It was a celebration and a ceremony that recognized the past and set ambitious goals for the future. A quarter of a century ago, Stony Brook helped establish Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, home to the island nation’s lemurs and a favorite destination for scientists and ecotourists.
On Monday at the Old Field Club, Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley, distinguished professor of Anthropology Patricia Wright, Director of the SBU Global Health Institute Peter Small, along with the Dean of the medical school Kenneth Kaushansky and several other Stony Brook deans, welcomed a delegation of distinguished guests from Madagascar.
The relationship between Stony Brook and Madagascar has been “of great benefit to both sides,” Stanley said in opening remarks. He suggested Stony Brook was seeking “new ways to engage together” because he was confident that the school “could do more.”
Indeed, after short speeches by Zina Andrianarivelo-Razaly, Madagascar’s ambassador to the United Nations and Monique Rasoazananera, minister of Higher Education in Madagascar, Stanley and his distinguished guests signed a memorandum of understanding to expand and broaden opportunities for Stony Brook in the island nation.
Rasoazananera hopes that Stony Brook will develop relationships with the five university research centers in Madagascar.
“For the students and faculty, this is a win-win,” Rasoazananera said. She spoke in French to Onja Razafindratsima, who served as a translator and was trained by Wright’s former graduate student Amy Dunham. Razafindratsima will begin the Sara and Daniel Hardy Conservation Biology Fellowship at Harvard this year.
While celebrating the relationship with Madagascar, Stanley also highlighted the ongoing affiliations in Kenya and South Korea. In Kenya, Stony Brook’s Richard, Meave and Louise Leakey conduct groundbreaking work on fossils at the Turkana Basin. Like Wright, they are involved in outreach programs in education, health, and food.
Wright was optimistic that more departments at Stony Brook would find partners in Madagascar, where she not only helped create Ranomafana, but where she also inaugurated NamanaBe Hall, a state-of-the-art research center adjacent to Ranomafana.
Stanley attended the opening ceremony for NamanaBe in 2012 and called his visit to Madagascar a “transformative” experience.
Several deans, including Kaushansky and Mary Truhlar, dean of the School of Dental Medicine at Stony Brook, plan to travel to Madagascar in July. Wright believes these visits could trigger future joint efforts.
Elise Lauterbur, a fourth year graduate student in Wright’s lab, believes this kind of memorandum could expedite the process of receiving the permits to conduct research.
Lauterbur studies three species of bamboo lemurs, two of which are critically endangered because of a loss of habitat. These lemurs eat bamboo that contains cyanide. Each day, they consume 12 times as much cyanide as the amount that would kill other mammals of their size, and yet they continue to search for their favorite meal.
Surrounded by passed appetizers of lamb chops, baked clams and scallops wrapped with bacon at the Old Field Club, Lauterbur described how she is trying to figure out what enables these lemurs to survive after ingesting such high dosages of an element that would kill many other species.
To understand how the lemurs might be removing the toxicity of cyanide, Lauterbur has attached a funnel and a cup to a stick or vine. When the lemurs urinate, she catches the specimen and analyzes it to explore their physiology and genetics. Compounding the challenge of being in the right place at the right time, Lauterbur has to navigate through dense underbrush, while the lemurs in the trees overhead can move or change direction.
For future research, this memorandum of understanding broadens the field of future research partners, Lauterbur said.
“It’s always beneficial to have local collaborators — it improves the research and it gives them access to additional resources,” Lauterbur explained in an email.
Broadening the relationship between Madagascar and Stony Brook holds promise not only for researchers who are already there, but also for many departments, students and faculty members who have yet to experience the wonder of a nation rich in biodiversity.
The diverse array of vegetation in Madagascar may offer alternative medical remedies, Wright said.
The opportunity for students and faculty “is tremendous,” Stanley added.