OURF's Scientific Advisory Board is delighted to present two $1,000 LP Jenkins Memorial Fellowships to deserving students in 2019. Mrs. Lorraine Phyllis Jenkins of Sacramento, California, was an elementary school teacher and a long-time supporter of orang-utan research. The Fellowship is a competitive award open to all graduate and undergraduate students planning to conduct field research on orang-utans, related rainforest or conservation education in Indonesia.
Helvi Musdarlia, a Bachelor of Science student in the Graduate School of Universitas Nasional Jakarta, will use her Fellowship to further her 'Suaq Goes to School' program. The program aims to inform the local community living close to Gunung Leuser National Park about the importance of protecting forests and animals, including critically endangered orang-utans, plus tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Helvi will extend this work to high school students, through twice-monthly visits to two such schools in the region. She will also bring 16 students to visit the Suaq research station to shadow its research team. In addition to making Suaq more visible in the surrounding community, Helvi will design education modules with local teachers that we hope will then be utilized elsewhere in Indonesia.
Abigail Gwynn, a Masters by Research student in Biological Science at the University of Exeter, will use her Fellowship to investigate the effects of the 2015 forest fires on orang-utan behavior and health. Her fieldwork is currently taking place in the Sabangau forest, which suffered an ~8% forest loss that year in critically important orang-utan habitat. Facing a shortage in funds to complete her program, the LP Jenkins Memorial Fellowship will allow Abigail to complete ongoing work as planned by the end of the year.
This year, the Scientific Advisory Board received seven outstanding applications from capable Indonesian and Western students. The applications were independently reviewed by four SAB members, three of whom hold – or will shortly defend – doctorates in the field of orang-utan biology. The Board asked those reviewers to evaluate each proposal based on three principal criteria:
1) Value for money: how far will the $1,000 go in terms of broader impact and outputs?
2) Financial need: is the applicant in true need of these funds?
3) Overall quality: is the project viable, and was the application prepared with diligence and care?
With those criteria in mind, the reviewers ranked the proposals numerically from 1 through 7. The Board Chair then tallied the rankings of each reviewer, to produce a list of the candidates ranked collectively in order of preference. Rather than automatically selecting the top two candidates, the reviewers then considered their qualitative evaluations of each applicant, before deciding on two awardees. Incidentally, in this case, both Helvi and Abigail were the top-ranked applicants; each was ranked equally and above the other candidates.
The reviewers were especially impressed by Helvi's plan to provide much-needed environmental education for Acehnese students. While the Foundation has long invested in educational initiatives in Indonesia, this will be our first investment in an Acehnese program, and thus Helvi's project addresses a critical need in an area of interest to the SAB. Helvi's proposed activities were clearly outlined, and her prior experience demonstrates the feasibility of implementing her plans. Similarly, Abigail's research proposal featured an important rationale with defined goals and methods. Her budget was reasonable and her pathway to planned completion was clear.
As all of the applications were of such high quality, the reviewers found themselves in an unenviable position. Given our limited funds, future applicants will need to make extra effort to ensure that their proposals stand out among the rest. In the interests of guiding those efforts, here are some of the reasons that caused reviewers to rank proposals less favorably. These reasons derive from both this and previous LP Jenkins Fellowship cycles; they are not necessarily applicable to this year’s applicants:
- Applications that were incomplete, g. lacking reference letters; that were poorly formatted; or which had basic typographical or scientific errors. Such instances did not give reviewers much confidence that the applicants would perform their projects to a sufficiently high standard.
- Proposals and personal statements that were not tailored specifically to the LP Jenkins Memorial Fellowship or to the goals of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. Because the Foundation is not especially wealthy, the reviewers need to choose those projects that best complement our interests and objectives. Future applicants might bear in mind that financial need does not automatically qualify one for a Fellowship. We need to know why applicants are applying for this specific fellowship: "I need the money" would not be a convincing argument. Demonstrating an understanding of the Foundation's existing work and programmatic areas would make a compelling case for an award, however, if the project naturally 'fits' in this realm.
- Projects that seemed enormous, to the extent that they surpassed what is feasible to achieve with a Fellowship. The Fellowship is not intended to support small portions of much larger projects or to fund small components of multi-year efforts by multiple personnel or large research teams. We principally aim to support individuals with the passion and drive to make a difference, in the face of genuine obstacles. Inevitably, some applicants will be part of larger research efforts – and this is perfectly acceptable. Their applications should then focus on the narrow slice that the applicant will be undertaking, for which the Fellowship award is critical, rather than presenting this as a minor portion of a much larger and much more expensive effort.
- High budgets, those with questionable research expenses, or those with little evidence of other effort or support. The Foundation prefers not to award these Fellowships as a 'drop in the ocean'; those that bury $1,000 among tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are unlikely to be successful. Particular notice was also given to the cost of living in Indonesia, as calculated by foreign researchers: budgeting to stay at a nice hotel in Jakarta when another applicant budgets to stay at a hostel, will inevitably result in a lower score under 'value for money', for example. Most important, though, is evidence that the applicant has made every effort to raise their budget through whatever means possible. Applicants who already have other grants or funding will thus be ranked higher than a candidate who comes to the Foundation with empty pockets. In 2019, the reviewers were especially impressed with one applicant's crowdfunding initiative, which convinced us of their determination to complete the work proposed.
- Proposals with no clear conservation or educational merit. 'Basic research' proposals were ranked much lower if conservation and education were not the primary goals. Applicants with cognitive or cultural research proposals should, therefore, make an extra effort to justify the value of their research, in the face of dwindling population numbers.
On behalf of the Foundation’s Board, SAB and donors, we are thrilled to present Helvi and Abigail with their Fellowships, and we look forward to reading their annual reports. Each will also write a ‘popular’ article next year for publication on the Foundation’s website.
We also wish the other applicants every success in completing their projects. Any effort to conserve orang-utans and their habitat is important. While we are unable to award Fellowships to every applicant this year, we are all rooting for each of them, and we are anxious to learn of their success.