This summer, I was given the opportunity to work with Dr. Clare Barrington and her research team out of the Health Behavior department at UNC Gillings to execute a qualitative research study on the emotional burden of living with and managing Type 2 Diabetes among adults in Galapagos. Clare and her team have done a similar study in the Dominican Republic across three summers, and were excited to expand to a new site- with seemingly good infrastructure. Before I arrived, we had received IRB approval, prepared our interview guides, done everything it seemed we could do without being here- but everything still felt very vague. Other researchers with years doing work here assured us “it will all make sense when you land!” but I was hesitant, as I was arriving in San Cristobal before Clare to begin doing some research on the place alone. Having spent two years living in Ecuador I was fairly confident about my trip, but not knowing the island itself was daunting. I reserved a seemingly nice Air B&B with a kind family, read up on things to do in San Cristobal, and asked my Ecuadorian friends all about the best places to go. Little did I know, the motto of “it will all make sense when you land!” truly became reality! When I arrived in San Cristobal, I immediately went with my host mom on a tour of the island and realized that it really is as small as everyone says.

The town of San Cristobal and a few of the animals I share the place with!

The Galapagos Science Center, where I work and collaborate with researchers from Public Health, Anthropology, and much more.

To give a little context about where I am specifically, in the Galapagos there are 4 inhabited islands, of which San Cristobal is the farthest west and has about 8,000 residents. It’s small, so within the first week I was already running into people I know! I arrived the first day to the actual Galapagos Science Center (GSC) building, which is a collaboration between UNC Chapel Hill and the University of San Francisco in Quito, excited to get some direction. It is located directly in front of a gorgeous sea lion filled beach with large patios and beautiful facilities and truly seemed like a researcher’s dream. I walked in and was directed towards an empty GIS lab where there were really no researchers. I asked the Ecuadorian-based employees if or when other people are coming and they warned me that over 100 individuals from UNC alone were coming this summer- but it was hard to believe at that time! I got to work building connections with physicians in the community and getting to know the health landscape, while I waited for Clare’s arrival the following week. After about a week, I noticed a few new researchers trickling in and introduced myself, but still wasn’t able to believe how many people would be coming. Having little experience in research and more experience in day to day work, I filled my days with tasks like printing, editing, and making meetings.

(L-R) Meeting with hospital lead epidemiologist Dr. Juan Ochoa and Dra. Clara Rodriguez, Clare Barrington, myself, and Trisha Dant, Associate Director of the Office of Research of the UNC School of Medicine (who is here on a research site visit).

This week, I woke up Monday, went to the office and walked inside to, I kid you not, 50+ people in the science center! Overnight the place had gone from empty to at capacity! I wasn’t sure what to expect but this week has taught me a great deal about research in collaboration. Since our project has started slow (I’m on week three with no interviews!) we have had the opportunity to learn from all of the researchers who have been coming to Galapagos for 5+ years. We have asked questions, listened to presentations, and the discussion doesn’t stop when the clock hits 5! It’s been really interesting to work with Clare and learn how to begin a study of this nature and begin it at a completely new site. I’ve seen her collaboration with Dr. Amanda Thompson, who has been doing research here on health for years, and it has shown me how important collaboration across fields really is. I’m beginning to learn how important community relations are in this type of work, and realize that without the support of the Galapagos Science Center, none of the research we hope to do would be possible.

Clare and I after the 5K we ran across the Island “Yo Vivo Sin Drogas” or “I live Drug Free.” The race is on it’s ninth year of a country-wide campaign against drug use.

I’m really excited to begin our first interviews next week and continue living on this beautiful island. I’m lucky to have already started to make some great connections and have had the opportunity to participate in a variety of talks and activities on the island. Clare and I were even convinced to run a 5K last weekend! So far, my three weeks in San Cristobal have been a great learning experience in flexibility, adaptability, and learning before acting. We’ve had to patiently gather information about this community for two weeks before being able to start our research, which requires a lot of patience, but is also incredibly important. Everything really is making more sense now that I’m here, and I can’t wait to see what else San Cristobal has in store in the next month!

– Hunter