Christopher Golden

Ecologist and Epidemiologist; 2014 Emerging Explorer

Picture of Chris Golden

Photograph by Jon Betz

Christopher Golden is studying the effects of global environmental trends on human health. His goal is to quantify how problems like wildlife depletion, land-use change, or climate change affect the well-being of people and then to link those results to actionable policies. Based at the Harvard School of Public Health, he was recently appointed director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages (HEAL). Golden has conducted ecological and public health fieldwork in Madagascar since 1999. His study on wildlife hunting in that country proved people and wildlife were in peril and inspired efforts to replace hunting with chicken husbandry. Two HEAL projects Golden is involved with are quantifying how the global fishery collapse affects food security and worldwide malnutrition; and in a partnership with Facebook, he is studying the role of green spaces and national parks in providing mental health benefits, increasing happiness, and alleviating stress.

Birthplace: Weymouth, Massachusetts

Current City: Boston, Massachusetts, and Maroantsetra, Madagascar

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

When I was growing up, I wanted to be one of the X-Men. When I finally figured out that wouldn't happen, I used to visit my grandparents in Palm Beach, Florida, during the summers and volunteer at a zoo. I set my sights on being a zookeeper for primates.

How did you get started in your field of work?

My interests started in this field of work when I was nine years old. We had to write an animal report and as I was flipping through an encyclopedia of animals, I fell in love with the ringtailed lemur. I got started with practical experience in my field of work when I was 16. I worked on an Earthwatch project with Luke Dollar in northwest Madagascar, studying the behavioral biology of the fossa, the island's largest predator.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to conservation and human health?

After having lived nearly half my life splitting time between the U.S. and the forests of Madagascar, I have found that humans' relationship to the environment is spiritual, inextricable, and necessary. Moreover, by maintaining environmental integrity, people's health and livelihoods benefit. My work seeks to better understand these relationships from a quantitative perspective—to enhance the effectiveness of conservation and to benefit the local people who have paved the way to my true education.

What's a normal day like for you?

I think what I love most about my job is that I never have a normal day. While based at Harvard, I can find myself writing, analyzing data, teaching students in a course that I co-teach at the School of Public Health, or walking through the Museum of Comparative Zoology or the "Glass Flowers" exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. While based in Madagascar, I can find myself plowing fields, harvesting vanilla and cloves, interviewing forest residents about their relationship with the environment, collecting blood samples from people to determine nutritional status, or "participating" in forest resource extraction like bat or bush pig hunts.

Do you have a hero?

My hero is Gerald Durrell, an old-school naturalist and the founder of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. He was a true inspiration to me for committing myself to Madagascar. I read his autobiographical novel, The Aye-Aye and I, and it re-affirmed my commitment to Madagascar and conservation. After reading this book as a 13-year-old, I sent a letter to him to tell him how much that book meant to me. Unfortunately, it arrived only months after his death. His wife, Lee, responded with a beautiful letter, and I had the tremendous fortune of finally meeting her in January of this year in Madagascar.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

It's tough to decide for both of these questions! One favorite experience in the field was a night that I went on a bat hunt with six other men. We sat, perched underneath a field of litchi trees, between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. During this time, they had a huge net attached to long poles to capture bats when they went to feed. During the common lulls between the action, we all just sat and told stories. I remember so many of these stories, about the origin of their village, the spiritual cosmology, their perspective on the importance of the forest. If these four hours were a seminar, it would have been my most instrumental course.

My most challenging experience has probably been adjusting to the significant cultural aspects to my research program. Learning Malagasy and becoming fluent in several local dialects was certainly a major challenge, but, I think my role as research director for a multilingual and multidisciplinary team has been the greatest challenge. I have team members from backgrounds in philosophy, woodworking, botany, veterinary medicine, animal biology, sociology, and economics. To make things more difficult, most of my team lives with me and I need to try to find a balance between personal lives, business relationships, and our research agenda!

What are your other passions? What do you do in your free time?

I am also passionate about food, film, hiking, fishing, and pleasure reading when I can find the time. My food expertise is very broad, having traveled to almost 70 countries; however, I think it can be summed up by saying that almost everything tastes great with barbecue sauce. Some of my favorite books: God of Small Things, The Last Convertible, East of Eden, and The Shadow of the Wind.

If you could have people do one thing to realize the connections between the environment and human health, what would it be?

I think that connecting with natural environments is so important. I do my best thinking, innovation, and creation while lost in the woods.


Picture of Chris Golden walking toward a village

Photograph by Jon Betz


I think that connecting with natural environments is so important. I do my best thinking, innovation, and creation while lost in the woods.

—Christopher Golden

About Golden's Research