Science beyond the playground

Our research showing that Madagascar’s rainforest biodiversity is in crisis was recently published in Nature Climate Change (Morelli et al. 2019).

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The idea for this study came from a long-time friendship between Toni Lyn Morelli, a climate change ecologist, and Andrea Baden, a primatologist. Although both worked in Madagascar as graduate students, they never had an opportunity to collaborate formally. However, nearly four years ago, in New York City’s Central Park (near Hunter College, where Andrea works) while our toddlers wandered the jungle gym, we talked about how life is too busy, how difficult work-life balance is, and how we shouldn’t keep waiting for “the right time” to make a collaboration happen. A conversation that started between friends became a conversation between colleagues; we discussed our scientific strengths, what each of us could bring to the table, who else we should include to complete our team, and outlined how to make it all happen so all the work and parenting obligations wouldn't stall us further. From that humble and unpredictable beginning, our Nature Climate Change paper, the highest impact paper that either of us has ever brought to publication, was born.

Co-authors Toni Lyn Morelli (left) and Andrea Baden (right) on the NYC playground where they hatched their research plan.

With a plan finally hatched, we contacted every researcher we knew who had at some point studied, surveyed, or encountered ruffed lemurs (Genus Varecia), a rainforest frugivore that is also considered to be an indicator of rainforest health. Convincing them to share their data, which included georeferenced Varecia sightings, was not hard; everyone was excited to engage in this broad and important collaboration for conservation. The data were complicated and messy and the task, to understand how deforestation and climate change will affect ruffed lemurs, was not straightforward. We brought Adam Smith, a former colleague and expert in species distribution modeling at Missouri Botanical Garden, on-board; the focus evolved, the scope broadened, and the results, we think, strengthened. In the end, our projections suggest that, combined, forest loss and climate change will essentially eliminate available rainforest habitat by 2080, and with it, the ruffed lemurs. The effects of forest loss will outpace climate change.

Toni Lyn in the rainforests of Madagascar (left) and with her son on a bike trip (right).

Our findings, however, are not without hope. Armed with these models, governmental agencies, conservation NGOs, and local stakeholders can identify areas for targeted conservation efforts. By conserving regions that will house the greatest habitat suitability for ruffed lemurs and other rainforest species, and enforcing their protection, we can curtail species losses despite climate change.

Andrea Baden with her daughter in upstate Minnesota (left) and with her head research technician (right).

There’s a moral to the story, of course, and a reason why we are taking time out of our busy lives to meet, write, and share information. When we were students, it felt like there were few role models of (happy) researcher/professor moms. Indeed the research shows that it is rare for moms to stay in science (Mason et al. 2010; other relevant references can be found here). We hope that by sharing our story, we demonstrate that women can be both successful research scientists/academics and happy parents. And also that you never can predict where you might think up your next great research idea!


Andrea Baden

Assistant Professor, Hunter College CUNY

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Ruth Milne
Ruth Milne 9 months ago

Congratulations to you both! Thanks so much for sharing your story :)