My science story: The impact of science in Madagascar

December 13, 2018

Dannielle is a second year grad student in the chemistry PhD program. She works in the Moerner lab in the chemistry department on stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy, which is a super-resolution microscopy technique. She uses the STED microscope to study biological samples. One of her primary projects involves studying immune checkpoint proteins, which are the primary targets of a new type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy and were the subject of the 2018 Nobel prize in physiology and medicine.


Here, Dannielle describes the impact of science she saw in local communities during her trip to Madagascar. Science is impactful in many different arenas in developing countries and can have an important role in helping improve living conditions for people in less-developed areas.

From the time I arrived in Madagascar, I couldn't help but notice the enormous impact that scientific research has on the day to day lives of Malagasy people. I, like many people in the U.S., had taken for granted the availability of vaccines, clean water, and medicines and the proliferation of education about hygiene, nutrition, and other information that was all the product of scientific research. Looking around Madagascar, I could see how, for instance, education about mosquito nets and the availability of malaria vaccines and treatments had helped maintain the health and well-being of many Malagasy people.

From left to right: Elizabeth, Dannielle’s sister; Esther and Alyssa, Dannielle’s friends; Dannielle at the Avenue of the Baobabs on the western coast of Madagascar


I came to Madagascar for a two week trip with my sister Elizabeth and our best friend Esther to visit our other bestie Alyssa, who had been living in Madagascar for two years as a Peace Corp volunteer. Alyssa had studied livestock agriculture in college, and she chose to come to Madagascar to teach rice farming practices in a remote village in the northern part of Madagascar called Sadjaovato. Alyssa is passionate about agriculture education and is a fantastic scientist. When she arrived in Sadjaovato with the rice farming techniques she had learned in training, she quickly realized that the practices would need to be modified to work for Malagasy rice farmers. Many of the families were skeptical of her. They had generations of farming knowledge and tradition that guided their yearly process. She tried to convince her community members that the techniques she had learned could double or more their yearly harvest by setting up a test plot during her first year. A few families were intrigued by her method and they let her help them set up portions of their fields using the new method. Together they were able to adapt the techniques to work well in the unique environment in Sadjaovato.

Rice plots made using Alyssa’s technique


After the success of her test plot and the other farmers fields, more people began to adopt the technique! More rice meant not only plenty of food for their families, but also more money since many families sold their rice as their primary source of funds.


Elizabeth also found engagement for her scientific interests while we were in Madagascar. She is currently working on her MD/PhD, and she is passionate about healthcare standards and healthcare accessibility. We were all able to tour the village hospital in Sadjaovato, and the head doctor there agreed to meet with us to discuss healthcare. The hospital conditions were unfortunate. They had a 4 bed capacity, and each bed had a very worn and soiled mattress since they hadn't had the resources to replace them in years. The labor and delivery room was much cleaner, but the table where women gave birth was a hard metal table which looked like an uncomfortable place to go through the labor process.

Alyssa showing us where she stood in the labor and delivery room when her friend gave birth.


We were excited to hear that after our trip several improvements including new mattresses with mattress covers were purchased for the hospital through a donation from a community member. Through Alyssa's translations, Elizabeth was able to converse with the doctor about typical ailments, resources, and attitudes about the hospital. The doctor was very knowledgeable. She knew many additional treatments for common illnesses in the community that were well-suited for what she had available in her village hospital.

From left to right - Esther, Elizabeth, Dannielle, Sadjaovato’s head doctor, nurse in front of the village hospital.


We were surprised to hear that many Malagasy people had similar attitudes about hospitals as the ones we've encountered in the U.S. The doctor shared that people often tried to treat illnesses at home or ignored their symptoms so that they were very sick by the time they came to the hospital. She also struggled to convey preventative measures to her community - like certain hygiene practices - that she hoped would greatly decrease the prevalence of parasitic infections and other common diseases.


We were also able to explore the areas outside of the center in Sadjaovato where Alyssa had spent time with her host family after her arrival. We trudged through mud, rivers, and tall grasses to get to her host family’s property and home.

Alyssa on the muddy path outside of Sadjaovato.


The scenery was absolutely stunning on the way! We saw rice fields, lakes, hills and valleys, and lots of new fauna on our way. We even got to try Tamarind pods right off the tree while we rested in the shade of an old Tamarind tree. The house was buzzing when we arrived! The family had just finished drying a harvest of rice. After separating the grains from the plant, the rice must dry in the sun before it can be bagged and stored. Everyone was helping bag up the rice, and we joined in to help too.

Antonio, one of the family’s grandsons, helps carry bags of rice.


The whole process involved several animals. Dogs and cats kept the ducks and chickens from eating the rice as it dried. After it was bagged, the few leftover grains were quickly eaten by the fowl in the yard. The cats and dogs were rewarded for their work by being fed cooked rice that had been boiling over the fire while the family worked. The bagged rice would be sold in Sadjaovato, and a pair of zebu, which are a species of humped cattle, would pull the cart containing the rice along the path we had taken to get to the village.

Jocelyn, the matriarch of the family, standing with her pair of zebu while her family loads the cart with bags of rice.


Esther was fascinated by all the animals! She had always loved animals and felt comfortable around bugs and natural wildlife. In fact, she had even planned to go to veterinary school when she first arrived at college. Elizabeth and I went to college with Esther at UC Berkeley, and we were able to watch her fall in love with academic research while studying protein pathways in yeast during an undergraduate research position. While she never lost her passion and love for animals, she eventually shifted gears and applied to chemical biology PhD programs at the end of college. She is currently in her fourth year at Scripps, where she is studying new targets for cancer drugs. Her natural aptitude for animals was obvious once we arrived on the farm. She almost immediately befriended all of the cats, and she seemed to attract all of the animals in the yard.


We were able to travel around the west and central parts of Madagascar in addition to our travels  in the north.During our travels, we were introduced to many other Malagasy traditions that were also obvious products of experimentation.  For example, throughout Madagascar, local people often protected their skin from the hot sun by coating it in a paste of a certain type of muddy sand which acted as a sunscreen.  Additionally, in Sadjaovato, the community had found ways to use every part of an indigenous tree - wood for building huts, leaves for basket weaving, roots for culinary specialities, etc. We also found many self-taught and community-taught expert naturalists in Malagasy flora and fauna. Our guide through the Kirindy forest frequently pointed out edible plants or plants with medicinal properties. He also knew the names and endless facts about every creature we encountered including Madagascar's quintessential animal - lemurs!

Esther and Alyssa walking through the Kirindy forest with our knowledgeable guide.


He was able to call the lemurs by mimicking the sounds they use to communicate with one another.

Brown lemur being called by our forest guide in the Kirindy forest.


He also could read their body language and behavior to predict where the lemurs were headed and what they were feeling. On a different trip by boat to an island off the coast of Morondava, our boatmen were also naturalists. We took a detour to see mangrove trees, which only grow in flooded areas.

Esther holding the male and female mangrove fruits on our boat off the coast of Morondava.


They showed us the differences between the male and female fruit of the tree and explained pollination patterns and common uses for the fruits.


Overall, our trip was overwhelming fascinating and inspiring. Not only was I constantly amazed by the stunning scenery and memorable people but I was also reminded of how impactful science is for people in developing countries. I feel incredibly privileged to be at a university where numerous researchers are devoted to studying ways to improve worldwide health and wellness or to better understand how we can protect the people and landscapes in countries like Madagascar. For instance, the Abuzz project in Professor Manu Prakash's lab seeks to map where mosquitos that could potentially carry malaria are concentrated in order to raise awareness and potentially direct preventative resources like vaccines or mosquito nets where they are most needed. Frugal science work, such as the development of inexpensive, small centrifuges that could easily separate patient's blood in rural communities like Sadjaovato in order to diagnose malaria and other blood-borne diseases, is also a focus in the Prakash lab.


Other Stanford scientists, like Professor John Boothroyd, whose lab studies parasites, will also hopefully impact the way diseases are treated in countries like Madagascar. Ecologists at Stanford are also doing important work regarding conservation and clean-up of natural areas that could impact how the beautiful landscapes in Madagascar are preserved.


My trip to Madagascar was also incredibly eye-opening beyond just illustrating how necessary scientific research is. I encountered many many Malagasy people who were as intellectually curious, as hard-working, and as sharp as my peers here at Stanford. Due to the struggles associated with living in a developing country their potential to be involved in higher education is hindered. I hope we all remember how privileged we are, regardless of the path we took to get to Stanford, simply for having had the opportunity to study at such a wonderful university and collaborate with world-class scientists. I know this awareness has become a major motivation for me to do as much as I can to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge while I work on my PhD as a way of acknowledging all of the advantages that brought me to Stanford in the first place.


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