The call of the wild – Asia Murphy joins Real Scientists

As we bid farewell to our four fantastic climate change month curators, we look to the wild: Asia Murphy is a wildlife researcher at Virginia Tech who also enjoys sci-fi books and Mad Max: Fury Road (who doesn’t!). We gave Asia the usual third degree about her life as a scientist, see her responses below.

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Why/How did you end up in science?

I ended up in wildlife because my dad was interested in animals. I had a variety of pets while growing up, my dad and I watched wildlife documentaries, we went on hikes and raised butterflies. Based on that childhood, it would be kind of weird if I went into interior decorating.

Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?

I chose my field based on my childhood, but I almost left it mid-way through my undergraduate degree because the classes I was taking were so boring. White-tailed deer management. Not what I thought wildlife was about. I thought wildlife was about going to exotic locales and watching lions while David Attenborough did the voiceover. Luckily, right before I switched over to creative writing, a mentor of mine forced me to apply to a few National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduate programs (NSF-REUs), and I was accepted into one in Minnesota. I spent a summer trapping small mammals and looking at the differences in small mammal diet in native and planted prairies. Getting my hands dirty is what kept me in wildlife, and field work is what is always going to keep me in wildlife.

Tell us about your work?

I examine how terrestrial forest birds, small mammals and lemurs respond to habitat degradation and the presence of introduced predators, like dogs and cats. My current work is based off wildlife surveys in the largest area of protected forest in Madagascar: the Masoala-Makira protected area complex in northeastern Madagascar. The Wildlife Conservation Society, Virginia Tech and my colleague, Dr. Zach Farris, conducted camera trap and lemur surveys for five years beginning in 2008. I came in and conducted more surveys in 2013. We’ve provided some of the first large-scale and long-term studies on carnivore, bird, small mammal and lemur ecology in northeastern Madagascar.

Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?

Because it excites the kind of instinctual curiosity that must have driven us as we walked out of Africa?
This is a question I usually don’t think about. To my mind, if a person doesn’t already care about wildlife or conservation at this point–with all the information available about us being in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, the loss of resources and diversity, and what that means to humanity–then there’s nothing I can really do about to change their mind. Frankly, I don’t want to waste the energy trying to persuade them.
For me, it really is the sense of instinctual curiosity, of wonder, of reverence, perhaps, that drives me to do my work. I hope that my research and my actions help conserve the species I’m studying, that change happens. I’m trying to go beyond research, to actually help implement change. But I’m a pessimist; I feel we’re on a downward slide, and there’s not much we can do to stop it. So I take solace in things like the sound of indri singing as the sky blushes pink, for just a few seconds, above the misty rainforest canopy, as the sun rises. In struggling up a slick, steep mountainside to check cameras, and see that a fosa was walking that same path–much more gracefully than you–just a few hours prior. In waking up every morning at the crack of dawn, muscles sore, clothes damp, feet bruised, and wondering whether that day will be the day you finally get pictures of the ghost of the forest, the black-and-white ruffed lemur.
That is what drives me to do my work. That is my motivation. And if that one random representative of the public isn’t inspired by that, doesn’t empathize with that sense of discovery that thrills the stomach, then I simply ask them to think of their children. What if their children do empathize with that sense of discovery? What if their children do want to experience what I experience while I’m in the field? Would they care for them?

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I was in a pool (billiards) league for about a year. I had to quit once my NSF graduate research fellowship funding ran out. Now that I’m a poor ex-graduate student, I can’t afford the dues.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

Pool (billiards). Writing. Photography. I did some archery for a while, as well as dance. I hope one day to get into kickboxing.

How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

This is terrible. The first thought that popped into my head was sitting at a coffee shop (maybe a Panera Bread), completely healthy, well-rested, a cafe mocha beside me, just in the zone as I blazed through work. Right on the cusp of being caught up and completely finished with everything.
How about a lazy morning catching up on household chores and watching TV, a long lunch hour in a bookstore rummaging through fiction-writing books and deciding whether they’re good enough to spend money on, a matinee showing of Mad Max: Fury Road and an evening shooting the breeze and eating good food with my closest friends?

Welcome Asia, from all of us here at Real Scientists HQ!

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