Co-op Leads Drexel Student to Valleys and Mountains of Mongolia

Anna Gourlay

Environmental science pre-junior Anna Gourlay wasn’t looking to go international for her first co-op experience, but somehow she ended up camping in Mongolia.

Gourlay worked as an assistant staff scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. The two-month, paid co-op was with the Academy’s fisheries and watershed scientists.

To prepare for the co-op, Gourlay sent over basic camping necessities, like a tent and sleeping bag, two weeks before the co-op even started, and more than two months before she would arrive in Asia.

“I had to plan clothing for the winter and the summer, because it’s so cold sometimes and so hot sometimes in Mongolia. So I was sending over shorts and a winter jacket and every type of shoe I had,” she said.

Gourlay, a vegetarian, also had to plan to adapt to the heavy meat-based Mongolian diet and gradually increase the amount of meat she ate every day in the weeks before she flew over.

“In Mongolia, it was either don’t eat or eat meat. There wasn’t another option. And it didn’t go well at first during the first couple weeks of eating meat. I didn’t really digest it well,” she explained.

In the countryside, where Gourlay spent most of her time, the Mongolians couldn’t grow crops because of the cold temperature, so much of the diet consisted of animal dairy and meat products. An example of a typical Mongolian meal is horhog, or sheep cooked with steam and hot rocks.

"They have yak-cow hybrids—I called them ‘yaows,’ but that didn't catch on like I wanted it to,” she said. “I actually got to watch a sheep slaughter and then we got to eat every part of that. Every bit.”

Gourlay also watched Mongolians prepare their typical meals, which would include squeezing feces out of animal intestines and separating the organs for preparation.

After initially flying into Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, Gourlay and the staff of the watersheds and systems department drove or flew to Hovsgol, which is located in Northwest Mongolia near Russia. They also spent time in the valleys in the east.

The first month’s work consisted of physically setting up temperature logger locations for environmental modeling in valleys and collecting temperature and rainfall data from them. After the first month, when the watershed scientists left and the fisheries staff arrived, Gourlay helped electroshock and catch fish in Lake Hovsgol and its tributaries for climate change investigation, collecting to see if the fish were aging differently due to the temperature.

During the trip, Gourlay spent most of her time camping, where she and the other scientists slept in tents alongside their cook and two drivers, which stayed with the group of all times. When they would go to the city, they would stay in a hotel.

"I actually think not having phone service or Internet for two months was really nicem” she said. “And that mixed with being in a beautiful, unscathed environment where humans hadn't wrecked it yet was so raw and real,” Gourlay said.

When she spent a few days with a co-worker in Beijing visiting popular tourist attractions like temples and Olympic Park, Gourlay learned how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Mandarin, but she had a slightly better grasp of Mongolian for when she was in Mongolia.

"I couldn't say sentences, but I learned all the farm animals, like ‘yak’ and ‘cow’ and ‘goat.’ And also ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you,’” she said.

She also learned some not-so-basic phrases as well.

"In my phrase book, there was a sentence that said, 'Is there a dance party here?' So I would just say that and start dancing, and then the Mongolians would just look at me and then dance, too.”

Back in the United States, Gourlay also did some traveling for the Academy. She did research in central Pennsylvania, and took week-long trips to the Marcellus Shale and Connecticut’s Housatonic River to conduct fish research. Day-trips were scheduled for cities closer to Philadelphia, including days spent catching fish with inner-city teens in New Jersey.

“I learned so much from that job. I had to be really independent,” Gourlay said.

Gourlay is currently on her second co-op in Orlando, where she works as a research assistant for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and researches shore birds. She had previously studied diamondback terrapin turtles at Barnaget Bay and a PhD student’s lab at Drexel. After graduation, she hopes to do research for an organization “to fix problems” and possibly enter graduate school.