Global Connections

Krasnow Lab Field Research Course in Madagascar

Madagascar is among the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity, natural resources, and cultural diversity. But it is also one of the poorest countries economically (average daily income ∼70 cents), facing an environmental crisis along with equally pressing problems in food insecurity, health, education, economics, and politics.

Mouse lemurs are the smallest, fastest developing, and most abundant primates in the world. We estimate there are millions to tens of million individuals inhabiting virtually all of Madagascar’s diverse biomes, including primary rainforests, dry forests, and even disturbed habitats.

Mark Krasnow, MD, PhD, (Executive Director of the Vera Moulton Wall Center), and his team of researchers from the Krasnow Lab, have screened several hundred mouse lemurs in collaborations with Patricia Wright and colleagues at Ranomafana National Park (RNP). The major obstacle for this ambitious plan is to conduct these approaches at a scale to achieve genetic saturation. We have embarked on a citizen science effort involving Malagasy students across the country, with the goal of helping them build the scientific skills and knowledge they will need to participate in and even initiate studies like ours.

Biology education in Madagascar has the potential to become an active, hands-on discovery curriculum in which students explore the unique and largely uncharted biology literally outside their school doors. We are designing lecture and laboratory units, each centered on a major biological concept, that use the surrounding environment as a living laboratory the students explore with frugal science tools, such as the powerful $1 paper microscopes (“Foldscopes”) invented by our Stanford colleague Manu Prakash, PhD, Associate Professor of Bioengineering.

Each year we host the students of Hantanirina Rasamimanana at L’École Normale Supérieure (ENS), University of Antananarivo, who are training to become high school biology teachers, at the field station and provide them with an introductory experience in field biology, molecular biology, cell biology, and genetics using mouse lemurs in the wild to exemplify the topics.

We will expand this active science discovery curriculum throughout the country, starting with high schools staffed by teachers trained at our rain forest workshops. Our goal is to invigorate Malagasy biology education, and at the same time identify highly motivated students who love exploration and could partner with local and international scientists exploring Madagascar’s biology.

We also plan to establish a basic molecular biology laboratory at University of Antananarivo (the capital city) and use it to develop a laboratory component for biology courses. Currently, almost all of the biodiversity and population genetics samples collected in Madagascar are exported out of the country for analysis. This is a big administrative burden and cost for researchers, and it limits the development of scientific capacity in Madagascar. We envision that samples collected throughout the country by international and domestic researchers, as well as by high school students doing citizen science projects, could be analyzed by university students in the new molecular biology laboratory.

We hope that our work spawns a new model organism and deep understanding of primate biology, while establishing a new and ethical way of doing genetics that bridges biological, behavioral, medical, and conservation research. We also hope to show how experiential learning can help transform a developing country by creating opportunities that pave the way to health and prosperity.