Seminars on Science
Dr. Nora Bynum


Zohar Ris
Nora Bynum. ©AMNH

Blame Nora Bynum’s parents for her travel bug. Her father, an economist, worked in Chile, Latin America and Colombia, but it was spending third through fifth grades in Indonesia that proved especially formative. “We lived without television and other distractions of life in the US, so I learned a lot about the culture and people,” says Bynum. That’s when she started to assume that her adult life would be connected to the tropics.

With that in mind, majoring in Biological Anthropology at Duke University made sense. “That field includes the study of free-living or wild primate populations, and as a freshman I got interested in primates since Indonesia has so many different species. It kind of surprised my family because I wasn’t exactly the outdoor type,” Bynum admits. “I think their words were, ‘But you’ve never even been camping!"

That didn’t keep the sophomore from writing renowned orangutan specialist Birute Galdikas after seeing her on the cover of National Geographic magazine. Bynum’s fluent Indonesian and ability to cover her own expenses landed her a five-month stint as a field assistant in Galdikas’s camp in Kalimantan, a six-hour boat ride from the nearest town. “I learned a ton,” Bynum recalled, “mostly about what it’s like to follow an animal from dawn to dusk and to live in its world. Also what it’s like to live in a community of ten to twelve people all day, and not see anyone else. Most people in our modern world don’t have that experience.”

Back at school everyone else seemed to be going along the same track, but Bynum felt that her life had taken a radically different turn. Deciding to pursue a Ph.D., she chose a joint doctorate in Physical Anthropology and Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. She was back in Kalimantan by the second year of graduate school, looking at the variation of ecological communities across different habitat types for Harvard ecologist Mark Leighton. Bynum acquired field work skills such as learning how to evaluate phenology (the reproductive behavior of trees) and how to conduct mammal censuses, “which involves walking at a predetermined rate along predetermined path and capturing information on all the animals that you see, very systematically. I'm still in touch with many people who were research assistants with Mark,” Bynum adds, “and many of us have gone on to use those skills in very different ways.”

Back in New Haven, she happened to be thumbing through a copy of Walker’s Mammals in the lab late one night and noticed that while Borneo was home to only two species of macaques, the much smaller island of Sulawesi boasted seven. (Macaques are a genus of New World monkeys.) “There was controversy about their taxonomy. So that’s how I got interested in hybridization in Sulawesi,” says Bynum, who went on to do her dissertation on interbreeding between two species of macaque.

Bynum had started dating David Bynum just before heading Kalimantan, and they spent the first two and a half years of their married life in the mountains of Central Sulawesi with a view of the ocean, where she did her doctoral fieldwork. “It was a fantastic experience to be together 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Bynum. The two surveyed the area for a permanent camp location, hired personnel, and managed and supplied the operation — skills that both she and David, who works in environmental management, have relied upon ever since. “I’ve never been a full-time academic,” Bynum explains. “I’ve always been involved in project development and project management.”

Back in the States, Bynum began her teaching career. Although she loved being in the classroom, she missed the challenge of international work. She applied for a job with the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and was hired as Academic Director. A bi-national Costa Rican and U.S. program, OTS was based in Durham, NC, where Bynum taught every other semester at Duke. She quickly mastered Spanish, “especially after a three-week course in the Peruvian Amazon, where no one spoke English.” She describes her four years with OTS as “another mind-blowing, incredible experience because I got to make programs come to fruition and I also got to see forests in the New World and in the Amazon, which was amazing.” Bynum also grew increasingly interested in pedagogy, investigating questions like, “What kinds of methods and settings are best for getting information across?” and “How do you evaluate success of an academic endeavor?”

The transition to her current position at the American Museum of Natural History was a logical one. Eleanor Sterling, co-author and director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity, had been friends ever since grad school, and she and Bynum shared an interest in developing open-access teaching materials. “Originally we focused on professors in tropical places, where we saw the greatest lack of materials about the unique biodiversity,” Bynum explains. “For example in Madagascar they were using examples of foxes and bears to teach ecology, which is a little silly when there are all these lemurs.” After raising the money to start the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners, Sterling hired Bynum on as Project Director in 2004. Bynum appreciates the chance to work with so many talented people across the museum as well as the chance to work in a wider variety of countries, especially Africa. Her most recent trip was to the Peruvian Amazon with members of the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council, to investigate water-mentoring partnerships.

How does Bynum balance travel, teaching, researching, organizing, administrating, and raising two teen-age daughters? “I’ve given up on the idea of balance in my life,” she replies cheerfully. “I careen from one to the other. Given her enormous appetite for new challenges, the payoffs are worth it. “Remaining involved in research enriches my abilities as a scientist, which enriches what I do as a teacher. And I think that teaching also has enriched my ability to do research, because research is about process, not just about the product,” says Bynum. The bottom line? “I think I’m more fortunate than anything else to be able to wear so many different hats.”

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