a.m. and traveling to orangutan nests. Researchers follow the orangutan throughout the day. Every two minutes, they record the animal’s actions and what they eat. They also collect samples of the plants eaten, urine and stool, Brittain said.

The researchers follow orangutans until they make new nests at night. Brittain said they take GPS coordinates to track their movements. It’s the best way to track their movements and habits because they can’t be collared to locate them, she explained.

“It’s fun, but it can be tough sometimes,” Brittain said.

Usually, the researchers spend five or six days in a row collecting data in the field before taking a day or two off.

As Brittain expands the data collection she started in 2015, she also plans to use and train her peers in a DNA sequencing technique she learned at New York University.

While Brittain will spend one year abroad with the Fulbright award, she hopes to extend her efforts longer if she receives additional scholarships.

Brittain said she hopes to build a career in Indonesia and eventually start a site to continue and spread out conservation efforts.

Through her research, Brittain said she hopes to better understand how orangutans survive in environments that have uncertainty. She noted the orangutan population has decreased about 50 percent in recent years.

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