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Flowery Branch native to study primates in Peru
West Hall graduate to conduct her research in Amazon rainforest
Krista Banda reviews footage for a film project June 2014 on a trail on Emory University campus in Atlanta. Banda majored in anthropology and psychology, before heading to Central Washington University in Washington state for her master's degree. The Flowery Branch native will study primates and their diseases in the Amazon rainforest in Peru over a six-month period. - photo by Courtesy of Krista Banda

Research timeline

July 16: Departs from Georgia for Peru

July 16 to Aug. 9: Becomes accustomed to life in the Amazon rainforest and takes a class on tropical biology and primatology

Aug. 9: Heads into the field

Aug. 10 to Sept. 21: Field research for five to six days a week

Sept. 21: Returns to Washington state to analyze data from the dry season

Nov. 29: Leaves Washington for Peru

Jan. 10: Returns to Washington to analyse data from the wet season

A six-hour plane ride to the small city of Puerto Maldonado, Peru, and a six-hour boat voyage downstream are all that separate Krista Banda from doing what she’s been working toward for years — studying two species of small monkeys in different parts of the Amazon rainforest.

And the petite Flowery Branch native is looking forward to her six-month adventure, which will begin Thursday with a flight from Atlanta to Lima, Peru. From there, she will take a short flight, only an hour or two, in a smaller aircraft to the research site in Puerto Maldonado.

As she has prepared for her research trip of a lifetime, the 23-year-old has not shown an ounce of fear or hesitation about being in the rainforest for months surrounded by primates with only two or three research assistants to keep her company.

“I’m queen of the apes, so they can’t do anything to me,” she said, as she showed off her lifelike gorilla tattoo on her upper arm, which depicts a gorilla’s face on one side and a gorilla’s skull on the other.

Banda’s goal of studying small monkeys and their diseases started when she majored in anthropology and psychology at Emory University. She was originally interested in the spread of disease through a psychological lens and eventually worked her way into a neuroscience lab at Emory to focus on the visual and motion processing of gerbils.

Then when she scored her first internship in a highly competitive area at Zoo Atlanta, Banda began to notice her affinity for primates. The staff taught her about animal husbandry and how to teach the animals to raise a specific limb for a veterinary exam.

The specific subject led Banda to attend graduate school at Central Washington University in Washington state. It was there the 2010 West Hall High School graduate worked on her master’s thesis on primate behavior.

“She’s an amazing person,” said Lori Sheeran, the director of the primate behavior and ecology program at Central Washington University. “She’s been one of the most highly motivated members of our program, and we get some really interesting people. She kind of stands out in that sense.”

Her thirst for knowledge spurred Banda in her quest to learn about diseases and how they spread from humans to nonhumans. The subject related to the importance of conservation work, especially its relation to animal and human health.

“It is a growing interest and concern in primatology to study the possibility of disease transmission between humans and nonhumans, because there are so many locations now that two species come into direct contact with each other, and we share a lot of diseases in common,” Sheeran said.

Therefore, when an opportunity arose to study primates up close and personal, Banda leaped at the chance. She originally chose the Peru field site because an established and organized site was already there for her to work. She also could work with pre-existing data and attain new information.

But her research trip is a costly one —  an estimated $10,000 — especially since Banda has to pay for it out of her own pocket. Plane tickets are the most expensive part, but the research equipment may cost up to $2,000.

“Little costs start adding up,” Banda said, referring to the vaccinations, clothing and medications she will need before she leaves.

In order to pay for the expenses, she has applied to several grants to refund her at the end of the research. One of them is funded through the American Society of Primatologists.

“With all research, you have to have the money in advance and hope the grants come through to pay for it,” Banda said. “Field work is expensive.”

But the post-graduate student is not focusing on that right now. Instead she is focusing on her research trip, which is three days away, and her plan of attack once she arrives in Peru.

On a typical day, she will have breakfast at 7 a.m. followed by trek into the field with her team to find the primates in the Madre de Dios region of the rainforest. Once the mammals are located, Banda (the team leader) and two or three researchers will conduct a one-hour focal sample.

The sample focuses on one monkey in each of two groups, which may range from three to eight monkeys. Researchers will gather scan samples, which are 10-minute studies of the other monkeys within the group.

After an hour, the team switches to a new monkey and repeats the process. After four hours, the team will head back for lunch and record their findings.

From 5-8 p.m., the group will return to the wilderness to find the second group of monkeys and repeat the same procedure.

Banda is studying two species, the emperor tamarin and the saddleback tamarin. Both species live in the same area but can be found in different parts of the forest, including a swampy marshland, a bamboo forest and the rainforest.

“Worst-case scenario, I will have to follow them through all of those areas in one day,” she said. “If they were to run away, I have a GPS in my hand so I could just follow them.”

Once her observations are complete, Banda will bring back behavior and fecal samples to analyze in the United States after the three-month excursion.

Her research focuses on parasites in single primates and parasite prevalence across primate populations, specifically intestinal worms. It will also reveal how the environment they are in relates to that. She also will study the way seasons affect the number of parasites.

“Intestinal worms would be the least invasive, because I will just be collecting fecal samples,” she said. “I won’t be handling them in any way.”

After her analysis is complete, Banda hopes to publish her research and findings to share the information she gathers on the trip.

“To try and publish something requires a kind of more deliberate and careful approach to the research from the start,” Sheeran said. “Choosing carefully where you’re going to do the study, make sure you have access to the animal you need access to, the ability to analyze the samples in a way that ensures they won’t be degraded.”

In November, she will take another three-month trip back to Peru to study the monkeys in the wet season. After that trip she will return to grad school in Washington and finally see the Peach state next year.