From Durham to Madagascar: An interview with Tara Clarke, Evolutionary Anthropology

Tara Clarke

Professor Tara Clarke, a Duke Teaching First supporter from the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology, sat down to discuss her research, her responsibilities as a non-tenure-track faculty member, and her visions for academia. Stay tuned at for ongoing faculty interviews.

Duke Teaching First: What are you currently working on at Duke?

Tara Clarke: For the spring semester, I’m teaching Introduction to Evolutionary Anthropology. We cover evolutionary theory, genetics, primate diversity, the behavioral ecology of living primates, the fossil record, and some modern human diversity. This is the introductory course in the Evolutionary Anthropology major. It also serves a Natural Science credit, so it may be the only science course that some students take. We’re reaching students from lots of majors.

The research that I’m currently engaged in revolves around the illegal pet trade of lemurs. My non-profit, Lemur Love, which I co-direct, will be doing work this summer in Madagascar. We’re creating educational posters in French, English, and various dialects of Malagasy. We’re hoping to target not just local people but also tourists. We’ll be doing conservation education outreach with local children about why lemurs are special and Madagascar is special, and why lemurs don’t make good pets. We’ll also be conducting informal surveys to get behind the cultural drivers of the trade.

It sounds like lemur conservation involves a number of methods.

Yes. As part of an additional grant proposal, we’re planning to visit numerous sites with ring-tailed lemurs. The species is listed as endangered, but there haven’t been any censuses in 15 years. Many are living in fragmented, isolated areas. We’re hoping to get a better idea of what the wild population looks like. In concert with that, we’ll be sequencing mitochondrial DNA to create a genomic library of the lemurs—to be able to track the likely origin of where illegal pets have come from so we can then target these hotspots with conservation initiatives. Hopefully we can save the species from going extinct.

A lot of students—and Durham residents and passersby—are familiar with lemurs through the Duke Lemur Center. What does your work with Durham’s lemur population look like?

I taught Primate Conservation, a seminar class, last semester. My class collaborated with the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) on its new distance learning program, which will be available on its website for anyone who wants to use it. Each student wrote a paper on a biodiversity hotspot, and they worked with Chris Smith, the education specialist at the Duke Lemur Center to create 3-5 minute videos for the distance learning program. The class was excited about it, and everyone did a fantastic job. It’s not quite done yet, but we’re hoping to have a viewing party soon.

How would you describe the obligations that you have as a faculty member, from teaching to research and beyond?

I’m a Visiting Assistant Professor. It’s a three-year position. I teach two classes a semester, or one class with a lab. The big focus is on developing my teaching skills, creating classes, working with students, and mentoring students. In addition to that, it’s an opportunity for me to collaborate with people here at Duke—whether at the Duke Lemur Center, in my department, or in other departments on campus—to do research, share and disseminate that research, and, of course, publish. It’s sort of the whole package.

The majority of my time, especially being a new professor, is course prep—writing lectures, creating syllabi, and things like that. I try to engage with students as much as possible, whether through office hours or, last semester, I was a student sponsor for a graduating senior in our department. I served as her mentor on her senior project.

Your work spans multiple hemispheres. As Duke continues to expand its global reach, what sorts of responsibilities to students and faculty would you say this entails?

Across the board, in terms of support and education, it’s really important to support minority groups in math and science, women especially. That’s a huge thing. It’s also important to seek out and support international students in receiving the Duke education. I work with a lot of Malagasy students who are so intelligent and passionate, and they have almost no opportunities. Thinking about them and their positions, it would be wonderful for the university to expand to those far-off places where students aren’t thinking about coming here.

Finally, what do you see as the importance of a faculty union?

As faculty, I think that it’s important for us to stand together and be a united front, including faculty who are already tenured so that they can speak alongside the people who aren’t. Through speaking up, we can ensure that everyone receives fair treatment, improved wages and healthcare, and access to funding for conferences and research.

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