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The Digital Alternative

Lydia Snow

July 16, 2021

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Data-backed decisions and research are increasingly crucial to the forefront of innovation, and increasingly require involvement from women. Valencia, Spain resident Nuria Maldonado has found a way for data technology, cooperative leadership, and wildlife conservation to intersect - while also fulfilling her deep-set love of animals.

FINDING FULFILLMENT: PURSUING CAREER GOALS AMONGST LIFE'S CIRCUMSTANCES

Although a self-proclaimed environmentalist with a university degree in environmental science, Maldonado had trouble pinning down her specific career goals at first. "I didn't really know what exactly I wanted to do," she said. "I just wanted to work with animals, and protect them, and somehow rescue them."

Consequently, Maldonado specialized in ecology at the University of Helsinki. As she explored different approaches to ecological science, she eventually became fascinated by "non-invasive methods" such as camera trapping - the process of using motion-activated cameras to capture images and videos of animal behavior, and then applying the resulting data to purposes of research.

"I was deeply in love with this subject, and I wanted to be an ecologist," Maldonado said of her education experiences. However, after returning to her country of origin, Maldonado became pregnant. Then, due to political upheaval in Spain, she moved with her husband to his German homeland in order to "have a safe family life." These unforeseen circumstances took a toll on Maldonado's ambitions. "My job as an ecologist was cut, because I was being a mom, and I was in a new country...where no one knew me," she said. "I actually started from zero," she added.

"This is what happens when women try to evolve in science, and they have to stop," Moldonaldo said. "It is very difficult to go back where they left."

After spending a year helping her wildlife conservationist husband run a rescue center, Maldonado "started to look for more specialized jobs," deciding to resume the pursuit of her true interests.

Ultimately, she found realization of her goals by turning to the digital realm. The Max Planck Institute's "Pan African Programme," a Leipzig, Germany data analysis enterprise which studies chimpanzee behavior via camera traps, caught her attention. "I thought that that was absolutely something for me, because they were working in Africa with things related to conservation," Maldonado said. "And they were using those non-invasive methods that I wanted to work with."

Under her current consultant contract with the Max Planck Institute, Maldonaldo fulfills a one-of-a-kind remote leadership role. Since 2014, she has supervised Chimp&See, a project hosted by an online citizen science platform known as Zooniverse. Participants in the project - the title of which puns on the word "chimpanzee" - are able to analyze data on African chimpanzees, matching footage of the spunky primates together in order to form an all-encompassing digital record of individual chimps' respective behaviors. I first met Maldonado last year while assisting with these chimp-matching projects, which provided me with valuable ways to spend my spare time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SOME STRINGS ATTACHED: THE INS AND OUTS OF DATA MANAGEMENT

Maldonado's involvements necessitate a certain skill set in order to pay off as planned. Data-based problem solving careers require a careful grasp on information, as well as the leadership abilities to transfer that information to other team members. In Maldonado's words, "the best advice that I can give anyone who wants to do my job is to keep things as simple as possible."

She explained that handling large amounts of conservation data - while also coordinating volunteers who possess a limited knowledge on the subject - necessitates an atmosphere of clarity. "If you try to complicate things, and you work with people who are not experienced enough for this kind of language or example or methods, you will get lost."

The demands of Chimp&See require Maldonado to center her attention on "thousands of lists and Excel tables," which incorporate photographic, videographic, and statistical elements in order to tabulate chimpanzee characteristics. Thus, she constantly explores and evolves tactics for converting convoluted information into user-friendly, clear-cut formats. "We work with very visual things, so for me, PowerPoint presentations are the best tool that I've found so far in Chimp&See for everyone to follow, and not to get lost with huge lists of weird data." By simplifying concepts for others to understand, Maldonado is able to "keep a clear mind" in managing the project's practicality and progress.

WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: TEAMWORK IN THE DIGITAL DATA REALM

To Maldonado, this prudent use of data translates into prudent interactions with others. "Point number one in Chimp&See is teamwork," Maldonado said. She claimed her greatest challenges at Chimp&See have been attempts to interact with individuals who are unacquainted with the project's central foundation. "It's very, very important that people understand what it's like to work in a team."

"Never mind how sciency you are, or how much you know about chimps, or how organized you are with your job. If you are not able to work with other people, if you are not respectful, and [if] you are not sharing your opinions, it doesn't make sense."

Likewise, Maldonado remarked that since she is a scientist by trade, and has no prior experience in team and event coordination, telling people what to do also posed significant difficulties. "Sometimes I had to be a little bit more rough than I wanted to," she said.

Through trial and error, though, Maldonado discovered first-rate methods of success; her go-to problem-solving tool is to exchange concerns with her fellow project moderators. "We can be as transparent as possible," Maldonaldo said of Chimp&See's cooperative atmosphere.

Through her awareness of others' difficulties, Maldonaldo incorporates transparency-based trust, a concept crucial to team environments. By meeting all participants' needs and concerns, she claims to "find the best solution" for their progress, thus positively impacting the progress of the project as a whole.

"They have to feel confident with what they do, and they have to know that it's absolutely okay if we all make mistakes," Maldonaldo said of her interactions with volunteers. "I have to show them that I myself make mistakes every day, and that's how we learn."

She believes Chimp&See volunteers might even find themselves prompted to share their experience-based knowledge of chimp behavior with others around them, furthering the fight for primate conservation at a person-to-person level. "That's what encourages me, sometimes, to keep going when I face issues or troubles."

The purpose of Chimp&See reaches far beyond just properly categorizing camera trap footage, or getting data projects done. "The main aim of all these things at the end of the day is the chimps' conservation," Maldonado said, "because the more you know them, [and] the more you understand them...the easier it is to preserve them and to protect them."

Visit the Zooniverse website: https://www.zooniverse.org/

Participate in Chimp&See here.

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