Summer Internship Reflections

As I watch several of my peers apply to internships, and as I begin to apply for jobs, I find myself reflecting on my internship experience this past summer and the important skills I learned. I interned at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington D.C., one of the top conservation organizations in the world—and, quite honestly, my “dream job” for several years. My internship was made possible through a special Nicholas School-WWF partnership, an opportunity for which I am incredibly grateful.

As the Wildlife Technology Intern, my main role was to support the Wildlife Crime Technology Project (WCTP). This ongoing project explores the use of thermal cameras, drones and other technology in preventing poaching of highly endangered species in Africa and Asia. My role included testing and reviewing different technology, research into new technology and its applications, and geospatial analysis and mapping support.

I was primarily involved in a partnership that WWF has with FLIR Systems to utilize their heat-detecting thermal cameras at protected areas in Kenya, Zambia and Nepal. The goal of this project is to provide rangers at these sites with high-tech devices that allow them to apprehend poachers more easily at night. These cameras are also installed at certain sites to provide 24-hour surveillance in an effort to catch poachers illegally entering parks. For these WWF-FLIR project sites, I provided updated GIS maps of the communication masts and camera locations, ranger stations and field of view of the cameras. I also created 3D maps and video animation of two of the sites, Kafue National Park, Zambia, and Bardia National Park, Nepal. These maps and videos are to be used in future presentations as an engaging way to describe the project to an audience.

Testing out one of the FLIR thermal cameras.

Throughout my internship, I also provided more general support for the Wildlife Crime Technology Project. Since much of the equipment at these project sites rely on the use of solar power, I contacted and arranged meetings with solar companies to discuss potential partnerships for future WWF-FLIR project sites. Surprisingly, one of the most challenging tasks regarding this project was donating a box of thermal cameras to Game Rangers International in Zambia, for them to use as handheld units in their daily operations. The challenge came with shipping lithium batteries internationally, which I discovered were subject to a long, confusing list of regulations and requirements. Though frustrating, this task gave me an appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work that organizations have to do, and a realization that these challenges are just a part of the job.

The highlight of my internship was the trip I took to Pensacola, Florida, to work with Eric Becker, WWF’s Conservation Engineer. Knowing that the future WCTP projects will likely use drones, my task during this trip was to become familiar with flying a drone, make comparisons between image processing software, and create a how-to guide for rangers to refer to once they start working with drones. After collecting and processing images, I wrote a guide outlining the process from flight planning to the final product, including tips for planning and executing a successful drone flight, the correct settings for processing the imagery, and use of the final image in ArcGIS.

During this trip, Eric and I were able to do some unique research as well. In a partnership with the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center, we first wanted to determine if it was possible to detect sea turtles on the artificial reef that is located offshore from the Center. During a manual drone flight, I spotted two sea turtles on the reef, indicating the usefulness of this technology in censusing. This was especially interesting following the research that the Duke Marine Lab conducted about the use of drones in detecting large numbers of sea turtles off the coast of Costa Rica.

We also tested out the brand-new FLIR Duo Pro R thermal camera, which is designed to be compatible with a drone. We took photos of loggerhead sea turtle nests to see if the thermal camera could detect the 1-2oF difference between a nest and the surrounding sand. For more details about this research, see my case study published on, which serves as an amazing community for those interested in conservation technology. For my masters project, I am analyzing the nesting trends of sea turtles on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, so this trip and these initial results were especially interesting and worthwhile to me.

I had an incredible internship experience this summer, where the skills I learned and the research I conducted is directly applicable my future career goals. During my time at Duke I have learned a variety of geospatial analysis and coding skills, and while my internship strengthened these skills, it also taught me much more. I gained a much deeper understanding of the workings of a major NGO, strengthened my scientific communication skills through sharing my research with colleagues, and learned how important collaboration is in this field, from the many meetings I attended with other departments and organizational partners. Though my path after graduation is still unclear, I’m sure everything I’ve learned this summer has prepared me well.

In front of the WWF Building in Washington D.C.