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03-21 Staff Spotlight: Lydia Greene

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Staff Spotlight: Lydia Greene

If you’ve ever watched lemurs out in one of the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) Natural Habitat Enclosures and thought “I could do this for hours!” or “How do I get a job doing this?” then we’d love to introduce you to DLC research scientist Dr. Lydia Greene.

Lydia is a long-time lemur-lover who has worked in many roles at the DLC since 2007, including educational docent, animal technician, and student researcher. Lydia wrote her senior thesis at Duke on olfactory signaling in sifakas, and went on to earn her Ph.D. from Duke in 2019 with a dissertation on the gut microbiome of folivorous (leaf-eating) lemurs.

As a staff scientist at the DLC, Lydia’s work focuses on the gut microbiome of folivorous lemurs. Lydia’s work has directly affected how we care for the folivorous lemurs at the DLC, specifically the leaf-loving Coquerel’s sifakas. Lydia’s role as a research scientist also extends to science communication, and she serves as a mentor to students, a science educator, and the owner of one of the coolest Instagram accounts out there (@lemurscientist). Check out our conversation with Lydia, and follow along on her social media to learn more of what she’s doing day by day!

What is your job title at the Duke Lemur Center? What are some other unofficial job titles you would give yourself to describe what you do?

My official title is NSF-sponsored postdoctoral fellow in Biology, but that’s such a mouthful that I more often describe myself as a research scientist. I have been told that my unofficial title is sifaka poop ninja for my ability to catch fresh fecal pellets in a sampling tube before they hit the ground. I think this title grossly overestimates my talent.

Is there a “typical day” as a researcher at the DLC? If so, what is it? If not, why?

Hard no. One thing I love about being a scientist at the DLC is that every day is different. Some days you’ll track me down out in the woods following around sifakas and recording what they eat. Other days you might find me clacking away on my laptop writing up my scientific studies or running statistical analyses to find new results. I also have a lot of meetings with collaborators, mentees, and mentors to brainstorm new ideas or solutions to current problems. I really love brainstorming. Science is a very dynamic career and you really don’t ever get bored.

What kinds of days make you excited to get up and go to work?

I love every day I get to spend in the woods with our sifakas, even if it means waking up before 5am! I’ve been studying our sifaka colony for over a decade now and it just never gets old.

What led you to study folivores and the gut microbiome?

It was definitely a combination of both. It was totally happenstance that my undergraduate university happened to have a lemur center. But it was curiosity that kept me coming back to the DLC semester after semester, year after year, and now decade after decade.

As a Duke undergraduate, I spent a lot of time at the DLC leading tours, working with our husbandry technicians, and assisting on research projects. It became very obvious very quickly to me that the sifakas are special animals. I wrote my senior thesis on sifaka scent marking and when I started graduate school, I began by asking how the microbes in the sifakas’ scent glands might be contributing to their odor profiles. As I started reading (A LOT) about microbes, I quickly shifted my fascination from those in sifaka glands to those in sifaka guts: I realized that sifaka gut microbiota might be able to tell us something new about lemur nutrition, welfare, ecology, and conservation. As folivores, sifakas rely on specialized gut microbes to ferment the leaf fibers in their diet and synthesize many nutrients, amino acids, and vitamins that aren’t so readily available in their diets. The symbioses between lemurs and their microbes that enable lemurs to become dietary and ecological specialists is just really fascinating and has become a life-long passion and pursuit.

What are the most brag-worthy challenges you’ve faced as a researcher?

Hm… this is a tough one because the accomplishments I’m most proud of were born of teamwork and I don’t feel I deserve sole bragging rights! But this year, I almost perfectly predicted the weight of our hibernating dwarf lemurs during their mid-hibernation wellness checkups and I’m pretty proud of that.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve discovered from your own research?

One thing that really surprised me this past summer is how much fruit our sifakas eat when ranging in our natural habitat enclosures! In August and September, they gorged on ripe muscadine grapes and seemed very pleased with themselves.

Has your research changed anything about how you live your life?

Absolutely. I think being a scientist inherently shapes how you view the world and how you live your life. For example, studying the lemur gut microbiome changed my understanding of how food becomes fuel: what I’ve learned really informs the dietary choices I make for myself and how I think about food in general.

If you could offer words of encouragement to your past self in moments of frustration, what would they be?

For me, anxiety has always been a bigger challenge than frustration. In particular, I often succumb to anxiety about disappointing my family, friends, and mentors. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely gotten better at recognizing my anxiety and naming it as such. I would tell my younger self that anxiety is normal, that everyone I care about is rooting for me, and that classical music and hiking in the forest are my best de-stressors. Actually, my current adult self could use those reminders too.

What would you say to any young scientists or lemur-lovers who might be interested in following this path?

A very wise mentor often tells me “It can’t hurt to ask. The worst thing that can happen is they will say no.”

Whenever I meet with students of any I age, I often encourage them to email scientists whose work they admire and ask how they can get involved. Most scientists will go out of their way to answer you!