What is your scientific background?
I was a Biological Anthropology major throughout my academic career. I have a BA from Stony Brook University, a MA from New Mexico State University (NMSU), and I earned my doctorate at the University of Victoria.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
Since I was a child, I have always had a love and curiosity for nature and animals. I remember growing up and learning about Drs. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey and feeling enthralled by their lives, passion, and dedication to educating the general public about the species they study and the threats they face. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that I could make a career out of working with primates. After taking my first primate conservation course and gaining insight into the enormous threats that primates, in particularly lemurs, are facing, I knew I too wanted to become a scientist so I could learn, educate, and work to conserve these amazing animals!
How did you choose your field of study?
Since I had always had a particular interest in non-human primates I found my way to the Anthropology department when I was an undergraduate. This department/discipline offers students lots of different courses that examine primate behavior, ecology, and conservation, as well as human and primate evolution. I fell in love with anthropology! Being an anthropologist has allowed me to incorporate an evolutionary perspective into my research and teaching by examining evolutionary history and behaviour from a comparative, comprehensive, and non-ethnocentric viewpoint.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
Absolutely! As an undergraduate at Stony Brook University I was lucky to have had the opportunity to be mentored by Dr. Patricia Wright. Dr. Wright is probably most well-known for her long-term research and conservation work in Madagascar, including the establishment of Ranomafana National Park and the discovery of the golden bamboo lemur! She was/is a true inspiration within the primatology and conservation community; especially to those of us who work in Madagascar, and have a love and passion for all things lemur! After taking a primate conservation course with Dr. Wright, I was completely captivated with Madagascar and its endemic lemurs. And as they say, the rest is history.
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?
Currently, my work (and my collaborators) is focused on the population and conservation genetics of the Endangered ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), as well as the illegal pet trade of lemurs within Madagascar. Part of this work includes a large-scale population and conservation genetics project which examines the genetic health (e.g., diversity, structure) of the ring-tailed lemur throughout its geographic range. Additionally, it will tackle the question of where individual pet ring-tailed lemurs are being illegally captured.
To date, we have amassed the largest collection of genetic data for the ring-tailed lemur. This was made possible because my non-profit organization Lemur Love, Inc., a U.S. registered 501(c)(3) (founded and directed by my colleague and friend Dr. Marni LaFleur) secured funding in 2016 and 2017 which allowed us to carry-out field work in Madagascar. This work included rapid censusing and line transect surveys of ring-tailed lemurs, fecal sample collection for genetic, nutritional ecology, and microbiome research, as well as community conservation initiatives. In addition to sampling wild populations we have also obtained fecal samples from wild-caught ex-pet and current pet ring-tailed lemurs. These genetic data will be compared to our wild populations and will allow us to determine the provenance of capture of these illegal pet ring-tailed lemurs. Ultimately, we hope to apply these data to informing and developing site-specific conservation initiatives for this species.
What are your biggest achievements?
One of the things I am most proud of is my work with Lemur Love and what we, as a small, all volunteer-based non-profit have been able to achieve. Lemur Love was founded in 2012 by my amazing colleague and friend, Dr. Marni LaFleur, and since that time we have really grown and have been able to make significant impacts with our education and outreach, scientific research, and conservation initiatives, such as our recent collaboration with the women’s association in the village of Efotse which borders the national park where we work.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
For me, the hardest parts of this type of work or academia in general, is time and stress management, and securing funding for research. I am a full-time Visiting Assistant Professor at Duke University and I also serve as the Director of Outreach for Lemur Love, Inc.. Thus, like most of us who work in the sciences and academia, I find it can be challenging to manage/balance my work and family responsibilities while also trying to stay productive and relevant in my field (e.g., publishing manuscripts, writing grants, presenting research, etc.).
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
When I am having a hard time staying motivated or feeling stressed out/ depressed, there are a few core women in my life that I turn to for reassurance and advice. The other thing that serves as great motivator for me is conducting field work. Being able to spend time in Madagascar in the forest with the lemurs always leaves me feeling reinvigorated and ready to take on all the challenges and responsibilities that I will be dealing with when returning back to ‘normal’ life.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
Wow, ten years from now…. My hope and dream is to have grown Lemur Love into a self-sustaining organization. It would be awesome to be able to dedicate myself full-time to working on lemur research and conservation. Additionally, I hope the efforts I am currently working with Lemur Love, both scientific research and community-conservation, will have made a significant contribution and impact for wild ring-tailed lemurs and the local community of Efotse with whom I collaborate with in Madagascar. In particular, I hope to see a stop or at least a dramatic decrease of individual lemurs within in the pet trade in Madagascar, and I hope that the initiatives we are working on can help make positive changes in education and behavioral changes (locals and tourists) surrounding the pet trade issue.
Do you come from an academic family?
No, I do not come from an academic family. In fact, I am the only member of my immediate family to have graduated from college and earn a higher degree.
How does your family regard your career choice?
My family is very proud of my accomplishments and my career choice. At first, they certainly didn’t quite understand how I was going to make a living studying lemurs. They also asked for many years while I was in graduate school (MA and PhD programs) if I was ever going to finish and get a job! Lol
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?
For me, one of the biggest obstacles I have had to deal with has been financial. I come from a very modest background so when I was applying to university for my various degrees I was dependent on financial aid, fellowships, and teaching assistantships. Not knowing if you will have enough money to continue your program and/or having to work more than one job while being a student is super stressful. I am thankful that I was able to overcome these obstacles and finish my degrees!
You can contact Tara at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, and follow her on Twitter!