Graduate Research, Student Research

Emily Strahan (MS/ENVS) Thesis Research in Madagascar

My name is Emily Strahan and I am currently a first-year master’s student in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences. I received my bachelor’s degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Science (concentration in wildlife science) from the University of Georgia in 2017. I’ve held internships at Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) and Zoo Atlanta, and most recently, worked as a Research Specialist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. I also worked as an Undergraduate Research Assistant with UGA’s Primate Behavior and Cognition Lab and spent the last semester of my senior year abroad studying wildlife management in Tanzania.

My educational background and work experiences allowed me to explore numerous career paths, but my work with primates and human/wildlife health is what ultimately peaked my interests and passion. Inspired by my work at Yerkes, I decided to explore Emory’s graduate programs. The M.S. program in Environmental Science was exactly what I was looking for—the perfect combination of research, policy, and earth sciences. I was especially intrigued by the possibility of conducting international research on primate health and immunology under Dr. Thomas Gillespie. I knew this program would expose me to new educational experiences and open many doors for my future. A year in and I could not be more confident in my decision to be a part of this program.

My current research investigates the relationship among intestinal (enteric) infection, stress, and immune system function in brown mouse lemurs. Using lemur fecal samples, we will compare the ability of two non-invasive techniques (traditional vs. novel) to detect immune activation due to enteric infection. Our hope is that the developed novel assay will provide a better understanding of wildlife immunology and also serve as a non-invasive tool to remotely assess the health of at risk, threatened, and/or endangered wildlife populations.

 This past December, I traveled to Centre Val Bio (CVB)—a permanent research station located in Southeast Madagascar—for about three weeks to conduct field research and collect lemur fecal samples. I worked with two Malagasy field technicians to live-trap brown mouse lemurs in and around Ranomafana National Park. Each day, we banana-baited and set between 35 and 70 traps along demarcated trails at one of three trap sites. We checked the traps each night and collected morphometric data (i.e. weight, body length, tail width, etc.) and fecal samples from captured individuals. We released the lemurs at their site of capture and continued along the trail until all traps were checked and collected. Once we returned to CVB, I placed any samples from that day on dry ice for storage. We then cleaned all of the traps the following morning, repeating this process for each day of fieldwork. All in all, it it was an extremely busy, exciting, and rewarding few weeks in Madagascar and truly an experience I will never forget.

One of the most surprising aspects of my experience in Madagascar was how challenging and effortful conducting fieldwork could be, especially in a rain forest. Field conditions were extremely unpredictable and rarely conducive for data collection and research in general. It rained nearly every night; we had to carry our equipment, navigate trails, and record data in the dark; rats and other creatures took a liking to our traps far more than the lemurs did; and there were some nights we set 70 traps and caught absolutely nothing at all. No matter how much preparation we put into something, things never went exactly as planned. I’ll admit the seeming lack of control was daunting at first, but looking back now, I’ve realized that’s what makes fieldwork so exciting and purposeful. It’s nothing like running an experiment in a controlled setting—you’re working with wild animals in their natural environment and that’s about as raw as science can get. I learned a lot in those three short weeks, not just about research in the field, but about myself too. I grew as an independent thinker, learned to turn challenges into advantageous experiences, and gained confidence as a researcher.

Unfortunately, sample exports have been temporarily banned under Madagascar’s government since the beginning of this year. Once we are able to ship them, however, extractions and analysis will take place at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. As mentioned earlier, we hope to further disentangle the roles of stress, host immune response, and enteric infection in brown mouse lemurs. We will also use the fecal samples to compare conventional (hormone analysis) and novel (RNA-sequencing) methods of measuring stress response and immune activation in individuals. Gaining a better understanding of the eco-immunological mechanisms that drive this relationship (infection vs. immune activation) in brown mouse lemurs can potentially help guide conservation efforts and protect many of the world’s most endangered primates.