|Eleanor Sterling credits a chance encounter with an inspirational professor during her college years with her decision to become a scientist.
"I was a comparative linguistics major," she explained, but the college required all students to take a certain number of courses outside their major area of study. Eleanor was looking for a good social science course. "Come with me. I'm taking a course that's really interesting," her friend insisted. So she went to the class and was enthusiastic about what she heard and saw.
"Professor Richard lectured to this class of 150 people while sitting cross-legged on her desk. She was so comfortable with what she was doing and so eloquent about what she studied, yet she danced across the stage mimicking a lemur jumping from tree to tree. She really made her subject come alive.
"I was so impressed by what I saw: A real person who loved what she did and was doing things I thought were good for the world in general. And little by little--I didn't mean to do it--I was hooked. As it turned out, I got my degree in another field, but I went back to graduate school to study with her."
Eleanor focused her graduate studies on a strange little creature called the aye-aye, a nocturnal lemur that lives only on the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa.
"I was working for the World Wildlife Fund, and in the course of my work I continually came across the statement: 'The aye-aye is the most endangered primate in the world and nobody knows anything about it.' After a while I got sick of reading that and decided to do something about it. So I quit my job and went to graduate school to study this intriguing animal, and then to Madagascar to do research for my doctoral dissertation."
According to Eleanor, "The aye-aye is a unique animal. It's the only member of its family, which means it has no very close relatives. It's a primate--but an unusual one. It is the exception to just about every rule about what makes an animal a member of the order of primates. In the course of my studies, I kept reading and hearing, 'All primates do this or that . . . except the aye-aye.'
"People say that the aye-aye is made up of the spare parts of other animals: It has huge ears like a bat; a big, long foxlike tail; and continually growing teeth like rodents, something you never see in the primate world. And it has claws. One of the things that distinguishes primates from other animals is that they have nails, not claws, but the aye-aye has claws.
"The more I learned about the aye-aye, the more I liked it. Maybe that's because I really like mavericks anyway, things that don't fit into neat categories."
Just like Eleanor Sterling herself, who started out studying linguistics, became an expert on a little-known and endangered species, and now serves as Program Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History.
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