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Living with Lemurs

Duke Lemur Center Director Anne D. with a Coquerel's Sifaka (Propithecus coquereli).
(Image: © Duke University Lemur Center)

Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

Name: Anne D. Yoder Age: 49 Institution: Duke University Field of Study: Evolutionary Biology

First inspired to study lemurs while on a visit to the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, N.C., Anne Yoder now runs that facility, and recently helped create a better map the lemur family tree. Lemurs are primates, so a better understanding of their lineage helps us to better understand our own. Yoder was recently featured in a Behind the Scenes profile, but to get a better insight into how she works, here are her responses to the ScienceLives 10 Questions.

What inspired you to choose this field of study? A field trip to the Duke Lemur Center when I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. I was blown away the incredible diversity I observed in this one group of primates. From there, evolutionary biology, biogeography, and Madagascar became my obsessions.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? "There is value in every experience." (from my dad, when I was complaining about a menial summer job) AND "If you don't know the answer to a question, reply ‘I don't know.'" (from a fellow graduate student, when I was studying for my qualifying exams)

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? When I was about 6 or 7-years-old, I collected dozens of newly hatched toads from a local park, and then put them in my parents' bathtub. I poured a little bit of water into the tub, and wanted to see if they preferred the wet or the dry parts of the tub. Of course, I then forgot all about them, whereupon they managed to get themselves all over the bathroom. I'll never forget the sound of my mother's voice, about an hour later, saying calmly but with complete authority "Anne Yoder, you take every one of these things back where you found them, right this minute!"

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher? I love continuing to learn, to explore new places, meet new people, and to always have a sense of forward momentum. Science MOVES.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? Curiosity. A scientist is always asking questions. To stop asking questions is to lose one's scientific mojo. Determination is also important. Once the question is asked, it often takes a very long time to answer it.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Outreach and capacity building in Madagascar. Each summer, for the past 10 years or so, I have been bringing 3 to 4 Malagasy scholars to my lab for training in conservation genetics. The program was initially funded by my NSF CAREER award, and it has gone on long enough now that I can see the original intent of the program being realized. There are quite a number of these people who hold important positions in key academic, governmental, and conservation organizations in Madagascar. The ideas and tools that they picked up in my lab are being applied to mitigate the environmental crisis in Madagascar.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My thesis advisors, Kathleen Smith and Matt Cartmill, who together taught me how to think like a scientist and to write like a scholar. Michael Donoghue has also had an enormous impact on my research. As a graduate student, I read every paper that he had ever written. What I found appealing was his willingness to explore unexpected data sources. From his work, and from knowing him personally, I believe that I have been more willing to be bold in the questions that I ask.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? I believe that the average person would be surprised to discover that most biologists are fun-loving, slightly goofy people. There is something about the fact that scientists are always exploring, asking questions, and overcoming obstacles that can make for an interesting mix of confidence and humility. We're a bit geeky, but fun, I swear.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? The contents of my freezers. Whatever it took, I would get those biological samples out of there. They are priceless and completely irreplaceable. My computer and lab notebooks would come next.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? The Grateful Dead, nearly non-stop.