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Off to See the Lizard: A Student’s Research in Madagascar

Melissavodovsky madagascar

MelissaVodovsky MadagascarGeckoes and chameleons and iguanas, oh my!

There is no scaling back senior Melissa Vodofsky’s interest in all things reptilian, particularly lizards.

Vodofsky is proof that the unconventional path to higher education can work, providing that it is accompanied by a lifelong love of learning and an inextinguishable passion.

The former New Jersey native, who now makes Stony Brook her home, took a few years off to work a variety of odd jobs before an unquenchable thirst for knowledge led her back to academia.

In researching colleges, Vodofsky learned that Stony Brook is one of a select number of collegiate programs that offers the opportunity to do fieldwork with a variety of wildlife, and when she realized Madagascar was home to a number of species of lizards, she didn’t think twice about pursuing the study abroad program offered by the University.

She applied for and received a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, which provides awards for U.S. undergraduate students who are receiving federal Pell Grant funding at a two- or four-year college or university  to participate in study abroad programs worldwide.

The trip to Madagascar was long—it involved an eight-hour flight to Paris, then an 11-hour flight to Madagascar, followed by a 12-hour bus ride to Ranomafana National Park. After arriving at the three-story, 100-employee research facility there, which is funded by Stony Brook, Vodofsky and her classmates still needed to climb up a mountain to reach their campsite, which they shared with students from California University of Pennsylvania.

Vodofsky took three classes overseen by Patricia Wright, Stony Brook’s Study Abroad Program Director in Madasgascar, MacArthur Fellow, and creator of Ranomafana National Park. This summer, she was joined by her former student, Summer Arrigo-Nelson, now a faculty member at the California University of Pennsylvania. Together they introduced the students to exotic flora and fauna of the park.  During her nearly five-week stay, Vodofsky’s course load consisted of comparative eco-regions of Madagascar, independent research in biological anthropology, and Malagasy language and culture. The native people spoke English and French in addition to Malagasy, so communication was not a major roadblock.

There was an adjustment period, especially with some of the food. But the menu wasn’t the only eye-opener.

“The poverty level is shocking the first time you’re out of the country (U.S.),” said Vodofsky. “E-mail there is very slow, slower than dial-up. And there was only one e-mail café in the closest town of Ranomafana,” four miles from the park.

“But I wanted to be away from everything and everybody,” she said. “You learn that the American viewpoint is not that important to the rest of the world. Now that I’m back I can’t stand all of the celebrity gossip. I feel less materialistic and more aware of people.”

But in Madagascar the focus was on animal life. “Every time I saw a chameleon in a tree I identified it using the field guide,” Vodofsky said. She came face to face with radiated tortoises in captivity that poachers export for their ornate shells, and, of course, the celebrated golden bamboo lemurs that Professor Wright has made a career of studying. Vodofsky even examined the skull of a vegetarian crocodile in sub-lemur fossil laboratory at the University of Tana.

Learning wasn’t confined to Ramanofana, however. Vodofsky went on a ten-day sojourn across the island and stayed in hotels, trekked to another park, explored mangrove swamps, gazed at giant baobab trees, and rode on sailboats with square sails, then feasted on spiny lobsters caught and prepared by the fishermen guides.

Possibly best of all, Vodofsky said, was the way the people at the research station treated the students. “They had a big party for us when we were leaving, featuring pizza and Malagasy dancing in a conga line. We were there on their independence day when the people march with lanterns, and it reminded me of Halloween,” said Vodofsky.

Because of her delayed entry into college—she took three years off  between high school and before enrolling at Suffolk Community College, then worked for two years before enrolling at Stony Brook—she is older than many of her peers. At 27, this senior with the double major in biology and anthropology, credits the program in Madagascar for igniting her desire to stay in school and hopes to continue her research with iguanas and chameleons as she earns her master’s and doctoral degrees.

—Glenn Jochum

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