Muskrat Love (and Other Animals)

From tracking wild pumas in Chile, to looking at local rat populations, Melissa Grigione, PhD, is trying to make the world a safer place for all animals—and pass that knowledge and passion on to her students at Pace.

Melissa Grigione, PhD, and her husband, Ron Sarno, PhD, tagging burrowing owls.

“The animals may change, but my interest hasn’t,” says Melissa Grigione, PhD, director of Pace’s graduate program in environmental science who is currently spearheading a number of research projects to study and protect the habitats of wild animals.

Grigione, who began her college career in a pre-veterinary program at McGill University, soon realized her real passion was the conservation and protection of wild species.  “My interest began with marine mammals—dolphins, manatees—and eventually spread to other animals. I was in Africa twice, in West Africa to study elephants, and then I branched out to studying endangered land carnivores,” Grigione explains.

Currently, Grigione is studying the native (yet seldom seen) inhabitants of the New York area: mink, bobcats, weasels, and muskrats. These species have very healthy populations, she notes, which allows her to study the concept of conservation from the other end of the spectrum. “We ask the opposite question: What makes these animals common? How are they able to ‘make a living’?” she says, “I studied the requirements they needed to live in a healthy fashion—the space they needed, spatial ecology, then I moved to their diets, and eventually I moved on to the parasites and diseases affecting these populations.”

Last summer, Grigione and her husband, a professor of ecology and genetics at Hofstra, took their children on a six-week RV-ing adventure in the Badlands of South Dakota. “The kids just love, love, love to study animals,” she says, “And with the help of the National Park Service, we studied the diets of bison, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep… While we were in South Dakota, we took a drive to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is a Lakota Sioux reservation. There was a college on the reservation, so we went to visit. There were no students, but there was one woman walking around the campus. It turned out that the woman was the CFO of the college,” Grigione laughs.

Melissa Grigione, PhD, and family

The chance meeting ended up becoming an exciting opportunity—not only for Grigione but also for Pace. This summer, Grigione plans on expanding her research and returning to the reservation to teach at the college.  “I like the melding of the traditional and the scientific. There are elders on the reservation, and I think we have a lot to learn from one another. I’d eventually like to bring some of their faculty to Pace; I think it would be a fruitful experience for our students in New York,” she says.  She also hopes that someday in the future, graduate students at Pace will be able to travel with her to South Dakota.

“Animals enrich our lives and I feel I really need to do the right thing to affect change… I want to inspire students to do amazing things. I want to turn them on to the field that’s turned me on for so many years,” Grigione says. “Seeing my students blossom is truly incredible. What’s unique about our graduate environmental science program is that it’s more than just science—it’s policy, law, environmental communication. This diversity means our students come out equipped with skills they need to share with the rest of the world that’s so hungry for solutions.”