Naomi K. Hegwood ’23 and I lounge on the jouch (denim couch, that is) in her common room as she tells me about her trip to Cameroon this past summer. She was doing fieldwork for her senior thesis at a remote research station in the Congo jungle, accessible only through a seven-hour hike.
On paper, the objective of her trip seemed straightforward: measure trees to validate data collected by the International Space Station. In practice, each day, she went hiking with her research professor, accompanied by an “eco-guard,” a World Wildlife Fund-sponsored guard trained to protect the jungle from poachers and the pair of unsuspecting researchers from predators. To measure the trees, Hegwood would be macheted into the location of her target trees, where she would then use a laser rangefinder to triangulate the height of the trunks. It was almost impossible because of the dense foliage.
But it wasn’t the fieldwork that intimidated her — it was the long walk from her camp to the outhouse. “I’m afraid of the dark to this day,” she says. “When you shine your light into the trees, you can see the eyes shine of these little cat things called civets,” Hegwood recalls, describing their cat-like sounds coupled with the nighttime “screams” of “little rodent things” called hyraxes.
The outhouse itself had its share of jungle critters, too; Hegwood was once greeted by a spider the size of a banana. “I made the professor that was with me walk me to the bathroom half the time because I was terrified,” she says. “But yeah, I definitely want to go back to Cameroon.”
Last summer was only her second time abroad — the first was last winter break, when she went to Kenya as part of a program for students interested in fieldwork.
Though international travel may be new to Hegwood, she has always felt at home in the outdoors. She grew up in North Dakota (and has the North Dakota-themed shower curtain to prove it) and spent most of her childhood outside. “I used to catch frogs and keep them in containers. I would catch grasshoppers and put them in this little bug cage I had,” she says. As a teenager, she and her friends would hang out in the forest and “find weird paths and do dumb things.”
In high school, she says she joined Science Olympiad “because all my friends did — I actually hated science.” Now an Integrative Biology concentrator, she only realized her interest in ecology once she joined her school’s “Envirothon” which involved counting trees and identifying plants in the name of conservation.
Hegwood transposed her outdoorsy habits from the woods of North Dakota to the streets of Cambridge, sometimes to the shock of others. She recalls an experience she had volunteering at the Mystic River Watershed when she waded into the water in her sneakers and spent hours removing invasive species, covering herself in mud, surprising the other volunteers with her eagerness. The “random guy” she was paired with was “staring at me,” she says.
Another time, when she was living in Winthrop as a summer research fellow, she walked to her friend’s dorm in Dunster House barefoot in the pouring rain. “I can’t remember why I did this, but they were absolutely appalled,” she says.
In many ways, Hegwood invites adventure into the mundane of the everyday. She recounts memories of jumping into the ocean in chilly April weather and sledding on pizza boxes down the Widener steps. “One of my friends has a knack for being able to bike ride with me in the basket,” she adds.
“I’ll basically try anything once,” she says, whether it be an unidentified berry while on a hike or a goat testicle offered to her at a cookout.
She’s not yet sure where her next step will take her. “Eventually I want to be a professor of ecology and do cool field trips and stuff,” she says. “As long as I’m outside.”
I ask her if there is a driving force behind all her risk-taking and thrill-seeking. “I think I used to be a lot more scared. When I was a kid I was super jumpy,” she tells me. “But it’s a big world out there. Why not try it?”
— Magazine Editor Amber H. Levis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amberlevis.