Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I chose to become a scientist mainly because I like animals and traveling.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to become a scientist?
I did not have a role model that influenced my decision to become a scientist when I was a child but when I started to study at the department of Animal Biology at the University of Antananarivo and became interested in science, famous female scientists such as Diane Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Alison Joly influenced me to study as far as I can.
What is your scientific background?
I studied Natural Sciences at the University of Antananarivo for 2 years and chose to focus on animal biology in my third year. After finishing my Master on the Blue-eyed black lemur in 2004, I went to England to study Primate Conservation at the University of Oxford Brookes. When I came back to Madagascar in 2005, I started to look for funding opportunities for my Ph.D. and was lucky to obtain a scholarship from the Organization of Women in Science in Developing countries (OWSD). For my Ph.D., I was registered at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, but conducted my research on Blue-eyed black lemurs in Madagascar.
How did you choose your field of study?
My country is very rich and unique in terms of biodiversity, so I chose to focus my research on one of the many highly endangered lemur species that are endemic to my home country.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
I’m still working in the field of primatology, focusing on the coordination of lemur conservation projects. I chose this topic because it is highly important for me to contribute to the conservation of the many endangered lemur species, which are endemic to my country. I furthermore established a conservation association and am conducting community projects there to help capacity building.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
The organization of my time and schedule is challenging when I have an important family duty to accomplish – besides my work I have two wonderful children!
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
There are two big achievements in my life I want to highlight:
I fought a forest fire in 2006 when I just started my Ph.D. It was a nightmare, the fire came from three different directions. We were only five people (my field assistants, a cook and myself) at the research camp, so I had to ask for help at the nearest village (Marovato) which took about 2 hours of hiking to reach. I begged the villagers to help us and to send as many villagers as possible. The fire was extinguished after 3 days, so this was a huge success for me.
My second achievement is the creation of a Madagascar-based conservation association – Mikajy Natiora -, which allows me to realize all the recommendations that I have provided in my Ph.D. thesis to contribute to the long-term conservation of the blue-eyed black lemur.
My biggest failures are the rejections of conservation grant proposals that I submitted to well-known funders of conservation projects. I put a lot of effort in the proposals and I made a huge effort to convince the donors – unfortunately, the projects were rejected twice.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
When times are taff, I remind myself to stay calm and positive and always think that it is not the end of the world. Never give up!
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
I would love to combine research on threatened animals and local community involvement for both the conservation of threatened animals and the protection of their habitat, but also to be able to ensure the well-being of the affected local communities.
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
I think that it would be really important to conduct more research on agriculture research in order to decrease deforestation.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
I sincerely hope that I can make at least a little difference towards the conservation of the impressive biodiversity on this planet, especially in my home country.
Do you come from an academic family?
My parents are both teachers at primary school, my older brother is also a teacher at a high school.
How does your family regard your career choice?
My family always encouraged me during my studies, they completely understand that my choice is a bit different compared to those of my brothers and sisters. However, my family is proud of me and thinks that I’m brave.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
I have not been mentored specifically by someone but was always able to ask colleagues for advice when needed.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
Besides my scientific interests, my personal interest is mainly traveling because I like meeting people and learning about their culture.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
Yes, indeed it is hard to manage both career and private life. As a mother of 2 kids, I have a full-time job. You need to make a choice for a decision of things that happen at the same time, sometimes it is not easy to know if you made the right decision. You need to make sacrifices.
What is a typical day like for you?
I wake up at 5:00 am every day, drop my daughter at school at 6:30 am and then start working around 8:00 am. I’m also a part-time lecturer at the University of Antananarivo, so once or twice a week I’m teaching there.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
The biggest obstacles that I had to overcome included 2 things. The first was the already mentioned forest fire in 2006 when I had just started to work on my Ph.D. Being alone with my guides in camp, I had to ask people from the surrounding villages for help – the nearest village is about 7 km distance to the research camp. I had to run there, something I think that would have been easier if I was a man, as I´d probably have been able to run faster. Also, finishing that forest fire would likely have been easier and more efficient if I was stronger.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
Fortunately, I cannot think of a situation where I was confronted with prejudices!
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
So far, I did not have any doubts about my abilities as a scientist. However, that does not mean that I think I’m perfect.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
At any scientific level, women should not be discriminated because of their (in comparison to man) lower strength, which especially might happen in the sometimes very challenging times of working in the field. Also, disabled persons should have the same opportunities!
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
I would like to recommend young scientist to be always courageous. Never give up, even it gets really difficult! You can do this! This is especially true for scientists that are mothers.
Sylviane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Sylviane’s work for Mikajy Natiora on facebook!