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Primatologist Linda Fedigan honoured for Order of Canada and a lifetime of innovation

Fedigan’s mentorship and groundbreaking research to be spotlighted at Nov. 30 ceremony


Linda Fedigan receiving her Order of Canada medal from Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, during the investiture ceremony in Rideau Hall, February 17, 2017. Photo courtesy Linda Fedigan

By Heath McCoy
November 23, 2016

When renowned University of Calgary primatologist Linda Fedigan was appointed to the Order of Canada last summer, the citation highlighted both her groundbreaking research into primate societies and her lifetime of mentorship to successive generations of primatologists.

Professor Mary Pavelka, a top primatologist in her own right and former head of the university’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, can speak to both areas intimately.

Pavelka has the distinction of having been one of Fedigan’s earliest doctoral students (her second, to be exact, back in 1988) as well as one of her most prominent colleagues with both women advancing knowledge in the reproductive patterns of female primates.

So when Pavelka speaks of her mentor’s legacy in the days leading up to a Nov. 30 ceremony honouring Fedigan for her Order of Canada, her praise is fittingly profound.

“Linda Fedigan meant everything to my career,” says Pavelka. “Her legacy is one of genuine intellectual curiosity about the evolution of primate societies and her interest is contagious. Once you’ve caught it, you’re hooked. And then, when you’re associated with Linda, you become a part of this amazing network that brings you intellectual, social and financial support through grants, that will forward your career.”

World leader in the field of primatology

Over the course of her own career, Fedigan has emerged as a world leader in the field of primatology. Among her many achievements, she served as a Canada Research Chair in Primatology and Bioanthropology for 14 years and in 2005 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She also earned an American Society of Primatologists Distinguished Primatologist Award and for over 30 years she has received NSERC Discovery Grants for her research. In addition, her academic study of the prominent role of women in science was highly influential.

One of Fedigan’s greatest contributions was in establishing the world-class Àrea de Conservación Guanacaste research station in Costa Rica 33 years ago, where she continues to conduct innovative research on capuchins, howlers and spider monkeys.

Perhaps there’s no better example of Fedigan’s mentorship than the fact that she has tapped one of her former PhD students, Amanda Melin — now an assistant professor at the University of Calgary — to one day take over the Costa Rican field site (along with another former student).  

“I’m taking a lesson from the red squirrel,” Fedigan jokes. “They cede their territory to their daughters, so that’s what I’m doing also.”

Mentoring grad students ‘more and more important to me’

Fedigan takes great pride in the role she’s played in the careers of so many. “I’ve always had a lot of graduate students and mentoring them became more and more important to me,” she says. “I’ve had a number of them who have gone on to good positions in the field.”

The impact of her mentorship will be clear on Dec. 1 when Fedigan is honoured at a Festschrift Symposium at the Banff Centre. A festschrift is a book honouring a respected academic, made up of contributions from their colleagues and former PhD students. At this elite conference in Banff, presentations for the festschrift will be presented in honour of Fedigan. Former students and colleagues from across North America and as far away as Europe and Japan will be attending.

The fact that both the festschrift and the Order of Canada speak to a lifetime of mentorship and collaboration is truly meaningful to Fedigan.

Learned the Japanese tradition of handing off data

“Collaboration has always been very important to me,” she says. “In my early days I studied Japanese macaques and the Japanese take a different approach than westerners when it comes to field research, in that they’re very collaborative. They hand off their data to the next researcher. So when I started studying Japanese macaques I was immediately handed 20 years of data. That was an important lesson for me and started me off on the path I’ve followed.”

She adds: “That’s one of the main reasons that both the festschrift and the Order of Canada have been so humbling for me. I’ve had a long career, I have tenacity, and I’m big believer in long-term research and international collaborations, so to be honoured for these things is very gratifying.”