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Dr. Steve Goodman's work is legendary. He's the only scientist at The Field Museum with the title 'Field Biologist,' and spends 9-10 months out of the year conducting research in other countries, with a focus on Madagascar for nearly 30 years. Learn more about the future of Madagascar's biodiversity & research at

More about Dr. Goodman:

'The Michael Jordan of Field Biology,'
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Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Director, Editor, Graphics:
Brandon Brungard

Producer, Camera:
Sheheryar Ahsan

Interview with:
Dr. Steve Goodman

This episode is filmed at and supported by The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
This is Dr..

Steve Goodman. He's a field biologist here at the Field Museum and by here, I mean mostly everywhere but here.

Since he was 19, Steve has studied animals and plants all over the world, first spending nine years in Egypt and Northern Sudan, and then working in Tanzania, Gabon, Central African Republic, South Africa, Pakistan, India, the Philippines and, since the early 90s, Madagascar. He's published 600 papers, 24 books, and nearly 10,000 pages of monographs. I don't exactly know the number of new species he's discovered, but according to a 2007 article calling him the 'Michael Jordan of Field Biology,' There are about a dozen species named in his honour - sometimes as an honor from a colleague and sometimes because the new species was found on him.

He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2005 - these are sometimes called 'genius' grants - and he can identify the various genera of rodents in Madagascar just from their smell. Needless to say, Steve Goodman is a fascinating and unbelievably productive human and we were lucky enough to get the chance to talk with him about his passion for biology and his help in the creation of an ecological training program that is allowing the Malagasy people the tools to lead their country's conservation efforts. What is your position exactly?

I mean, what does it mean to be a field biologist? So I have kind of a remarkable job and I'm very lucky to have it and so I have very few responsibilities within the building, and my responsibilities are doing field work, which is mostly in Madagascar. So you're not here in the building very frequently.

I spend about 2 months a year, maybe a little bit more, per year at the Field Museum. So, when you arrived in Madagascar, can you kind of paint us a picture of what was known about the biodiversity of the island? So there are two things that are really important - one, Madagascar having this world-famous level of endemism and biodiversity.

Remarkably little was known and hence, in order to advance on questions in evolutionary biology, or questions on prioritization of protected areas and conservation, it was very important to get into areas that were unknown and document what lives in those places and use those data to prioritize conservation action. And the second thing that was really clear during that phase - most of the malagasy scientists didn't have their own independent research programs - they were under the shadows of foreign counterparts, mostly French scientists. In order for Madagascar as a country to advance, both from a scientific and a conservation perspective, It was very, very important for generations of Malagasy biologists to be educated and to advance along their career pathways.

So we put those two things together And we started large-scale biological inventories with Malagasy graduate students that would use the data for their theses, at the same time advancing on lots of different types of questions and, ten years ago, we moved the program from WWF to Association Vahatra - completely independent now as an NGO in Madagascar - and the number of students that they train increases exponentially all the time and it is know a very well founded, clear program for the advancement of science in Madagascar for Malagasy scientists, that's the critical point. Can you give in terms of numbers the number of known or described species say 30 years ago versus the number of known and described species today, as they've been able to kind of branch out and map and do more biodiversity studies? Right - so for example in 1995, there was a monograph that was published on the bats of Madagascar and there were 24 species known from Madagascar.

As of a few weeks ago, there were 45 species of bats known from Madagascar, so basically it doubled in the course of 20-some years, but more importantly the rates of endemism went from about 60% to close to 90% and we're still discovering new species. There's the specimen on the table just beside us that's an undescribed species, and we're about to finish the manuscript, so soon that number is going to hit 50. Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges of just getting these biological surveys done - what are the complications here?

Why don't we start with the size of Madagascar. So it's bigger than the state of California, so it's a big hunk of land. If you look at a road map of Madagascar you'll see there's virtually no roads.

It can be days driving, and then a canoe, oxen cart, and then two or three days walking to get into some of these sites. So there are places we've been leaving our homes in Antananarivo to the first campus ten days. Wow.

Are there any particular instances that you recall that were especially challenging? We've had people with broken bones, that were distinctly sick, etcetera, but there's never been a fatality. You know, when you sit in Chicago and you think about it, it sounds very complicated, but when you're in the field and faced with different types of situations, you have a certain natural reaction to do things correctly, to help colleagues and friends and students, and you know - There's been lots of things that have happened, but yeah, probably no need to go into it.

Can you talk a little bit about some of the particular - I don't know if you would call them keystone species - but some of the the new species that you've discovered, and how - by not protecting those areas - these organisms could be potentially harmed or put at risk? The biological crisis of Madagascar has nothing to do with biology. It has to do with socio-economic problems.

A large percentage of the Malagasy population lives as subsistence farmers and it's simply to feed their families and have their kids grow up correctly, etc. In Madagascar, since it's this massive patchwork, the frog species can change 60% by going across a river divide or in a different type of habitat, and hence in Madagascar the strategy of saving large blocks, it doesn't work because there are very few large blocks that remain, first off, and second because of this patchwork you, in order to save biodiversity, you have to know what's in it, and focus on those organisms. So now to come back to your question, for example mouse lemurs these are these cute little primates that weigh less than 60 grams, they fit in the palm of your hand and when they bite you they don't have enough strength to even break the skin, just cute little things.

And until 2000 there was only two species that were described. We're now up to 25 species, and by having this fine-level data you can actually understand the types of programs, as far as protection of forest blocks, different management programs for forests etc. to protect these symbolic species, these key species fests are called for biodiversity. How do you see the future then of conservation in Madagascar?

Until the social political economic problems are resolved, it's some level putting a Band-Aid on a festering wound, but you know the reason that we continue to do what we do is to make sure that there will be many Malagasy biologists that have the knowledge and the capacity to properly guide their country once they're given the power to do that. So, you've talked a lot about the work that you've done in Madagascar and the programs that you've helped establish there, and I think it's kind of an understatement to say that you've had a major impact on our understanding of that island. But you don't keep normal work hours.

It's not like you get in, you work your 9 to 5, and you go home. You do get in here awfully early in the morning. That early morning before the sun comes up, there's a perfect time to have a strong cup of coffee and just sit in front of a computer and type.

So you get in at around 3:00, 3:30 in the morning. Yeah about 3:00, 3:30. I don't even - I don't know the last time I saw that hour of the day.

Well, maybe going home after a night out. Well, I think you - I don't have that much of a social life What is your your sage advice for people who might not - they maybe haven't found that part of what they're interested in yet? So, example - my son's friends come over and they say "So, what's your work?" And I say, "Work, so I actually work?" And I don't.

It's just completely absorbed in passion. So my advice would be to try to find the things in your life, or lives of people, that bring up that passion and is 100% engaging to advance in what you do. and then you can sleep four hours a night and publish 500 papers in 30 years That actually happened That's true It still has brains on it