Ecologist Asia Murphy has heard the call of the wild since she was a kid, partly because of her nature-obsessed dad. Growing up in a household with exotic pets like iguanas and boa constrictors, Murphy became fascinated with biodiversity, and relished exploring local California parks with her family.
“I grew up around animals, and they always interested me,” she told me over the phone. “It was a hobby for [my dad], and I guess I just picked that up. We would watch documentaries together, or go out and find whatever wildlife we could while walking the dogs.”
Murphy built her career around this passion, earning a BS in fisheries and wildlife science from North Carolina State University, then a Master’s degree in wildlife conservation from Virginia Tech. This latter opportunity enabled her to conduct long-term wildlife surveys in the remote forests of northeastern Madagascar, a region that quickly enchanted her.
During these expeditions, Murphy sharpened her skills as an ecologist, while also developing a side track as a science communicator and wildlife photographer. Thanks to her nerdy wit and keen eye, she is attracting a wider audience through her blog and Twitter page, where she describes herself as “that black cameratrapqueen” because so much of her work involves setting up cameras at key sites to monitor wildlife.
“I don’t try to be funny, but I get excited about research, and writing and sharing it,” she said. “So, I guess my animation comes through in my writing.”
For instance, on her website, which is named “Anati’ala” after the Malagasy word for “inside the forest,” she shares tips on everything from securing academic grants to identifying which plant leaves make the best toilet paper. Sometimes, she tells the stories of the creatures captured on camera as if they are soap opera episodes, having learned to recognize many individuals thanks to idiosyncratic coat patterns and tail kinks.
Murphy’s camera trap stars are often Madagascar’s otherworldly animals, like lemurs and fossa, but she is also bringing her perspective on wildlife to the northeast United States, where she is pursuing a PhD in ecology at Penn State University. Her most recent surveys are centered on the predation of deer fawns by carnivores like bears and bobcats, so she created the playful hashtag #whoseatingBambie to promote it.
Even when discussing more serious topics, like mental health or the existential threats facing many species, her enthusiasm shines through, as does her effort to challenge the “clean room” image of scientists with the delightfully messy world of wildlife conservation.
“Not all scientists work in a lab and wear lab coats,” she said. “I hate microscopes; they give me a headache. I can’t stare into them for more than two seconds.”
“Basically, in my field, wildlife scientists are out there in dirty boots and field pants doing weird things with animals, and getting dirty and smelly,” Murphy continued. “That’s science too. You don’t have to want to work with chemicals, or look in a microscope, to be a scientist.”
To that end, Murphy is looking forward to continuing her field work in Madagascar, but the island and its fantastic natural inhabitants are far from the only frontiers that she wants to explore and study.
“It’s really just the idea of going someplace that no one’s ever been and seeing what’s there that excites me,” she said.
Humans of the Year is a series about the people building a better future for everyone. Follow along here.