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Exploring a Whole New World

Two Park alumni from the class of 2004 search for evidence of a new mammal in Indonesia.

Alex Schlegel and Tim Mowrer never listed ”Sumatra” on their Plans of Professional Development. But that’s exactly where the Park alumni are currently stationed. Hiking through the dark unspoiled wilds of Indonesia, the two classmates have become intrepid explorers.

It’s all part of a research project funded by National Geographic. Their mission: produce the first photographic evidence of an animal referred to locally as orang pendek, or ”short person.” For years, there have been stories and eyewitness accounts of an undocumented bipedal primate living in the Sumatran forests. Using camera trapping, a process that employs motion and heat activated cameras placed throughout the jungle, Alex and Tim hope to discover the mammal, and by doing so, leverage the find for renewed interest in conservation and education movements.

”My current work is definitely not something that I planned for,” says Alex.

The project is the brainchild of Dartmouth professor Peter Tse, under whom Alex was working. Inspired by the recent discovery of Homo floresiensis (also referred to as ”hobbits”), the professor applied for and received a grant. Alex was a natural candidate for field work.

”It was just a very lucky opportunity that fell into my lap.”

When it was later decided that two people were better than one, Alex asked Tim to join. ”How could I say no?” he says.

Though their backgrounds are in math and physics, both feel the disciplines share common ways of thinking with their new roles in cryptozoology and primatology.

”Problems require fixers; why not us?” says Tim. ”I think many people assume if something as incredible as orang pendek existed in the world, it would have been found by now. But naturally, it will only be found if someone makes an effort to find it.”

”I think a key to my being here and able to work on such a fascinating project is my effort to keep an open mind and a desire to do good in the world,” says Alex. ”The Park Scholarship has been instrumental in this respect, by giving me an environment that encouraged and cultivated such attitudes, and by giving me the financial freedom to pursue my own development and to work for others rather than for myself.”

While both admit that their immediate plans for the future are still vague—”If we get a picture of orang pendek, things will happen quickly,” says Tim—both plan to pursue advanced degrees and continue doing research. Alex would also like to teach middle or high school science for a few years following his adventures, before beginning graduate research in neuroscience with a focus on development.

”Eventually,” he says, ”I would like to pursue a public education system that cultivates students more intelligently and creatively than can our current system.”

You can follow some of the pair’s exploits at www.orangpendek.org, their official research site.

posted 2006.07.17