The Importance of Youth Science: Meet Christopher Golden
Christopher Golden has spent almost half of his life traveling to Madagascar. When he was 16, he went on an Earthwatch Expedition, Carnivores in Madagascar, led by Dr. Luke Dollar. Christopher’s experience directed him into a career in ecology and epidemiology. He’s now a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Director of the HEAL (Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages) Program at Wildlife Conservation Society. Recently, he has become a 2014 Emerging Explorer with the National Geographic Society.
Chris with students in Madagascar.
How did finding your passion so young affect your life?
It started with me always loving to be in nature and my mom and family really facilitated that with hikes and nature walks. When I was 9, I did an animal report on the ring-tailed lemur which propelled my interest in Madagascar.
I’ve always been dying to go to Madagascar and looking for ways to get there. I found the Earthwatch program working with Luke at Duke University, and that was the perfect way. My parents were nervous about me going out into the field at only 16 years old, so they helped me coordinate with two other women who were also going on the trip. The women were 69 year old best friends who had done 12 Earthwatch Expeditions together by the time I met up with them.
How has your research focus shifted from your youth to today?
I’ve always been very focused in that I’ve believed in the importance of nature, and I’ve believed in conservation, but the path has taken a change and evolved over time. Instead of just focusing on animals, I now work extensively with humans and how humans are benefited from intact ecosystems and conservation. The perspective has changed, but the focus has always remained the same.
Do you have any traditions when you arrive home from your explorations?
(laughs) I do have one tradition where the first thing I’ll eat when I get home is a calzone.
What is the focus of your research in Madagascar?
My work focuses the most on investigating the role of wildlife population declines on human nutrition. We just finished a 15-month case study looking at the phenomenon in earnest. If we think of the interaction between the integrity of the environment and human health, all of my other projects (ie traditional medicines, pica, wildlife population monitoring, etc.) fit into that. So, all of the wildlife monitoring looks at the resource population dynamics that feed into our nutrition model. It’s all a matter of pulling the pieces together in a holistic way.
What are your findings so far from your expeditions to Madagascar?
What we have found is that hunting wildlife is incredibly unsustainable. If we look at just a singular perspective of how humans impact the environment, the trajectory of many of the species locally is on a downfall. Many of the lemur species, carnivore species and bat species that are heavily hunted are declining because of the heavy human impact. What we’re also learning is that the local Malagasy are receiving a tremendous amount of health benefit from nutrition from eating wildlife.
What we’ve showed is if the local Malagasy lose access to wildlife, their rates of anemia will increase by 30% because of the lack of meat. It really presents a conundrum, where the local people heavily rely on the resources in the forest, yet the forest can’t sustain the impact of humans.
What are you hoping to change from your research?
We’re really trying to understand what types of interventions and solutions are possible. For a case like this, we can’t allow humans to hunt in this way because we know they will self-deplete their nutritional resource. We are trying to develop ways that will shift people away from hunting to different types of livestock husbandry that will provide the nutritional benefit and also relax some of the pressure off the forest.
Where do you hope the science will be in 5 years?
I’m now the director or WCS’ HEAL Program which stands for Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages. It’s a 25 institution research consortium that’s led by the Wildlife Conservation Society. It includes a variety of members that includes the Harvard School of Public Health where I am based. What we’re doing is trying to understand not just the wildlife and nutrition linkage, but largely how environmental change impacts human health. We have a lot of case studies where we are trying to figure out the ways in which these things connect with each other.