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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Adjany Costa: How I Made An Impossible Dream My Career

Estimated reading time ~ 10 min
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Adjany Costa, National Geographic Emerging Explorer based in Angola.

Adjany Costa
Location: Angola
Job: Conservationist and ichthyologist working to protect the wildlife and wild spaces of the Okavango River basin from its headwaters in Angola; National Geographic Emerging Explorer
Education: Master’s in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography, Ghent University; Bachelor’s in Biology, Universidade Agostinho Neto
Twitter: @intotheokavango

I grew up going to the beach with my dad from a very young age. That was my comfort place to be free and enjoy life. I always had an idea that I wanted to study nature, but I didn’t think I could have a future doing that.

Biology is not really a known career in Angola. The oil and gas industry accounts for over 90 percent of the country’s economy, so biology, conservation, and other nature-related careers are looked down upon. They see biologist as being like the characters in Zootopia — it’s not a real job. Most people would only consider it if they had no other options.

When I first entered university, I was only 16 and had no clue to what I wanted to do. I initially chose to be a flight attendant so I could travel the world. Then I applied for a business manager degree, I guess because it seemed easy. I just felt like, ‘What the hell am I going to do with a biology degree?’

It was my father who finally convinced me to do it. He knew me better than I knew myself at that moment, and he understood that biology would be the only thing that matched my love for natural things and could fulfill my curiosity for science — even if all future career possibilities where microscopic and not associated with a high income.

My mom has always been supportive of me, but it took her longer to come around to the idea. Like many Angolan parents, mine were never able to pursue their dreams. My father was pulled out of university to join the military when he was 19. And my mother, who became a parent at a very young age, was forced to raise three kids alone during a very rough part of our country’s history while my father was out on the battlefield for months, sometimes years, at a time. Like most families at that time, we had no financial stability and my mother had to do the impossible to keep us fed and healthy. So she’s more conservative, and has always hoped that I would have a more “stable and settled” life that ensured I didn’t have to go through the same things she did. Now that I’m doing it, she agrees with my dad: Nothing else would fulfill my passions and interests as a biology career.

In my class, I only know of two other students (out of 200) who chose biology as a career rather than defaulted into it. Most people with biology degrees end up teaching or working as an “office biologist” where they rely on foreign data rather than going out into the field themselves. As far as I know, I’m the only one in my class who chose to do research out in the field.

It wasn’t until I started on my master’s degree in marine biology that I realized how diverse this field really is. And it was after I’d received my master’s and had started working on the Okavango Wilderness Project [a conservation partnership with National Geographic focusing on exploring and protecting the Okavango River Basin, the largest freshwater wetland in southern Africa and main source of water for a million people] when I realized the real importance of conservation and what we can do to make a difference. That’s when I finally decided that conservation is what I wanted to do, period.

Since then I have participated in six National Geographic expeditions around the Okavango basin, focusing mainly on the sources in the Angolan highlands, the least sampled and known region of Sub-Saharan Africa. The longest I have been in the field was four straight months, from May to September 2015 (more on that below). That was the first, longest, and hardest expedition I have participated in and one that has changed everything for me. In the beginning, the hardest things about the expeditions would be superficial things: eating rice and beans twice a day for four months, the relative concept of cleanliness, the lack of affection and communication with the outside world, being the only girl (most times) amongst a bunch of guys. Nowadays I have not only learned to overcome these hardships, but to learn from them. Now I understand they stand for the work we’re doing toward a better future, something greater than ourselves. The best part is meeting people from all over who, like me, travel all over the world and never really feel like they belong somewhere.

The wilderness is where I feel at home. Chilling in your tent at the end of the day with a cup of tea, watching the sun go down while wild animals roam the beautiful landscape all around you is the most peaceful and insightful experience I can ever recommend! Here’s what it’s like to make a life of doing exactly that.

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How did you get involved with National Geographic as an Emerging Explorer exploring Africa's Okavango River Delta?

Okavango Wilderness Project is one of National Geographic’s flagship projects. And they had been looking for a scientist from Angola to join the team for a long time. I was just finishing my master’s and returning home to Angola when one of my former professors reached out and told me about the opportunity. She knew I wanted to be in the field and actively conduct research, so she put us in touch and of course I said yes. Being an Emerging Explorer basically just means that I have a lot of support, a lot of hands on my back to help move the project forward. And it’s given me a completely different perception of my profession. It not only changed my mind about what it’s possible to do career-wise within the field of biology, it also taught me a lot about the future of conservationism. Conservation used to be a fairy tale to me. But then National Geographic gave me access to a mentor, possible grants, better technology. And now I know that with effort and enough blood, sweat, tears, you can actually activate things and make a change. National Geographic focuses on ideas and intentions and helps you make those happen if they have the potential to make positive change in the near future.

What are expeditions like?

They change a lot depending on the goal and whether we’re doing exploration on land with cars and bikes or by river in canoes following it from source to end. One can last anywhere from one month to four months. The first expedition I did was in Angola, Namibia and Botswana and it lasted for four months. We navigated the entire length of the Okavango basin in mokoro (traditional dugout canoes) from source (in Angola) to sand (in Botswana) through the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. I was the assigned ichthyologist for this expedition, so I was responsible for sampling fish throughout the system to establish the presence and absence of different species along the system so that we could compare them to different parts of the Okavango. This research not only helped set an important baseline study for places never before scientifically explored, but helped us understand how the system changes throughout its length and associate this shift to environmental and/or human factors.

And with every expedition, I always have one foot in science and the other in community education. In addition to ichthyology (the study of fish) the community education element of the job requires me to meet with community leaders to educate them on the content of the basin and how conservation can benefit their livelihoods in the future. Ultimately, understanding these changes will help us accommodate found differences along the system in any management plans developed to maximize the efficiency to which we can help protect the system as a whole.

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What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened to you on an expedition?

It is very difficult to choose one! I have had my personal equipment stolen by hyenas, had to deal with lions and baboons, been bitten by spiders and scorpions, had a lechwe (a type of antelope) jump 20 cm over my head, navigated canoes next to crocodiles that were longer than the boat, bathed naively next to a 5 m python, been stung my countless bees, and been charged by a hippo, elephants, and a herd of over 100 buffalos, all on separate occasions. The list goes on!

I think the scariest moment was when I helplessly watched while a hippo attacked the mokoro (canoe) that some members of our crew were in. We were two months in the field, and the river had been relatively calm when we heard a splash on the right side of the river bank. Someone yelled “Kwena,” the warning call for crocodiles in Setswana. So we followed protocol, crossing the river away from the source of the noise into the deepest part of the water to allow the crocodile to go his own way. Except we soon realized it wasn’t a crocodile — it was a hippo. And the protocol for hippos is completely different. You’re supposed to stay in the shallow part of the river because hippos hide in the deepest parts. I was in the second mekoro behind Steve (the project leader) and Giles (the IT technician), who were in the first mokoro 2–5 m away. All of a sudden I see a humongous mouth opening from below their mokoro, engulfing the entire width of the canoe and throwing it up in the air like a ragdoll. It was like my brain was in slow motion. I could see the mokoro, the equipment, the terror on Steve’s and Giles faces, all up in the air. Someone (no one remembers doing it) fired a sound signal to scare the hippo away and luckily, it worked. But when the hippo first disappeared, we had no clue where it was and who would be next. It was 15 minutes of pure panic that felt like a lifetime for all 15 people involved.

You’re seeking to establish the first marine protected area in the country. Why is that important?

There’s a lot of literature that suggests the need for protection of that area. It would be in the southernmost tip of the Angolan coast. And it’s an area that borders Libya which has a high migration route, so we think we have a lot of biodiversity near there. It is also thought to be the largest nursery ground for mackerel, which is important for fisheries in Angola and Libya. It’s adjacent to a protected area in Libya and two national parks, so it would create this whole square of conservation of land and ocean that are independent of each other but can still work together in regards to conservation.

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What’s the field-to-lab ratio like for you?

I only go to the lab if I really have to to confirm a species or do analysis. But now we’ve gotten to a point where most species we deal with don’t have to be confirmed, we can just see what it is. . So I spend much more time in the field. I’m also the assistant director of the program, so there’s a lot of administrative tasks—logistical, bureaucracies , reporting, translating, etc.—that come with my position. Basically, everything related to Angola—planning expeditions, meeting with government officials, lobbying, giving presentations to different institutions or schools, whatever – I usually am the one doing that.

Who do you turn to for career advice?

It really depends on what context I am looking at. I do marine biology and land theology. Do I want to work with the government? Or am I looking at science? The good thing is I have a lot of people in my network so there’s always someone I can turn to if I feel stuck. I have people from my university who have studied in Angola who I can turn to. And I can always return to my parents because they have pushed me a lot. So I’ve been lucky.

Do you have any advice for someone who’s interested in pursuing a career in your field and just starting out?

People ask me this all the time and I always say to them “Just do it!” If it’s to that point where you think you want to do it and it feels right but other people are telling you not to, just do it. No matter what obstacle you think might stop you, when you wake up in the morning just say “I’m doing it.”

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What did you learn from your various jobs and internships that have ultimately helped you in your career?

I kind of went all over for my internships and degrees: Brazil, Germany, Spain, Belize, Portugal, Belgium. And each experience added a sense to what I wanted to do, but in steps. First, I confirmed the fact that I actually could make a career out of biology. Second, my first internships was a three-month internship at a university in Brazil. And it was there that I realized I was going to have to work twice as hard to be successful in my field. It became clear to me that the higher education system in Brazil is much better than the one in Angola. And I realized the international community was going to see me as not having enough knowledge unless I tried twice as hard to reach the level that I wanted to reach. And then third, it taught me that conservation with a focus on marine biology was what I wanted to do. My Ph.D., which I’m working on now, is titled “Establishing a Marine Protected Area.”

What are your thoughts on the current global conversations happening around global warming and the environment?

That is a case where it would be very helpful to have a mentor/mentee thing. Because you have some countries that are high up in the climate change and conservation game, using the best technology and doing the best things. And then you have other countries, like Angola, that aren’t even thinking about it. Trying to fix climate change in just your part of the world is not going to do anything. But if countries could team up to each and learn from each other so that we’re all working toward the same goals, they will lift each other up to the same level. That’s what’s going to bring results.

Any last words of advice?

I come from a society where, if you ask a child what they want to be, they will only think of things associated with material goods. Jobs that will get them clothes or houses or cars. Because paths outside of that aren’t encouraged. Following their hearts isn’t encouraged. But when those people realize how much more there is out there to explore, they become the most passionate people about making a change. So let’s support that and give these people a chance to realize that there is so much more than can do than they previously thought. I hear in the U.S. that women don’t have the same opportunities or the same paycheck as men. Where I’m from it’s worse because women have the same opportunities and paycheck, they’re just led to believe that their opportunities are limited. Helping them understand that they can do whatever they want, that there’s nothing wrong if they want to be a housewife. But there’s also nothing wrong if they want to push the boundaries and do something else.

Images courtesy of National Geographic

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