What is your scientific background?
My scientific background is in Human Gross Anatomy and Biological Anthropology. I’m often asked why I teach human gross anatomy but study non-human primates. Understanding why and how morphological features work together can help us understand why animals do the things that they do. For example, the relationship between tooth morphology and food is fairly straightforward. Teeth are tools that have evolved over millions of years to most efficiently and effectively break down food into small enough pieces that the animal’s digestive system can absorb as many nutrients as possible. Another example – the relationship between limb bone shape and locomotion.
Where do you conduct your fieldwork?
I have conducted paleontological and primatological fieldwork in five countries (so far). My current fieldwork is closer to home – studying lemurs (Lemur catta and Propithecus coquereli) in human-maintained habitats at the Duke Lemur Center (Duke University) and on St. Catherines Island (GA).
Why is it important to living animals?
For my dissertation, I research many aspects of feeding – from social interactions, food selection, to the species-specific masticatory anatomy. The ability to feed successfully has significant evolutionary implications. Therefore, it is a fundamental and interdisciplinary research issue for discussing why some primates have gone extinct, and why, in forests devastated by anthropic pressures, many extant primates might be headed for extinction.
Specifically, I study lemurs, a group of primates native to Madagascar. Lemurs have diversified across Madagascar to fill numerous ecological niches – from the nocturnal “woodpeckers” (Aye-aye, Daubentonia madagascarensis) to the Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) known for their characteristic black and white striped tails and female-dominant societies. Unfortunately, approximately 71% of the species of lemurs are endangered or critically endangered with an additional 21% classified as vulnerable (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species). Therefore, there is a critical need for learning about these animals in order to preserve them. One of the greatest resources for saving species of lemurs has been the captive breeding program at the Duke Lemur Center.
What is the most memorable thing that has happened during your research?
While studying a family of Coquerel’s Sifaka (Propithecus coquereli) at the Duke Lemur Center, one of the young males came up to me and “hugged” my leg. One of my faculty advisors suggested that the young lemur confused my leg for a tree. I choose to believe that he accepted me as one of his own.
Do you come from an academic family?
No, I am a first generation college graduate and graduate student. My path to Doctoral Candidacy has been extremely challenging, though extremely rewarding. Because I didn’t have the experience of my family while navigating through undergrad, I spent a great deal of time learning from the experiences of my mentors at the National Museum of Natural History.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?
Having ADHD in graduate school can be extremely challenging. It takes me twice as long to read and comprehend material as students without such issues. I’ve been told (by a physician) that I “wasn’t studying hard enough.” It was very difficult for me (both practically and emotionally) to establish the accommodations for which I am entitled.
What motivates you?
“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do!” I saw this on a post-it note during fieldwork (unfortunately it was uncredited). Seriously, every step seems impossible – the GREs, getting into grad school, passing your doctoral candidacy exams, and receiving rejection after rejection on grants. Hang in there and don’t give up. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.
References and Additional Information
IUCN 2017. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. <https://www.iucnredlist.org>
John R. Platt. (2018). Lemurs in Crisis: 105 Species Now Threatened with Extinction. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/lemurs-in-crisis-105-species-now-threatened-with-extinction/
Steffens, T. S., & Lehman, S. M. (2018). Lemur species-specific metapopulation responses to habitat loss and fragmentation. PloS one, 13(5), e0195791.
To contact/view Stephanie’s Research
Stephanie is on Researchgate!