Out of Africa

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From a poor family, a now-successful primate expert worked her way to a scholarship and has been wandering the plains of Africa ever since.

Born in Ho Chi Minh City, raised in New York, and with work experience living in the wilderness of Ethiopia and Rwanda, Dr. Nguyen Thien Nga has seen the world.

Born to a poor family in 1976, Nga moved to Brooklyn as a six-year-old in 1982. Once in the US, her family was supported solely by her mother, and Nga learned young that she had to work hard for the things she wanted.

Without money for fancy toys, Nga spent her days reading books about famous scientists studying animals in remote areas of Africa and Asia. She knew she wanted to do the same.

“After reading about explorers and scientists, I longed for a chance to set foot in areas where they had gone,” says Nga. “I knew the only way I would ever be able to do it would be to study hard and become a researcher.”

Hard work and an opportunity

Nga, now 33, says it was not easy to receive the kind of education she needed to chase her dreams. Without money, her only asset was her mind. Fortunately, her years of hard work and a stellar performance in high school paid off with a scholarship from Barnard College.

Nga became interested specifically in primatology, the study of primates, when she took a lecture course by Dr. Marina Cords from Columbia University. Knowing the renowned professor was researching the reproductive and social behavior of blue monkeys in western Kenya’s Kakamega Forest, Nga was determined to become her assistant.

“If I could prove myself in the class of nearly 200 students, I knew she would choose me to work as her assistant on a trip to Kenya,” she says.

Sure enough, when the class had ended, Dr. Cords chose to take Nga and five other students to Africa in June, 1997.

First journey

Nga says her mother put up some initial resistance to the trip.

“Mom always thought I would become a doctor or a nurse. No one in my family thought I would go do research somewhere in Africa.”

But the journey to Kenya turned out to be more rewarding than even Nga had expected as she met Peter Fashing, then a doctoral student under Professor Cords’ instruction, whom she fell in love with and eventually married. The two have shared their love for nature and passion for science ever since as they’ve studied primates together in a few of the most remote places on the planet.

When Fashing finished his doctoral program in 2002, the couple went together to study the behavior and habitat of Angolan Colobus monkeys in the Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda.

Into the wild

After Rwanda, Nga studied on her own at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, Amboseli, Kenya, where she observed a variety of wild animals for a year and half as part of her Princeton University doctoral program.

Amboseli was isolated.

“I lived in a tent surrounded by an electric fence to prevent elephants from breaking in,” she said.

Nga says life in Amboseli was harsh as she lived far from any urban area and daytime temperatures reached over 40 degrees Celsius.

“I missed my family, Peter and my mom’s Vietnamese food,” she says.

But her subjects brightened her days, she says, as observing the various ways the primates socialized and amused themselves taught her a great deal.

In 2006, Nga and Fashing moved to a cabin in Ethiopia’s mountainous Guassa region at 3,000 meters above sea level. There, they worked together to study the behavior of Gelada monkeys.

Nga says that getting to know the animals on a deeper level has made every hardship and sacrifice worth it.

The author of several articles in international scientific journals, Nga is now the Associate Research Curator at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Last month, she and several colleagues form US universities published findings about platonic friendships between male and female baboons in the journal of Behavioral Sociobiology and Ecology.

Awareness

Nga says her best work has always been that in eastern Africa, where monkeys are not hunted and are at ease when observed by humans.

She says it is impossible to study monkeys effectively in areas where they fear human hunters. This is why she says she can’t work in Vietnam yet, though she hopes to in the future. She came back in 1998 to learn the language and more about the country’s history and culture.

“It is irresponsible for scientists to study monkeys in areas where hunting is common,” Nga says, adding that when monkeys learn to trust humans, they are in greater danger of being killed by poachers.

She hopes to share her experiences with Vietnam in the future and help bring about greater environmental awareness in the country.

“We should protect the environment and wild animals not only to have clean water, air and soil, but also for the joy of sharing this planet with other species,” she says.

Reported by Do Hung

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