Securing a job in research science – advice from lemur scientist Lydia Greene
Lydia Greene is a lemur scientist carrying out research at North Carolina’s Duke Lemur Center. Based in Durham, United States, the center is internationally acclaimed for its pioneering work conducted via non-invasive methods of research. Housing over 200 lemurs and bushbabies branching across 13 species, the center is believed to hold the most diverse population of lemurs outside of Madagascar.
Lydia’s areas of interest concern the different mechanisms that facilitate ecological specialization in lemurs, and she has a particular love for the sifaka species. Over the past 15 years she has gained a wealth of experience, produced numerous publications, travelled, and collaborated with researchers globally to peruse her passion. Her openness in sharing her journey with me was incredibly encouraging and I hope her advice and experience can inspire more people in science.
Lydia’s Career History
Despite training to be a ballet dancer, Lydia entered college having little idea of where to go and needed a work study job to help fund college education. When going along to a work study fair on campus Lydia described how a simple volunteer position steered the direction for the rest of her future.
“There was a booth with a life size stuffed animal lemur – it was a sifaka on it – I walked over and was like what’s that? They explained about the lemurs at the center and said that they were recruiting tour guides – I was like sign me up”.
Taking the position two weeks into her undergraduate career, Lydia described the opportunity as “serendipity” and has not looked back since. Over the following 15 years, Lydia has carried out her undergraduate, a 3-year research associateship and a 5-year PhD, graduating in 2019. Upon reflection, despite perusing other interests growing up and having little interest in a career as a scientist, Lydia was a keen learner enjoying museum visits and discovery and nature programmes but didn’t necessarily associate them with science.
Did you feel the career choices available in the life sciences were well advertised?
“[I] didn’t know what a career in science looks like”
Despite having parents that encouraged her academically, they themselves were not involved in the science world. Opportunities to continue higher education and carry out PhDs were widely advertised, but it isn’t always clear what this entails. Stereotypically, science roles are believed to be based on one campus bustling with people in white lab coats, nose deep in a microscope lens. While there is nothing wrong with this image, there are so many more opportunities available in science and perhaps these should be more widely advertised.
Luckily for Lydia her sister who is 4 (and a half) years older, studied a PhD in Geology and has worked as a as a paleontologist, ecologist, and climate modeler. Lydia found her sister’s experience offered a framework to work from when asking herself the questions.
“Do I want a science career? What am I supposed to do in this career?”
Despite this, Lydia still felt she had little idea what steps to take and what a future career might look like. But by chance, “it all came together in college”. If you find yourself in a similar position it may be necessary to be proactive, consult career advisors at college or university and reach out to people who have already been through it asking for advice and the options available to you.
A day in the life (if there is such a thing):
“The beauty of it, is that every day is really different”
Holding the title of post-doctoral fellow and working as a research scientist, Lydia’s day varies depending largely on the current stage of a research project. During the process of dreaming up a project, most of her time will be focused on grant writing and brainstorming ideas. When implementing a project, time is spent in the field with the animals’ collecting data and samples and analyzing these. The final stage is data analysis which involves a lot of computational work to write up as the project moves closer to publication.
“I don’t think I will ever reach a stage where I can close the book and say here is my life’s work, it always keeps spinning.”
Relocating for educational and/or career opportunities
Growing up in the concrete jungle, Lydia moved from New York to North Carolina after applying for college there. The Duke Lemur Center is based in Durham, boasting great opportunities for those in the life sciences, the city is part of the Research Triangle Region.
After being thrown a few curveballs especially regarding her ballet career, Lydia felt anxious going into college and wanted something new to focus her energy on, moving to North Carolina provided a great opportunity to embrace a new start especially still being so young, making the move at age 18.
Despite preconceived notions on what it might be like in the South, “most of those have been shattered”, Lydia loves living in an area surrounded by nature, finding New York to be at times claustrophobic compared to North Carolina.
What do you feel have been major effects of the pandemic both personally and professionally?
“As a result of the pandemic, there has been a large element of burnout and people are reevaluating how much time they want to spend working, or even if they are on the right career path.”
Having travelled numerous times to Madagascar, Lydia and her wife Marina, a fellow scientist currently studying hibernation in dwarf and mouse lemurs, were left feeling disconnected from the area and from their fellow colleagues and collaborators, as they have been unable to travel over the past couple of years. Over the winter months in particular, Lydia described her struggle with motivation in many daily tasks but feels fortunate to work in a role allowing her to physically see the animals, providing a source of inspiration to keep going.
At times when Lydia is feeling uninspired, finding a “counterbalance activity”, for example choir, music or sport, and uncovering enjoyment unrelated to the science, has helped when she’s felt lost and has allowed a shift of focus.
How is it collaborating with other researchers and scientists?
“Misery and cheer, love company”
Lydia says a benefit of working with fellow scientists is the ability to both succeed together and at times fail together, having the support of others can help rally momentum to push through any barriers and manage personal pressure.
“The science works best when different perspectives from different fields and different backgrounds come together to make magic happen”.
A task favored by Lydia is brainstorming to think up new ideas, allowing creative freedom, pulling both from existing research and uncovering new areas to explore. Using the idea of synergy, collaborative work can encourage the integration of different trains of thought and allow personal development by learning from the experience of others.
Can you provide any advice for anyone who is lacking practical/field skills?
Volunteering (if you are able) is a foolproof way of gaining invaluable practical skills.
“Never be afraid to email, as a student or out of school, people whose work you really like, asking if they have space for a volunteer. Send of your CV and a list of your personal interests. Most people will go out of their way to find a way to incorporate people who are interested and are often excited that folks are interested in their work.
Often researchers are exploring an area they feel is specialized or niche. To discover that others share this interest and want to get involved is exciting and you should never be afraid to get involved. I remember thinking that opportunity would come knocking, but YOU really need to go find it.”
Do you believe social media can have a positive impact when applied in science and conservation?
Starting as a personal account and morphing to a more professional theme, Lydia uses her Instagram to provide information on all different species of lemur and frequent stories allow engagement from followers as they pose questions allowing Lydia to share her knowledge and love of these species and her work.
As part of Lydia’s post doc requirements, funded by the US government National Science Foundation, in addition to serving the sciences and advancing knowledge, research needs to be in the service of society – called ‘broader impact’. Starting her post doc 5 months prior to the pandemic, Lydia needed a safe way to push her project into the “stewardship of society”. Brainstorming how to stimulate enthusiasm and support from the public from behind a screen, Lydia trialed social media not expecting such a high level of engagement.
“It has been really nice to connect with a community of folks who care not only about the animals, but they care about the science behind how we’ve come to know and love.
When considering the impact of social media in general, it is a double-edged sword. It provides a platform for anyone to communicate science and share their passions, however, there is a risk of the spread of misinformation, as there is little filter on what is shared. For example, the portrayal of exotic species such as lemurs, in the pet trade. Pet lemurs are often seen wearing diapers and eating inadequate food in inadequate housing. This presentation of the species is damaging to the promotion of the conservation of lemurs in their natural environments.”
What are the benefits of captive populations?
“When housing animals in captivity, you need to have a good reason for it, that stems beyond entertainment”.
A quality that sets the Duke Lemur Center apart is their promotion of non-invasive or non-harmful research, serving as a research and education institution the center doesn’t exist as an entertainment venue. The ability to learn in a way that matters regarding both conservation and biomedicine, is extremely important. Much of this knowledge is gained through research in the field and in captivity. When considering the greater impact, this information can be applied in breeding programmes for endangered species and in the protection of vulnerable environments. Captive populations provide a safeguard against species extinction and research gives their wild counterparts a better chance at survival.
How have you found visiting Madagascar and working in the field?
“Visiting both recreationally and for work, trips allow research opportunities and time to meet and brainstorm with collaborators on the ground, removing the struggles of trying to arrange conversations with an 8-hour time difference. Madagascar hosts a great community of in-country scientists, that have received excellent training, despite often having reduced access to the same resources and infrastructure that many Westerners have. It’s wonderful to work with colleagues in Madagascar to pull together different perspectives.”
How do you manage a relationship with a partner also in the field?
“Our work is individual in terms of the species we work on, but we’re fundamentally interested in the same questions. We just approach them from different avenues. We also have different colleagues and collaborators and hear varying news from each other’s sources.
Often, she [Marina] will read scientific literature to relax and I’m thinking how is that relaxing? Usually this makes me think of all the things I need to do. But in general, it’s great to have her there for brainstorming and bouncing ideas off. Fundamentally, this job isn’t 9 – 5, it varies across days and seasons, and it helps having someone who gets it, there’s no guilt, it’s just the job.”
Did your sexuality ever create barriers in your career?
“When looking for first jobs and careers, it changes your thinking in how people view you and you don’t realize how much you have to guard what you’re saying and consider how people will respond. Luckily, I have a very supportive workplace now, but in navigating graduate school, it added a new layer of anxiety.
I didn’t come out until I was 28 by which point, I was midway through my PhD and was somewhat established in the community as a scientist. I wonder if I had started my PhD having come out already, if I would have been labelled by others and my sexuality have more strongly defined who I am. Because I came out later, it felt like everybody knew me already and that just added a little box to all the adjectives that defined me, as opposed to being the defining adjective. “
What are your most treasured experiences from your career?
“The time I have spent in Madagascar has been so inspiring, the people I have met there have been so wonderful. Travel just opens your eyes and changes your world view. I’m grateful to have a job where I really care about what I’m doing.”
As seen in Lydia’s journey, inspiration can appear when you least expect it, it is important to trust the process. It’s critical however, to remember that a career in science isn’t possible if you aren’t willing to put in the hard work. There can be huge amounts of stress and pressure created by the role, however, the opportunities to work with incredible species, travel to amazing locations, and collaborate with like-minded researchers can make all the struggles worth it and make way for once in a lifetime experiences.
Author Profile | Charlotte Munroe
Charlotte is an aspiring zoologist currently in her final year of university. Post degree, she is hoping to become a zookeeper. Having always been passionate about animals and the natural world, she hopes to use this platform to provide advice and use the experience of others to help people like herself working toward a career in conservation.