A Quarterly Newsletter From The Greater Washington DC Area APS
We are excited to be kicking off 2021 with our inaugural quarterly newsletter, an opportunity to connect with and engage our valued members. In this issue:
Happy New Year! I hope everyone is safe, healthy, and happy as we start 2021. It goes without saying that 2020 was a trying year in just about every aspect of our lives. It is highly likely we all know someone, including ourselves, who has been a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic to some degree. As we continue to navigate the medical pandemic and economic fallout, the Greater Washington Area Physiological Society (dmvCAPS) executive board has been working to develop ways to maintain and grow our tight knit society, while keeping the safety and health of everyone as our main priority. Due to the continuing uncertainty of when it might be safe to return to in-person gatherings, we have decided to cancel our Fall 2021 meeting and hope to have our next gathering in Spring of 2022.
In the meantime, we are committed to fostering scientific communication and developing a community of physiologists in the DMV region. With that in mind, we will begin to circulate a quarterly dmvCAPS Connections that will update you with news from our society and introduce new initiatives. In this first Connections we are excited to feature our first Meet the Physiologist interview! We were fortunate that Dr. Meredith L. Bastian, (Curator of Primates, Department of Animal Care Sciences, National Zoological Park) has joined us to give us insight into her career path as a physiologist and what a typical day as Curator of Primates entails. In future Connections issues we will feature physiologists from all walks, and we will also host live question and answer sessions with them. Enjoy reading about Dr. Bastian’s work and be on the lookout for future features!
On behalf of the executive board, I want to wish everyone continued health and safety as we navigate the current situation and eagerly await the rollout of the vaccination program. We look forward to our future meetings with you!
Matthew Barberio, PhD
George Washington University
Interview with a Physiologist
A Rapid Fire Q & A with Dr. Meredith L. Bastian
Former Curator of Primates
National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institute
What is your favorite part of your career? My favorite part of my career thus far was the time I spent with wild orangutans in the (mostly swamp) forests of Indonesian Borneo. After helping start up field operations at one site, I surveyed for, established, and directed research and operations at a new satellite site across the river during my PhD fieldwork. Later, I managed orangutan research at a third field site for my post-doc, living in the forest and working with wild orangutans for a total of over 7 years. Then, last summer, I was able to return to Indonesia for the first time in over ten years, taking one of my primate keepers with me, following some of the same orangutans I first followed and, in some cases, first discovered back in 2003 and giving my keeper her first experience seeing primates in the wild. Another favorite part of my career has been my work on the Orangutan SSP (Species Survival Plan) and Ape TAG (Taxon Advisory Group), for which I strive to bridge the gap between groups working with apes in the wild and those in the care of humans.
What is your favorite science-related TV show, movie, book, podcast series? (fictional or factual)? The book “Big Fleas Have Little Fleas or Who’s Who Among the Protozoa” by Robert Hegner was one of my favorites as a child and makes me very nostalgic to think about. Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man” was one of the first books about wild apes that I read, and some simple yet critical concepts in Hans Kummer’s “Primate Societies: Group Techniques of Ecological Adaptation” helped form the basis for my dissertation. So, I would say there is a three-way tie.
Tell us a surprising fact about your career? In the second grade, I interviewed the woman who had my job and worked here at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for over 30 years for a project about gorillas. That interview confirmed my desire to work with wild great apes, which I ended up doing for many years and would likely still be doing full-time if I had not become severely allergic to an entire family of tree from which wild orangutans regularly eat.
Most influential scientist in your career? Hands down, Dr. Carel van Schaik. An esteemed Dutch botanist turned ethologist, Carel was my Ph.D. advisor at Duke University, and he remained my advisor after he moved back to Europe to be the Director of the Anthropology Institute and Museum at the University of Zurich. He taught me everything I know about how to survive and thrive as a field primatologist and academic. He has remained supportive throughout my career, even when it eventually took me out of the forest and academia.
Something you wish you knew before becoming a scientist/physiologist? I wish I appreciated much earlier the importance of a work/life balance, something I have never had or understood the importance of until later in my career.
What trait do you think is most important to becoming a great scientist/physiologist? Patience, lots and lots of patience (if I may only pick one). Also, great enthusiasm, eagerness to always want to learn more, and keen observation skills.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about physiology/physiologists? I don’t exactly consider myself a physiologist so much as a primate behaviorist and biological anthropologist by training, but, as a general answer, I would say that there is a huge misconception that academics all only learn what they know/think they know from books, whereas many of us learned our greatest lessons in the field/lab settings where we learned through very hands-on activities and experiences, just as much as through articles and books.
Your Current Position
Tell us about a typical workday? The only typical thing about a workday at my present job is that there is no such thing as a typical work day other than it typically begins at 6:30am. Curators do a little bit of everything, ranging from helping keepers with animal husbandry and training, to consulting with vets and most other groups at the Zoo, to serving on taxon advisory and species survival plan groups, which manage animals and their conservation at the population level.
What do you want scientists to know about your career? While across zoos it is true that there is no such thing as a typical day and curators often wear multiple hats, the curator position varies widely across institutions. I have been lucky in the eleven years I have been working in the zoo field to have worked at two institutions in which the primate curator job was very different between facilities, but in both cases I was able to continue being heavily involved in primate conservation and research.
What is your favorite primate to work with/study and why? I have had an opportunity to work with over 30 primate species in my career, several in the wild, some in primate centers/labs, others in zoos, all of which have extremely interesting traits. While gorillas, aye-ayes, sifaka, and various small ape species are also very high on my list, I am definitely partial to orangutans (my VR gaming name is even “Dr Pongo” and I have a tattoo of the Orangutan SSP logo on my arm). Orangutans are highly intelligent to the point where it scares a lot of human primates away from working with them, but I find their innovative behaviors to be thrilling to observe, to better understand through scientific investigation, and interpret for our visitors.
Do you have any funny primate stories you’d like to share with us? I have many funny/interesting primate stories. One of the most memorable was the day I walked onto the orangutan line early one morning with a coworker and we found one of the female orangutans sitting at a table she had constructed out of several milk crates, over which she had carefully placed a piece of butcher paper, sitting just like a human and holding a stick as a human would a pencil. We took photos and realized she must have been copying the behavior of staff taking data on clipboards. This same orangutan once lassoed a plant from a planter far beneath her and we thought out of reach using a piece of bamboo so she could access the plant. Never a dull moment!
Getting to Where You are Now
What made you choose to leave the lab/academic science? I most likely would have remained a wild orangutan researcher and academic had I not over the many years I worked in the swamp developed a severe allergy to several species of Anacardiaceae tree from which wild orangutans regularly eat the fruit, leaves, and inner bark. I was thrilled to be able to return to the swamps of Indonesian Borneo for the first time in ten years last summer and bring one of my primate keepers with me—this trip made me feel as though all of my continued efforts to help bring together members of the ape field and zoo communities came together and are making a difference.
What was the transition like from leaving academic science? Stepping into the zoo field from academic science was eased by the fact that the year I was hired at the first zoo where I worked, the Philadelphia Zoo launched a “Year of the Orangutan” campaign in which I played a key role as the content expert and was able to help the Zoo partner with organizations and orangutan field operations with which I was very familiar. The COO of the Philadelphia Zoo at the time had also not only originally come from the National Zoo, he had a field primatology background, and my supervisor was also a leader in the conservation department. I think had these things not been true, transitioning into a predominantly operational curator position would have been more difficult, where I was able to learn many aspects of the curator position on the job, while fairly firmly keeping a foot in the world of wild orangutan conservation and soon becoming involved in the Orangutan SSP and Ape TAG.
In your opinion, what important questions should scientists ask themselves before leaving the lab/bench environment? I don’t see the decision to pursue a non-traditional (for a Ph.D.) career path so much as an active decision to leave academia (in my case, the field rather than lab/bench) and instead as a necessity, in my case, to get out of a forest that I loved, but was literally becoming allergic to after having lived in it for so long. I was actually contacted initially by the first zoo where I worked rather than actively applying for the position, so in a way, the position found me, and I found and continue to find ways to remain active in academic pursuits as time and priorities allow.
What do you miss most about academic science? I have managed to stay involved in research, publishing, etc. since being in the zoo field, but I do miss having the ability to concentrate for long periods of time on single projects without getting pulled in as many directions as is typical on a daily basis with a more operational job. Most of all, I miss the forest and working with wild primates, which is why I find ways to always link my research and interpretation of zoo-housed primates for the visiting public to wild animals and the need for urgent efforts to conserve their critically endangered habitats.
Annual Meeting Updates
Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, in an effort to ensure the safety and well-being of our members, attendees and exhibitors, our next Annual Meeting will be held in Spring 2022.
Please keep a look out for our Member Meeting Survey coming in the next edition of dmvCAPS Connections.