Like many other professors, Dr. Cortni Borgerson, 36, an assistant professor of anthropology, enjoys traveling to campus and lecturing students on a subject about which she is passionate. But unlike most Montclair State University professors, Dr. Borgerson is also an anthropologist, conservation biologist and National Geographic explorer who has done fieldwork in Madagascar for over 15 years.
Borgerson shared that her love of the outdoors and interest in primates inspired her to go into anthropology.
“I wanted to be outdoors,” Borgerson said. “When you’re excited about animals, including primates and conservation and protection, anthropology is the perfect discipline to be in because you get to study the animal itself, the human behavior that actually is leading to the threat and status of the animal and then how to work with people to find solutions to that connection.”
In addition to being a professor, Borgerson is a National Geographic explorer and researches in Madagascar where she examines how hunting endangered species affects human health. She had tremendous enthusiasm in her voice as she talked about her experiences in Madagascar.
“I love it there. This is the 16th year that we’ve worked in Madagascar and I fell in love with it right away,” Borgerson said. “So we lived there full time, up until I came here to Montclair two and a half years ago and now we spend half of the year there and it’s amazing.”
She explained most of her work takes place in the northeast part of Madagascar, which looks like a tropical rainforest, but the south looks more like a desert.
“The ecological diversity is huge, the biological diversity is huge and the people are fantastic; it’s a really wonderful welcoming place to work,” Dr. Borgerson said.
Borgerson has been working on the sakondry project, an insect indigenous to Madgascar, where she works to improve food security, as well as protect lemurs. She helps to supply this insect for people to eat in Madagascar instead of hunting lemurs.
“Hunting in Madagascar is driven primarily by food security,” Borgerson said. “So, when we were looking for different alternatives to the lemurs what kept coming up in our surveys all the time is this bug. They’re really good. It was definitely one of the first insects I’d ever eaten. But it truly does taste just like bacon.”
However, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affected Madagascar and her work.
“I was in Madagascar last March when the borders closed,” Borgerson said. “We were in the rain forests and we had a 13-hour notice that we had to get out of the country, or we couldn’t get out. We had to hustle and we almost didn’t make it out.”
Borgerson explained that although she is grateful her team is still in Madagascar, it is hard for her to be away from there during a time like this.
“Part of the fun of doing fieldwork is being there and talking to people, so I’m looking forward to going back,” Borgerson said. “But it’s not just how COVID[-19] has interrupted our ability to do work there… it’s really affected the lives of the people that are there. Child mortality is very high in general, but right now, it’s even more so.”
While Madagascar is a huge part of Borgerson’s life and she is eager to get back, she received years of education to be able to do the work she does. She earned a B.A. from Case Western Reserve University, a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts and a postdoctoral fellowship from Harvard University. Borgerson enjoyed all of these learning experiences and the knowledge they brought her.
“I started at Case [Western Reserve University] in biological anthropology and evolutionary biology and then went to Massachusetts,” Borgerson said. “If you look at the majors, they shifted over to this public health perspective… the institutions themselves are fantastic. [At] Harvard I did something that we called ‘ghost docking.’ This is when you’re a postdoc but you’re not there. I lived in Madagascar the entire time… that was a really lovely opportunity to just move to Madagascar.”
As much as she loves being a researcher and explorer, Borgerson is passionate about teaching.
“Where else can you geek out about something you really love for hours on end with a truly captive audience?” Borgerson said.
Not only is Borgerson a researcher, explorer and professor but she is also a mother and I could see the admiration in her eyes as she showed me pictures of her two children.
“One is 10 and one is seven, and they both grew up in Madagascar,” Borgerson said.
She explained how her kids enjoy spending time in Madagascar.
“They’ve got a foot in each world,” Borgerson said. “Kids there, they all play together across all ages… they can just go for five hours and collect seashells and find crabs and just be kids, swim in the river.”
Borgerson finds exploring Madagascar to be challenging yet extremely enjoyable and rewarding and she will always be passionate about the process.