Biruté Galdikas

Zoology, Animals, Physiology, Metabolism

World’s foremost authority on orangutans

"I’ve always wanted to study the one primate who never left the Garden of Eden. I want to know what we left behind."

So You Want to Be a Physical Anthropologist

Galdikas advises anyone interested in a career in physical anthropology or wildlife ecology to begin by volunteering. “Get as much volunteer experience as possible,” she says. You can ask at veterinary clinics, zoos and animal field hospitals. Opportunities abound, but you have to look for them. Good places to search are newsletters, journals and websites of organizations that work with animals. For instance, the American Society of Primatologists’ newsletter would be a good place to look if you are interested in orangutans and other apes or monkeys. Call professors at universities, too. “If you can’t do primates you can do chipmunks,” says Galdikas, who spent a summer as a teen working at an archaeological dig on an Apache reservation in Arizona. Another year she worked on a dig in Yugoslavia. “Archaeological experience will give you training in different cultures.”

A career in physical anthropology could lead to many jobs, such as veterinarian, zookeeper, science reporter, high school or university teacher, field conservationist, as well as government, organization or parks policy developer. It takes five to 12 years to get a degree, depending on whether or not you get a graduate degree.

Galdikas also advises young people to prepare themselves by doing a lot of reading; be aware of opportunities and talk to people. She got the idea of approaching Louis Leakey while talking to her pit partner on a dig in Arizona. Get a university degree — preferably a doctorate or a master’s — in biosciences or anthropology and learn a skill that others don’t have. For instance, learn dna gene sequencing, geographical information systems (gis) mapping, or hormone analysis. “You want something that gives you a new way to analyze things. It’s like having a key to open the data in new ways,” says Galdikas.

The thing she likes most about her career is the feeling she gets when she discovers new things. “Just being with the animals in their pristine rainforest environment is a thrill, but it’s always very difficult and demanding.” She also had to learn diplomacy and patience, due to the many long negotiations required to get governments to preserve orangutan habitat.

“The saddest thing about my career is that orangutans are going extinct,” says Galdikas, but she feels she has made a difference through her foundations and environmental activism.

Other scientists who may be of interest:

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