Women in Conservation

A Geneticist’s Journey to Conserve the Diversity of Life

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Noviar Andayani at an opening talk at wildlife genetics workshop hosted by WCS and University of Indonesia. Photo credit: ©WCS Indonesia Program

By Noviar Andayani
March 22, 2019

[Note: this is the second in a series of blogs by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) staff celebrating “Women in Conservation” in recognition of Women’s History Month]

When I came home to Indonesia in the early 1990s after two years studying in Uppsala, Sweden, I had only one dream — to become a world leading scientist in the cyto-taxonomy of birds. I wanted to unravel the chromosomal diversity that led to the evolution of hundreds of species of birds in Indonesia.

As a young girl who was very passionate about the diversity of life, I saw my future looking through the lens of a microscope to study the fascinating number and structure of their chromosomes. Nothing else interested me at that time.

Noviar Andayani. Photo credit: ©WCS Indonesia Program.

Looking back, I see how naïve and selfish that thought was. My longtime passion for the biodiversity, the burning question about how life came into its many different forms, which I had had since my first years at the university, surely could not be answered by looking only at chromosomes. It’s methodologically impossible and scientifically silly. Fortunately, I did not live under this delusion for long.

I shifted my interest from trying to understand how life diversified to how to preserve the diversity of life. This shift did not come from a realization that cytogenetics had gone out of fashion. Rather, I had an opportunity to link both subjects under a relatively new discipline at that time — conservation genetics — through an invitation to join a prestigious training program at the Smithsonian Institute in 1992.

This training, followed by a series of intensive training sessions at Columbia University, changed my life in many ways. For one, I became more aware of the need to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible in order to save life. Secondly, I realized how much I loved the idea of saving species. I could not wait to apply all the complicated concepts of population genetics and molecular evolution to the real world.

“As a young girl, I saw my future looking through the lens of a microscope to study the number and structure of living things’ chromosomes. In time, I shifted my interest from trying to understand how life diversified to how to preserve the diversity of life.”

Of course, when I came home, I saw that conservation practices were not always what I felt they should be. I was surprised to learn that I was often the only person in a meeting or seminar who understood concepts like an evolutionary significant unit. Instead, practices were focused on how to stop deforestation and how to convince people around protected areas not to encroach or kill wildlife. Genetics was too sophisticated for this, with very little value to the real world.

Still, the hours I had spent in the lab were not a waste. They changed me, helping me see that I wanted to save species. At the time I came up, there was also a long-needed push to diversify the voices at the table, including the debates and discussions outside the lab. There was greater openness to a woman such as myself who was also an Indonesian passionate about genetics and the history of life.

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Noviar Andayani addresses a gathering of WCS Indonesia staff in 2017. Photo credit: ©WCS Indonesia Program.

I took with me that hierarchy of attitudes, that I was a woman, an Indonesian, and a scientist, when I joined WCS in 2003. With no experience working for an NGO before, I had to rely on my training and my senses as a woman. I had to be objective, focused, and open-minded and lead a team of the most talented and passionate wildlife conservationists in Indonesia.

While we are continuing our long-standing tradition of ‘muddy boots’ interventions on the ground — and in the water — to support the government in protecting wildlife and its habitats, we are also working to generate stronger political support for wildlife conservation in Indonesia.

The word ‘passionate’ is a key here, because it is our collective passion for wildlife — the tigers, the elephants, the maleos — that has driven the growth of our country program. As the Country Director, I have learned to be a coach, and sometimes even a mother or a big sister, to the team.

This type of leadership works for us and I believe our team’s passion contributes immensely to its success. Maybe the fact that many of our staff are my former students plays an important role too. Now the list of the wildlife we would like to save grows longer to include many more species, both big and small, on land and under the sea.

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Andayani on trip to Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo credit: ©WCS Indonesia Program.

This year will mark 16 years of my incredible journey with this great team and under a wildlife conservation organization I believe in. Over those years, the WCS Indonesia Program has grown tremendously, not only in the number of staff and the size of the landscapes and seascapes where we work, but also in the comprehensiveness of our approaches and interventions.

While we are continuing our long-standing tradition of ‘muddy boots’ interventions on the ground — and in the water — to support the government in protecting wildlife and its habitats, we are also creating new innovative interventions to generate stronger political support for wildlife conservation in Indonesia.

One of the newest is to use the power of genetic technologies to save our priority species. The benefits of such technologies are many, including allowing for a more efficient human-wildlife conflict mitigation program, corridor and meta-population design, effective law enforcement, and trade monitoring.

As a trained geneticist, this DNA-based approach has personal meaning to me, as well. I have had to wait 16 years before investing in this strategy. And while some might say that’s too long, I believe the wait was necessary. Now, I’m just excited to see how this and other innovations bring us closer to preserving the diversity of life.

Noviar Andayani is Country Director for the Indonesia Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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