Ode to a Tissue Ruptor

Here’s a life lesson learned: If you do not want to increase the number of gray hairs on your head by three orders of magnitude, then do not try to import tissue samples from endangered species across international borders. If you do want to increase your gray hair count well then, by all means, go ahead. You have my blessing.

As it turns out, this process, if completed successfully, can be qualified as nothing short of miraculous. Miracles do happen. I am now a believer. However, sometimes they require a bit of, well…nudging along. The nudging, in the case I’m documenting here, consisted of paying an exorbitantly incompetent shipping company an exorbitantly gross amount of greenbacks, completely lucking out and having our samples inspected by the nicest U.S. Fish & Wildlife customs officer ever to exist, and a graduate student who was willing (or desperate enough?) to spend 13 hours in the car driving from Durham, NC to Atlanta, GA and back in one day to recover them when FedEx refused to deliver them. All right, if I’m being honest, the nudging was a bit more like shoving.

Now that I’ve shoved my way into witnessing a miracle, what do I do with the tissue samples that were delivered like manna from above?* Molecular biology! The term “molecular biology” sounds impressive, but I promise you that buried underneath that cryptic appellation, is a simple concept. Let’s break it down: The word “molecule” is derived from the Latin word “moles” which means tiny particle. And “biology” just translates to the study of life. The goal, then, of molecular biology is to understand the interactions between the different particles that make up a cell, for instance. Here, the particles are simply DNA, RNA, and protein. It helps to think of it as trying to uncover a buried set of blueprints. The blueprint is the plan that encodes for the interacting parts of the architectural structure—the cell!

If you’re anything like I was 10 years ago, the term molecular biology evokes romanticized images of bespectacled scientists in their crisp lab coats hovering over a microscope in a darkened room. You’ve heard of the term glorifying the mundane? Well, I’m here to dull-ify the exalted—to dispel distorted perceptions. I am a molecular biologist. I don’t wear spectacles. I hate microscopes. And I work under supreme lighting conditions. Hell, I don’t even wear a lab coat most of the time!

Actually doing molecular biology is pretty much like preparing a meal. It’s cookbook! It is, quite literally, following a recipe. But of course, in science, we have fancy names for everything. We call our recipes “protocols”. When we talk about ingredients, we give them enigmatic names like “substrates”, “solutions”, or “buffers”. Mixing or stirring can be labeled as “vortexing” or “centrifugation”.

Think of this like a hand mixer.

Think of this like a hand mixer. A $10,00 hand mixer

The protocol tells you to add this ingredient here, stir your amalgamation of components for this many minutes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. If you do it exactly right, then magic happens. Actually, most of the time you don’t even have to do it exactly right. Almost exactly is okay, too.

That magic that I need to happen is to separate the RNA in my “manna from above” from the rest of the cellular “junk” that is uninteresting to me at this moment. Follow the protocol that tells you exactly how to do this, and you’re golden. However, RNA is a finicky, little molecule. It has an annoying tendency to deteriorate rather quickly. In fact, it holds the superlative of “Most Likely to Degrade” by its senior high school class.

When I’m in the field collecting my samples from the fuzzies, I immediately place them into a solution that stabilizes the RNA and keeps it from being degraded (or at least slows down the degradation. Nothing in life is perfect). Back in the lab, once I remove my tissue samples from the safety of their solution, they become a ticking time bomb. Enzymes called RNases, which in my mind look like greedy, little Pac-Men, are just waiting to chew up my RNA in their oddly triangle shaped mouth.

The evil RNase

The evil RNase

The way to combat Pac-Man RNases is to complete protocols in record time. Speed is your friend here. To that end, one must become very proficient at things like opening tubes with one hand and, importantly, reading through your protocols ahead of time!

This is where the magic happens. Yes, that is an inflatable shark above my workstation.

This is where the magic happens. Yes, that IS an inflatable shark above my workstation.

Not all of molecular biology is monotonous and slightly stress-inducing, though. For example, I get to use Über-expensive equipment. Behold the TissueRuptor®!

My muse

My muse

This little gem functions to break apart my tissue samples, so that the RNA I am after is released from the nucleus of the cell (i.e. nuclear prision). Using the TissueRuptor® is so inspiring that I wrote a sonnet in its honor. It’s called “Ode to a TissueRuptor®”**.

“TissueRuptor®, the love I bear thee is never enough.

You gleam, pulverizing samples like a beast.

Because of you, my RNA is released.

Your stainless steel is all shiny and…stuff.

TissueRuptor®, my heart soars, joyful and giddy.

You cut through fat tissue like butter with a knife.

You are, at this moment, the most important thing in my life.

Thanks to you, I may actually get my Ph.D.”

 It’s a jungle out there!

*And I say this with most extreme sense of irony, as I was, of course, the unlucky graduate student who was stuck in my car driving to Atlanta and back on a lovely Saturday afternoon. I’m not bitter, I swear.

**Also of noted import is the fact that these two paragraphs took me longer to write than the rest of the post. Maybe I should stick to the science.

The Animal Only Looks Dead

The narrow hallway is bathed in a warm, red glow. I stare, entranced by the image on the screen, almost hypnotized by its monotony. His tiny fist is curled up into a delicate ball next to his face. His massive tail carefully envelopes his head.IMG_0178

The animal looks dead. But he’s not. The jagged lines moving across the ancient laptop screen confirm this.IMG_0152

In fact, this animal has been like this—utterly motionless—for 96 hours straight. His heart rate is about 12 beats per minute, he can go 15 minutes without taking a single breath, and his body temperature hovers around 59°F. His name is Tanager. He is a fat-tailed dwarf lemur. And he is hibernating.

I write from a hallway constructed out of sienna-hued cinderblock and tinted glass, cluttered by expensive-looking equipment. Dominating the hallway’s small space is “The Beast” tucked neatly in the corner. “The Beast” is our environmental chamber. Designed to control ambient temperature and humidity to a precise degree, unwavering in its onus. It is essentially an oddly shaped refrigerator with a window. An overpriced oddly shaped refrigerator with a window. “The Beast” emits a dull hum that is enough to lull even the most well rested researcher to sleep, betraying its mischievous intentions. Beast, you will not win this one.

The scene before my weary eyes involuntarily elicits nostalgia for the classic film Apollo 13, taking me back to the good ‘ole days when I had ample free time to actually watch movies. The set-up for our study is a mirror image of that legendary space shuttle’s control panel depicted in the film. Outdated equipment, looking like it belongs back in the 1970’s, vomits wires and plastic tubing in jumbled mess. Power strips, connected to cables, litter the floor. I’m willing to bet that NASA shuttles were more organized than this, however.

Is it me, or does this look like the inside of a space shuttle?

Is it me, or does this look like the inside of a space shuttle?

Our control panel, as disordered as it appears at first glance, is completely functional and is beautifully serving its purpose. I am watching Tanager’s brain activity in real-time. But it gets better. I am also monitoring his heart rate, respiration, and metabolic rate, while simultaneously watching him curled up in his tiny ball form on-screen. Tanager Television, coming to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Broadcast live, on site, from the Duke Lemur Center.

Scientific research always has a motivation. Sometimes it’s to understand and cure human disease. Sometimes it’s to appreciate how and why the natural world came to be. Sometimes it’s to comprehend a deeply unique biological phenomenon. This study has elements of all three.

One of the principle investigators driving this study, Dr. Andrew Krystal, is a sleep researcher at Duke Medical Center. His main goal is to understand the mysteries of sleep and sleep disorders in humans. Understanding the link between sleep and metabolic rate is crucial for delving into these questions. This is where Tanager comes in. Hibernation is a phenomenon that encompasses both questions surrounding sleep and metabolic rate. How are the two linked? What happens to the brain when metabolic rate is severely depressed, as in hibernation?

In addition, researchers that study hibernation in mammals are on a relentless mission to understand why we see hibernation in some mammal groups, but not other, closely related ones (for example, many ground squirrel species hibernate, but tree squirrels don’t. Why?). Or why we see hibernation appear in very disparate mammal groups (like bears and primates). By doing similar studies in distinct lineages we can begin to figure out if there are common mechanisms present, or if each group has figured out different ways of achieving the same goal: to survive the winter. These questions are Dr. Peter Klopfer, the other principle investigator’s bag of tricks.

Lastly, hibernation is just insanely cool. It has a “wow” factor that is off the charts. Understanding even a tiny piece of the puzzle is enough motivation for me to want to watch a hibernating animal for 13 hours straight, multiple days in a row, tucked away in a dark hallway.

It’s 8:00 p.m. Only a Coleman lantern perched high on a TV stand and a solitary, red ceiling lamp illuminates the tiny hallway where I sit. The rest of the building is dark, the only light coming from the glowing neon green exit signs. Occasionally I hear gurgling noises deep within the bowels of the building, as if a toilet is being flushed. But I’m the only one here. It’s totally creepy…and totally worth it.

Wait. What was that noise?!?

Wait. What was that noise?!?

It’s a jungle out there!

Science Fail: Mouse Lemurs Misbehavin’

“What could go wrong? My study uses superb experimental design.” The soothing thoughts shallowly lapped at the 3rd year graduate student’s mind as her pessimistic inner monologue was wondering if the data she was collecting could even begin to answer the questions that were keeping her up at night. Those unnerving thoughts had recently begun to surreptitiously infiltrate even the deepest recesses of her brain. Now she was being kept awake for different reasons other than deep-seated scientific curiosity. It would not be long before she would discover that the naughty mouse lemurs in her study would routinely make a habit out of refusing to eat their food, the technology used to measure body temperature would fail in epic fashion, and the data she would be so painstakingly collecting might be too noisy to interpret.

Nearly one year ago, jittery from the anticipation of finally having data to canoodle with, I downloaded body temperature profiles from the collars my mouse lemurs had been wearing for the past 2 ½ months. Growing increasingly dumb-founded, as validated by my gaping jaw, I experienced my first major science fail.

“What could go wrong?” This question every graduate student has faced at least once in his or her career. Suspicion’s ironic cousin. Failures happen all the time in scientific research. Except most of the time scientists don’t want to expose our dirtiest secret. Science isn’t perfect. Allow me to enlighten you. (As a refresher for motivation behind this study, see a recent post—the last paragraph should suffice for refreshment purposes).

My study began beautifully, as meticulously planned. Every morning (and I mean every morning. Weekends have mornings, too!) for nearly 5 months straight, I transported my diet-prepping butt to the Lemur Center to concoct diets for the fuzzies. This involved weighing out primate chow (i.e. pellets o’ nutrition that mouse lemurs can’t wait to stick their tiny faces into. Seriously. They have opposable thumbs, yet choose to eat their food by dunking their fuzzy kissers into it. I imagine a tiny blueberry pie-eating contest, except it’s not blueberry pie. It’s pulverized primate pellets. And it’s not gluttonous Americans at a Fourth of July celebration. It’s adorable mouse lemurs boasting delightfully crumb-y beards). Got a mental image? Here. This might help.

Imagine these guys being tinier and fuzzier, and that's what mouse lemurs look like...minus the garbage bags. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission under Creative Commons License)

Imagine these guys being tinier and fuzzier, and that’s what mouse lemurs look like…minus the garbage bags. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission under Creative Commons License)

Weighing out primate chow requires precision. I use a super-fancy scale, which Amazon.com sold to me for 10 whole dollars, to make sure I get each diet to within a hundredth of a gram of the required amount. This precision is not limited to the chow. My lucky lemurs also get served (quite literally on a silver platter, I might add) a mélange of fruits and veggies that must be weighed out. Think this sounds easy? I thought that, too.

Then I learned. 

Banana is notorious for its opposition to allow itself to be weighed to the hundredth gram. This evil fruit gloms onto itself (and everything around it…gloves, measuring spoons, jeans. Nothing is safe from its greedy reaches!), and refuses to hit that sweet spot on the scale. Banana, I will eat you every day for breakfast as a result of your defiance!!! Corn, on the other hand, is laid-back. Super chill. I love corn. I won’t be eating corn for breakfast any time soon. I have been known to literally rejoice on corn day at the Lemur Center by doing a little jig in my isolated kitchen away from the judging eyes of Lemur Center staff. (Confession: I don’t really think they would judge me. They probably love corn day, too!)

Once diets are prepped and ready to go, you would think that the mouse lemurs are dying to down on the meal you so lovingly prepared for them. Wrong, again. Sure, you have some animals that will gobble up anything you put in front of their chubby little faces, but then there are the picky-eaters in the bunch. (You know who you are, Joe Pye Weed!). This little set back serves to single-handedly destroy the entire experiment. How can you test whether diet influences torpor patterns if said diet is not consumed?

Then comes the issue of weighing the animals. The weighing procedure really gives the animals a chance to display their charming personalities, but also poses the risk of hindering any sort of forward progress. Since my interest lies in the fact that animals fed a certain diet will torpor longer than their counterparts, it is essential to keep disturbances minimal. Then this happens.

Every Friday morning at 9 am, Erin and I tip-toe silently into the room to weigh the animals. Monty, sensing our presence, inevitably vocalizes his little head off in a series of high-pitched shrieks and chatters. This little jerk (ironically, my favorite animal of the bunch. His tail is half the length as all the others) thus manages to “wake up” his buddies and alert them of our intentions, while his adorably disfigured tail is spinning like a helicopter rotor blade gone rogue. Thanks, Monty. Is this what I get for making you my favorite?!?

Erin, Duke Lemur Center research manager extraoridnaire, helps me weigh the fuzzies! (Photo credit: David Haring, DLC)

Erin, Duke Lemur Center research manager extraoridnaire, helps me weigh the fuzzies! (Photo credit: David Haring, DLC)

And here’s the kicker and, notably, a brilliant demonstration of an epic science fail. My study animals had been fitted with pre-programmed collars to record body temperature at hourly intervals. The study was designed so that the animals would be wearing their necklaces from mid-November until the end of January. So. Much. Data.

Such. Incorrect. Assumptions. Here’s a little tip. Assumptions in science? Bad. Very, very bad.

Here I am merrily plugging along assuming everything is working flawlessly, spared from the knowledge that anything was amiss. At least for the time being. Flash forward to me sitting at the dining room table downloading my data, while my yapper is the rivaling the size of Texas. Not only did my collars lose the will to keep recording halfway through the study (December 10th at 10:01 p.m. is the exact time and date, in case you were wondering), but 2 of my 10 collars didn’t work at all! Zero data.

I’m chalking this one up to “gaining experience” and/or “life lesson learned”.  And, in a demonstration of extreme resilience, planning my next failed experiment.

This is science, folks. It ain’t perty.

But stay tuned. There is a happy ending!

It’s a jungle out there!

“Rule-breakers” Aid in Quest for Mysterious Fountain of Youth

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is currently holding their annual blog contest. The winner gets cash, money to put towards attending SciOnline2014, a science communication conference, held in Raleigh, NC. This post serves as my entry, in all its hopeful, optimistic glory. Wish me luck!

With so many products on the market claiming success in reining in the ever-elusive fountain of youth, it’s no wonder society (a certain blogger included) is willing to spend exorbitant amounts of dough on these products. Is it possible that said fountain of youth might be, instead, hidden among our genetic code?

A brand-spanking new study reveals some promising results to suggest just that. Using the power of exceptions to the norm (or, as I like to call them, “rule-breakers”), coupled with sophisticated molecular evolutionary analysis, this study delves deeper into the molecular underpinnings associated with aging and longevity in mammals.

The three rule-breakers in question are none other than the naked mole rat, the little brown bat, and, of course, humans (We can never seem to follow the rules, can we?).

Behold. The amazing little brown bat!

Behold. The amazing little brown bat! (Photo credit: USFWS. Used with permission under the Creative Commons License)

So, how does this seemingly hodge-podge assortment of species get lumped into my arbitrary and newly-defined category of “rule-breakers”? Well, generally among mammals, there is an apparent correlation between body size and life span, with larger mammals tending to live longer; however, this is not the case in the three aforementioned species. They are severely out of line with what should be expected based upon body size alone. The 10-gram little brown bat most drastically demonstrates this by boasting a maximum lifespan of 34 years!


Body weight is plotted against longevity to show a strong correlation between body size and life span. The bigger you are the longer you should live! Notice the “rule-breakers” as obvious outliers. (Figure modified from Morgan et al., 2013).

In an article published last month in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, Morgan and colleagues used these exceptions to the norm to their advantage by comparing the three rule-breaking species with 26 other rule-following species to look for possible changes in telomere-associated genes that might explain why these species can live so long, despite their small body size.

Lets’ learn. Telomeres are a repeating sequence of the genetic code that cap the ends of mammalian chromosomes. It is well established that telomeres are very important for maintaining chromosomal integrity, and thus, cell vivaciousness (hint: anti-aging properties). I like to think of telomere function as analogous to the bottomless chips and salsa you find at Chili’s.

You will never see the bottom of this bowl!

You will never see the bottom of this bowl…or will you?

Each time a cell divides, the chromosomes gets truncated at the ends. This is bad. The ends are imperative for carrying genetic information that must be replicated, and passed on during cell division. The telomeres, acting as the chromosome’s savior, make the ultimate sacrifice by allowing themselves to be chopped off in lieu of the important genetic material. And here is where our hypothetical chips and salsa come in. The enzyme telomerase (think: uber-attentive Chili’s server) is constantly refilling the telomere stock that gets depleted in each cell cycle. See? Bottomless telomeres…I mean chips and salsa.

But eventually our fictional Chili’s server gets bored and stops refilling his or her patron’s chips (I guess they’re not really bottomless after all). The patrons eventually run out of chips. Sad.

The same happens with telomeres, as telomerase will eventually “get bored” and stop renewing them. This leads the telomeres to shorten to the point of hindering cell division, along with a host of other detrimental effects. This lack of cell division manifests as the outward signs we call aging.

The authors of this ground-breaking study decided that telomere-associated genes, the suite of genes that regulate telomere function, might be a good place to search deep within the recesses of the genome to discover if there were any advantageous changes in those genes in our three long-lived species, when compared to species that cannot claim to have mastered the secret to anti-aging. What genetic surprises are they holding?

The authors arrived at the astonishing conclusion that there are, in fact, a large number of genes that do show advantageous changes in telomere-associated genes when comparing rule-breakers vs. the rule-followers. Of noted importance was the fact that the genes that display these changes are different between bats, naked mole rats, and humans, suggesting that long-lived species may have evolved different ways to combat aging. And to that I say, “I guess there really is more than one way to skin a cat!” The authors propose that these differences might be due to disparities in timing of reproduction and/or survival strategies.

Adorable, aren't they? (Photo credit: Smithsonian National Zoo. Used with permission under the Creative Commons License.)

Adorable, aren’t they? (Photo credit: Smithsonian National Zoo. Used with permission under the Creative Commons License.)

For example, in naked mole rats, older females produce more offspring than young females which is contrary the reproductive strategies of little brown bats and humans.

This elegant study offers a first-glimpse into how genomes might hold the secret to finding the elusive fountain of youth. As the old adage goes, “Rules were made to be broken”. I guess this might be true after all. Alright, I’m off to rob a bank!

Reference: Morgan CC, McCartney AM, Donoghue MTA, Loughran NB, Spillane C, Teeling EC, and O’Connell MJ. Molecular adaptations of telomere associated genes in mammals. BMC Evolutionary Biology 13:251. 2013.

UPDATE: The results for the blogging contest are in. I did not take home the top prize; however, I came in first runner-up! As a novice science writer, I couldn’t be more pleased. Thanks, NESCent, for the awesome opportunity to hone my skills!

Mouse Lemurs Get New Necklaces

Who doesn’t love wearing a little bling every once in a while? Mouse lemurs. That’s who. This week, Bobby, trusty Duke Lemur Center veterinarian, along with the help of Erin, research manager extraordinaire, outfitted ten tiny mouse lemurs with ten tiny temperature-sensitive collars. And I mean tiny. These collars, weighing about as much as a paperclip and boasting a circumference maybe a tad bit bigger than the width of your thumb, are the pride and joy of a side project that I’m conducting at the Duke Lemur Center.

Erin posing with Pesto, modeling his new neck attire. Clearly, he loves it.

Erin posing with Pesto, modeling his new neck attire. Clearly, he loves it.

Itty bitty temperature-sensitive collars!

Itty bitty temperature-sensitive collars!

This side project, which I like to think of as the “less-than-sub-par-dissertation-research-should-my-work-on-hibernation-genomics-fail-in-epic-fashion” is a fun little project I conjured up last year, mainly so I can work with adorable captive mouse lemurs. Also, so I stop panicking about how risky my actual dissertation work is.

I call it the diet supplementation study. Here’s why: If you’ve been following along, you know that I  study hibernation physiology in dwarf lemurs. And you might also know that they can hibernate for up to 7 months out of the year. Mouse lemurs, in the same family as dwarf lemurs, also quasi-hibernate. It’s a phenomenon called daily torpor. Outwardly, it looks the same as hibernation, although it is expressed on a much smaller scale. Metabolic rate and body temperature are depressed, as in hibernation, but usually for less than 24 hours at a time. So, species like ground squirrels, black bears, and my dwarf lemurs, would be called classical “hibernators. Makes sense, right? Mouse lemurs, on the other hand, are colloquially known by those of us in the hibernation field, as “torpidators” (Hey, we watch dormant animals for a living! You need to stimulate brain matter somehow. Give us, poor researchers, a break!).

Daily torpor, at least in mouse lemurs, is a really flexible response. There have been numerous studies on mouse lemur torpor patterns in the western region of Madagascar, offering loads of insight about metabolic rate during torpor, how low body temperature can go, and the fact that females vs. males are more likely to use torpor (e.g. some males don’t at all, staying active the entire winter). And here’s where the “flexibility” part comes in. We also know that torpor episodes vary in intensity, duration, and frequency between populations of the little guys, within populations (with some individuals in the group showing different usage of torpor), and even within individuals (i.e. they can change their torpor usage from year to year, and even month to month. So, for example, maybe one animal used torpor throughout the whole winter in 2012, but only went into torpor during two days in 2013). Weird! So this got me thinking: What factors are influencing these mysterious patterns? I’ve already ruined the punch-line. Diet. Of course, this is all conjecture on my part, but what if foods the animals were eating prior to torpor season are shaping torpor usage during the winter? It’s pretty well-established, and seems intuitive (at least to me), that the amount of fat that is stored will affect how long an animal can hibernate (or torpidate, if you will…and I, of course, will). If an animal runs out of fat stores in the middle of winter, they’re pretty much up the creek without a paddle. Hibernators/torpidators are not known for being particularly good paddlers. So we know that getting really, really chubby matters, but imagine for a moment that not only the quantity of fat stored is important, but also (wait for it…) the quality!

Can you blame me for wanting to work with these adorable creatures? (Photo credit: David Haring, Duke Lemur Center)

Can you blame me for wanting to work with these adorable creatures? (Photo credit: David Haring, Duke Lemur Center)

Using captive mouse lemur at Duke Lemur Center, I can actually test this crazy, speculative theory! This is science at it’s finest, folks! Beautifully designed studies in the lab that can begin to answer the questions I am after, by controlling everything but the variables I want to test. The guts of my experiment rely upon two different diets, which I’ve modified with some help from those who’ve done similar studies in the past (I’m standing…well, wobbling really, on the shoulders of giants. They’re very tall!). These two diets are identical, with the notable exception of the type of fat that they contain.

You would never know that these diets are different! I wonder if the mouse lemurs do...

You would never know that these diets are different! I wonder if the mouse lemurs do…

The ten mouse lemurs in my study are split into two groups. Each group will be fed one of the two diets for two months before they start to ‘torpidate’, at which point they get fitted with their fancy new necklaces. These necklaces allow me to collect body temperature data at hourly intervals throughout the torpor period. I can then determine if one type of diet was correlated with lower body temperatures or longer torpor episodes. In other words: Does diet, indeed, matter?

Sounds really simple, right? It turns out, it’s not. Stay tuned for the messy details!

It’s a jungle out there!

The Conservation Trifecta: It’s All About Linkage (and Rubik’s Cubes)

I will never claim to be a conservation biologist, nor will you ever hear me say that I completely (or even just a tiny bit) understand the complex web of factors that lead to the rampant decline of some of our most loved species, shining in all of their fuzzy glory. But, being a lemur biologist in-training and possessing a mad passion for all things lemur (yes, I do have multiple lemur stuffed animals…don’t judge), issues surrounding lemur conservation inherently hit home. I love the fuzzies. But it seems as though the world does not love the fuzzies. In 2012, a shocking statement put out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed lemurs as the most endangered mammal group on the planet. The. Most. Endangered. Take a moment to let that sink in. They are disappearing right before our very eyes. Now that I’ve completely depressed you to the point of wanting to down a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s Double Fudge Brownie, here is the good news. There are a lot of people who understand the complex web of socio-economic and environmental issues that play a crucial role in the breakdown of preserving a species. These people care. These people are brilliant. And these people are doing something about it.

Let me tell you a little story about two lemur researchers named Mitch and Karen. The year 2000 brought us the billionth person to be born in India, the marriage of Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, and, sadly, the last original Peanuts comic (R.I.P, Charles Schulz). But it also brought the protagonists in our story to Tsinjoarivo field site in Madagascar to study the local population of diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema).

Oh, heeeeey, sifaka!

Oh, heeeeey, sifaka!

To Mitch and Karen, the year 2000 also brought the crushing realization that intense human population growth in the surrounding region was severely impacting the environment. And with that environmental impact comes catastrophic consequences for the native flora and fauna that are found there. And I’m not just talking about lemurs—this area is a hotbed of diversity for all sorts of cool species! The local population survives on agriculture and natural resource extraction and, while this is not necessarily a bad thing when done sustainably and in moderation, decisions regarding the deforestation of the surrounding forest are grounded on a cut-when-you-need basis, with absolutely zero forethought to how this will impact the future landscape. Why does this matter? This forest that is being cut down by the local people is the same forest that provides the residents materials for building and cooking, regulates water flow, and harbors the innumerable species that live there—and might only be found there. So, needless to say, it’s kind of a big deal.

Mitch and Karen took action in the form of a non-governmental organization (NGO) called SADABE, taking the name from the local word for the lemur species they are passionate about.

Mitch and Karen, hard at work, finishing up a health assessment

Mitch and Karen, hard at work, finishing up a health assessment

My naïve understanding of conservation work ventures to guess that for species preservation to be truly effective, one must exploit synergistic activities that address all the elements that contribute to the aforementioned sticky, tangly web. Or, as I like to call these activities, The Conservation Trifecta: Research, Development, and Education.

Research: Of course, this seems obvious, but it bears mentioning for completeness’ sake. To fully understand how human activities can impact a species, we must gather all the information we can about its basic biology. This can be done by doing census surveys estimating species abundance in that area, investigating ecological parameters like what it feeds on or what feeds on it, and completing health assessments—the whole gamut. Currently, our research team studying hibernation, as well as researchers from other institutions are tackling the research side of things, yet so far we’ve only made a ity-bity dent in the vast amount of knowledge that needs to be gained. Onward!

Development: Get the locals involved! Teach them sustainable socio-economic activities, like development of fish ponds, bee keeping, or eco-tourism. This approach not only provides the local residents with jobs and reliable income, but it also educates them as to the importance of preserving their truly unique ecosystems. And…cue segue!

Education: To me, education is the crux of the matter. How can you change things you do not fully comprehend? Here’s a horrible analogy. The worst one I could come up with, in fact. Let’s discuss Rubik’s cubes for fun-sies.

Thanks for this great invention Mr. Rubik!

Thanks for this great invention Mr. Rubik!

What if you were given this odd cuboidal object and told to “figure it out” without any sort of direction? You would have no idea where to start. You might get frustrated, stop caring, and throw the damn thing out the car window, smirking in amusement as it gets pulverized into smithereens by oncoming traffic. Then say, for example, you were told how to solve the puzzle (given that you didn’t actually destroy this delightful little object in the first place). You might take the quick fix, remove all the stickers, replace them on the correct side, and call it a day (not that a certain blogger ever did that…). After a few rounds of these “quick fixes”, the stickers lose their stickiness and start to fall off, thus rendering the quick fix worthless (Sorry I ruined your Rubik’s cube, Grandma). The real solution takes instruction, careful planning, and most importantly, commitment. This is what conservation education is all about. There are no quick fixes. Dedication can only come from a full understanding of the problem at hand, otherwise motivation is lost, and things get chucked out of car windows. (Right now, I’m imagining poor little lemurs being hurled out of car windows. They are not enjoying this. Neither am I.) Let’s relate my awful analogy back to our lemur researchers. They realized that to fix the problem, the residents must actually care about the problem—maybe they thought about Rubik’s Cubes, too! At Tsinjoarivo, fostering compassion for conservation through education begins with the wee little ones. In 2005, Mitch and Karen collaborated with the Madagascar Ankizy Fund (www.ankizy.org) to build a school. Now, over 250 kids from the surrounding area attend this school which provides high-quality education for free, while teaching the importance of conservation in their region. In essence, they are building future ambassadors for the fuzzies! But this school cannot do it alone. Funds are desperately needed. Currently, SADABE is conducting a fundraiser to help offset the costs for teachers’ salaries and school repairs. Are you feeling generous? If you would like to donate, or even if you would just like more information (or to look at some great photos) click here!!

By helping the kids, we are helping the lemurs. How’s that for linkage!

It’s a jungle out there!

And the Votsavotsa Award goes to…

I have a confession. Blogging from the field is hard. (Why, yes, I would like some cheese with that whine.) You are fighting an ever-losing battle with iPad battery drainage, nonexistence of a thesaurus or reliable spell-checker (how do I spell weird again? ‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’? Wierd? Wait…that doesn’t look right), and frequently Internet connectivity just loses the will to, well, connect.

Maybe if I hold it up a little bit higher, I will connect

Maybe if I hold it up a little bit higher, it will connect. Move, cloud, you’re blocking my signal!

In addition, I feared that all of my creative juices had all dried up, never to free-flow again. This was due to an amalgamation of lack of sleep, physical exhaustion, and the ever-elusive muse I was continually chasing—a white rabbit merrily hoping through the rainforest provoking frustration by casting spiteful gazes my way. Finding colorful synonyms for words, something I typically excel at even sans thesaurus, was becoming an insurmountable challenge.

Me: “Marina, what’s another word for ‘hiding’?”

Marina: “You’ve thought of all the obvious ones, right? Concealing? Masking?”

Me: ::blank stare::

As it turns out, the most effective way to reconstitute my desiccated juices was wine…and chocolate…and sleep. All these things were relished on our first night back to civilization in Madagascar’s capital city, and have since been exploited in full force since my return to the States. I arrived safely home in a whirlwind of hand-carrying chameleon toes across international borders, a piece of research equipment boasting a $10,000 price tag that decided to do some sightseeing in Paris without me, and dealing with incompetence at JFK airport that was unrivaled. But I made it. I am home.

I write this wrap-up “field” post with bittersweet emotions. On one sweet hand, I am gratified to be done with fieldwork in Tsinjoarivo Forest—the culmination of four very successful seasons. On the other very bitter hand, I am leaving behind my Malagasy family whose graciousness and hospitality were unparalleled. Forgive me while I greedily steal a moment of your time to properly provide them with the mad blog kudos they truly deserve (i.e. “bludos”. Consider this term coined here!). This research would’ve never happened without their skill and expertise and I am forever grateful.

  • Renee—our most experienced guide, harboring a brilliant sense of humor and gestures so comically animated that, even not understanding his words, I am able to “catch his drift”.

    Nice hat, Renne

    Nice hat, Renee

  • Jules—insanely hardworking, completing tasks without complaint (even the most ridiculous ones…see previous blog posts). Reticent in most situations, exuding a self-assured presence that I try hard to emulate.


    Best buds, Jules and Bema Luis

  • Parfait—our guide-in-training, a beautiful and gentle soul. Very contentious of my failures, always willing to offer a hand to help scramble over massive obstacles. Incredibly innovative with the use of lianas as a tree-climbing aid.

    Parfait poses with our radio antenna for fun-sies

    Parfait poses with our radio antenna for fun-sies (Photo credit: Elley Schopler)

  • Nirina—fiercely independent and wonderful mother of two. Her grace and strength make her seem much older than her 28 years and she shines even though her gender undoubtedly throw obstacles her way.

    Nirina with baby, Nekena

    Nirina with baby, Nekena

  • Natacha—incredible translator and good friend. Always willing to provide first-hand accounts of life in Madagascar and lively discussions about cultural differences between Madagascar and the U.S.

    Isn't she a lovely artist?

    Isn’t she a lovely artist?

My Malagasy family was very patient with me as I was plopped down, unprepared, into their world that is so dissimilar from my own. I always wonder what would happen if they were transplanted from their natural forest into our synthetic one—skyscrapers and cars, instead of trees and zebu. I gather they would fare just fine as I am continually astounded by their adaptability and fortitude. The skyscraper jungle can’t be as obstacle-ridden as the natural one, right? Our relationship has been mutually beneficial. We provide a reliable paycheck and, in return, we are offered their proficiencies in “all things lemur” and their determination to help us succeed. Despite language barriers, I was given an intimate view into their world. This cultural immersion allowed me to understand their values and mores, and comprehend the world in a radically different light. For example, I used to believe that deforestation was a universally bad thing. My opinion has changed. Being placed into the epicenter of where deforestation is occurring at a rampant pace made me realize that there are certain nuances to it. The local people depend on cut-trees for shelter and cooking—their existence fundamentally hangs on it. If a family’s livelihood, their utter survival, depends on it, can it still be bad? At what lengths would you go to ensure that you and your family survive? Maybe the word “deforestation”, tethered with negative connotations, should be reserved for greedy mining and logging companies—foreigners who steal what is not theirs to take and don’t bother considering the consequences. Just a thoughtful digression…

The field is a learning experience. Many of the things I’ve discovered have delightful applications to real-world experiences. Some only apply to the field (see #2). I’ve gathered all of my “wisdom” and will share it here. You, too, can be field savvy!

1.) Always bring water with you to combat the very-real physiological effects of dehydration. ‘Nuff said.

2.) Use extreme caution when navigating the forest “toilet”, as to avoid having to embarrassingly explain a wet “muddy” boot.

Behold! The toilet!!

Behold! The toilet!!

3.) Learn how to fall, both literally and figuratively, with dignity (Dignity, yes. Grace, not so essential.) More importantly, learn how to drag yourself back up.

4.) Sometimes the best approach is sliding down on your ass and/or taking a blind leap of faith putting complete trust that you will handle whatever it is you land on.

5.) Celebrate the small success, especially when the outlook seems bleak, but also when it doesn’t!

The field allows ample time for personal reflection—copious quantities to gather and synthesize all of these nuggets ‘o wisdom. I believe this is why I’m so clumsy in the forest. During hikes, I manage to let my mind wander as my body passively responds to stepping over that log (or fails to respond). Well, with the exception of climbing mountains. Then, trust me, my mind is actively engaged, my inner monologue spewing out a stream of expletives that would put a sailor to shame (…and my poor mother). These hikes also allow a lot of time for creative ingenuity. For example, the birth of the Votsavotsa award. “Votsavotsa” literally means “clumsy” in Malagasy. The winner of this award was determined by identifying the diversity, abundance, magnitude, and location of forest-induced wounds between Marina, Natacha, and myself. These measures were, of course, unbiased and wound index values were rigorously calculated, as are all things in science. And now, ladies and gentlemen, the awarding of the highly sought after Votsavotsa Award. And the winner is…

This is how I prepare my acceptance speech

This is how I prepare my acceptance speech

I doubt there was any surprised gasp from the audience. Despite all the wound-age, I’m happy to say that I successfully collected all of the white adipose tissue samples I was aiming for from this population of dwarf lemurs. In a radical change of pace, my next few months will be spent wearing my crisp, white lab coat (this functions to make sure I don’t get lemur “tubby-ness” all over my clothes, and to make me appear reputable, as if I actually know what I’m doing) and wielding a pipette to transfer minuscule amounts of clear liquid from one tube to another. That’s all molecular biology is, folks. Yay, science!

I hope you enjoyed my posts from the field. I’m looking forward to my next likely trip back in July of 2014. New field site. New population of dwarf lemurs. New results! Peace out, Tsinjoarivo Forest. You’ll be missed. Now, where did I put that missing $10,000 portable oxygen analyzer?

The field site

I’ll surely miss this place!

It’s a jungle out there!