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Living Among Primates

Experience in rainforest confirms student-athlete’s career choice

Gillian Sawyer working with primates at the Alouatta Sanctuary in Panama.

Gillian Sawyer, a biology major who competes in soccer at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, has always had a profound interest in the rainforest and the creatures that live there – specifically, primates. The rising junior plans to eventually pursue a doctorate in tropical conservation, conservation ecology or primatology.

So this summer, when Sawyer spent a month interning at Alouatta Sanctuary in San Lorenzo, Panama, she was getting an up-close look at her future field. While she enjoyed many aspects of the trip, including learning about Panamanian culture and picking up some Spanish, she most enjoyed her interactions with the primates at the sanctuary, which reinforced her decision to pursue a career in primate conservation.

 With other interns, she studied the mantled howler monkey and its environment; prepared several juvenile monkeys to re-enter the wild after being raised at the sanctuary; and even rehabilitated an orphaned baby monkey that was rescued from being sold by a poacher.

“Every day we would feed them; we would put food in the trees for them to try to forage,” Sawyer said. “We would also go on troop identifications every day, and we would go into the rainforest on the property and find local howler monkey troops. Since we would go every day we would get to know them really well, and eventually we would be able to identify each individual in the group by name.”

For Sawyer, the experience of being a student-athlete helped her during the trip. To reach the sanctuary, the interns hiked up a mountain for 45 minutes on steep, rocky terrain. The sanctuary itself was isolated and, according to Sawyer, almost primitive.

The dorms were rooms with bunk beds, and the students had limited electricity and no hot water. While many interns struggled with the lifestyle, Sawyer’s soccer training and perseverant attitude helped her through the experience.

Gillian Sawyer, St. Mary's College of Maryland (photo: Bill Wood)

“I definitely benefited from being an athlete,” Sawyer said. “I was okay with going on the huge hikes, because I was in relatively good shape from soccer, but also just from being ingrained with an attitude of perseverance.”

 This summer is not Sawyer’s first experience studying abroad. Last spring she traveled with her tropical ecology class to Belize, where they split their time between studying the relationship between acacia trees and the ants that live in them, and on the reef studying surgeon fish. She will be making that trip again this academic year as a teaching assistant.

“This definitely made me realize how much I like traveling and going to the rainforest and being able to participate in conservation,” Sawyer said.  “I’m hoping next summer to do something similar.”