Eleanor Sterling wears many hats. For starters, she's the Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) at the American Museum of Natural History. The CBC has an ambitious and timely mission: to integrate the Museum's biodiversity-related research and resources into the conservation process, and to disseminate this knowledge worldwide. Or, as Eleanor puts it, "It's my job to find ways to make the science that happens here at the Museum useful to people involved in biodiversity all over the world." CBC partnerships are supporting marine reserve design in the Bahamas, surveying critical habitats in protected areas of Bolivia, applying conservation genetics to the study of humpback whales off Madagascar, assessing placement of new conservation areas in Vietnam, as well as supporting research and outreach in the New York tri-state region.
Eleanor is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where she teaches conservation biology. "I've always wanted to teach," she explains. "I encourage students to ask questions and to understand that there is often no single right answer to a question." Eleanor believes that connecting science and education is essential, because "scientific discoveries need to be communicated in a way that various audiences can respond to, so they understand their role in conserving biodiversity." Unless policymakers understand the underlying science, the difficult economic and political decisions that protect endangered species and habitats don't get proper consideration.The Lure of Fieldwork
Eleanor has more than 15 years of field research experience in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The idea of studying primates in the wild occurred to her during college, when she spent a lot of time at the San Diego Zoo. She spent a year in Tanzania as a field assistant on a project that studied baboons, and as a doctoral student she studied an endangered primate from Madagascar called the aye-aye. "Science teachers in Madagascar asked me why I didn't study the aye-aye in the U.S.," she says. "They had no idea that this animal was unique to their country." Eleanor recalls the times she spent in the field as among the most rewarding periods of her life. During a nighttime vigil in the Madagascar rain forest, she was treated to a 25-minute light show by a mass of fireflies, "one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen." Although most of her time is now spent indoors, when Eleanor has time to work in the field, she's refining a procedure for collecting data on rarely observed animals like the aye-ayes using cameras triggered by motion.
Eleanor points out that fieldwork typically involves stamina, patience, and physical hardship. "Often people have a romantic idea about it, but the truth is, it isn't very glamorous. I really advise anyone interested in fieldwork to try it first to make sure that it's what you want to do," she cautions. She's quick to point out that many other career paths are open to students who are interested in environmental issues, such as teaching; employment in a zoo, museum, or science center; or working for conservation organizations.
Eleanor finds fieldwork to be rewarding and exciting, but it's not for everyone. Field work can sometimes be challenging and exhausting.
Eleanor also has extensive expertise developing environmental education programs and professional development workshops, having trained teachers, students, and Peace Corps volunteers. The CBC develops international environmental education programs and college courses, consults on conservation-related exhibitions, and conducts symposia and workshops. This many activities mean that there are never enough hours in Eleanor's day. "I am currently an administrator!" she says ruefully. She's writing a natural history of Vietnam for the general public, but most of her time goes to managing CBC initiatives, many of which are being met with enthusiastic responses.
There are, of course, no quick fixes. "Conserving biodiversity is an ongoing complex challenge in which progress is incremental." When it comes to explaining issues of Earth stewardship to kids, Eleanor suggests that educators help them "understand that their food, water, clothes, home materials, and many other things they depend on in their daily lives come from the Earth and we all need to participate in conserving these resources-now. The Earth also offers us many beautiful places, from a garden in a city park to wide-open spaces where we can go for recreation and inspiration. I think kids should understand that it is not some other person's responsibility to care for the Earth. We all have our role."