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ASU’s Nash earns Distinguished Primatologist Award

October 01, 2008

Professor Leanne Nash of ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change has been selected by the American Society of Primatologists to receive the 2008 Distinguished Primatologist Award. According to the society’s president, Suzette Tardif, Nash is “a woman who has steadfastly and with understatement held strong to the principles of conducting rigorous and diverse scientific research.” She also pegs her as an academician who forges strong collegial relationships and offers her “sound mentorship to students altruistically.”

A pioneer in the field of nocturnal primate research, Nash was one of the first primatologists to study exudates, or plant gum, which some primates eat and ferment in their guts. She has researched a broad range of primates but is perhaps best known for her work with galagos—popularly known as bushbabies—small nocturnal primates from continental Africa.

In fact, in the 1970s, Nash instituted a galagos colony on ASU’s Tempe campus and oversaw the group until 1994, when the remaining animals were transferred to the Phoenix Zoo and Duke University. The colony was a success on many levels, providing great insight into a species that previously had been studied on a relatively limited basis while providing unique research opportunities for students.

Nash is not one to be pigeonholed. Her legacy is far-reaching and includes notable integrative research on captive and wild animals, including mother-infant interactions, and extensive work regarding the psychological welfare of captive animals. She has been associated with the Primate Foundation of Arizona since her 1971 arrival at ASU.

Hailed for her ability to inspire and motivate, Nash is a natural mentor who enjoys working with students, especially in smaller settings where she can offer more personal attention. When asked what advice she has for students, she answers, “The most important thing is to find the best questions to ask and not be species specific. Be prepared to learn about what’s thrown in your path and take advantage of the situation.”

Also, on a more practical note, she offers, “Don’t expect glamour in the field. You will spend less than 1/10th of your time observing animals and may spend a year in a tent living off rice and beans, so make sure this work is really something you want to do.”

Nash has done fieldwork in such exotic locales as Madagascar, Makapansgat and Gombe, where Jane Goodall asked her to direct a long-term baboon field project. Unfortunately, that plan was derailed by a kidnapping that put a halt to foreigners’ fieldwork at Gombe for several years. But that didn’t stop Nash from traveling to other African locales to initiate her field research on wild nocturnal primates.

A member of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and former executive board member, Nash teaches undergraduate and graduate courses while continuing her research. She also edits and writes an impressive number of publications each year. Tardif calls her collective written works “the bible” for nocturnal primate specialists.

Rebecca Howe,
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
(480) 727-6577