Young USM grad off to study Madagascar's lemurs

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GORHAM — Sam Matey, an 18-year-old soon-to-be graduate of the University of Southern Maine, will be studying lemurs in Madagascar this summer, which is “a fulfillment of a childhood dream.” 

Matey, of Gorham, will be among the 1,400 USM students receiving diplomas Saturday in Portland, graduating with a degree in environmental science and policy. He began taking classes at USM when he was 15, after being home schooled by his parents, Laurl and Chris.

“I just sort of ran out of high school, and college was just the next logical step. But I was young, I didn’t want to move across the country, so I ended up at the only college I could walk to: USM in Gorham. And it turned out to have a great program in what I was already interested in: environmental science,” Matey said. 

He never planned to graduate from college at 18. 

“There was never any timeline. I was just taking it a semester at a time. Last year, I looked around and realized ‘I could get a degree next year,'” he said. 

Matey has been interested in environmental science ever since he read Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” when he was 7. 

“Human civilization has reached the point where we’re making fundamental changes to our planet’s major systems,” he said. “It’s now our call as a species what temperature we want the earth to be at. And I’m interested in finding ways to preserve some of the positive aspects of the natural world and finding a sustainable way for humanity to live.” 

Karen Wilson, Matey’s academic advisor and an associate research professor in USM’s environmental studies department, said Matey is “a very unique individual.”

“He is incredibly smart and intelligent, but what’s wonderful about Sam is he has the kindness and the heart to go with it. He’s been a real great addition to our classes,” she said.  

Matey plans to attend graduate school eventually, either in environmental science or in a specialized sub-field such as conservation ecology. He interned with Maine Conservation Voters last summer, but he wants to gain more experience in the field before graduate school.  

While searching for jobs, he discovered a research assistant position at the Madagascar Biodiversity Partnership, an NGO research program focused on community-based education and conservation. 

Matey will be helping monitor two native species of lemur, the Greater Bamboo and the Black-and-White Ruffed. In addition, he will teach local people Excel, which is an “in-demand skill,” organize data and assist with the group’s reforestation program. 

The job, he said, “represents a lot of what I’m interested in. It’s a conscious effort to try to restore ecosystem services.”

Matey, who speaks French and is learning Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, will be in the country from July until October. 

“I’ve kind of always dreamed of something like this. Going to another part of the world to see exotic creatures and try to save them. It’s really a fulfillment of a childhood dream,” he said. 

He has not yet made plans for after Madagascar, but he would like to work for the Democratic 2020 presidential nominee and also plans to study for the graduate school admissions test. In addition, he writes a weekly online newsletter, called The Weekly Anthropocene, which he calls “an accessible rundown of environmental and policy news.” 

“The sky’s the limit for him, but he’s also very realistic about taking some time to travel and to do some internships before he moves on to his next adventure,” Wilson said. “He realizes that he’s not in a rush for the next step. I’m really looking forward to where he goes next because I’m sure it will be an adventure.” 

But first on his list is graduating from college, which he said “feels totally in step with the rest of my life.”

“I’ve never really followed the normal track on things. I learned to read when I was 3 or 4. It feels both strange but totally natural. This is perfectly in continuity with everything else,” he said. 

Jane Vaughan can be reached at 780-9103 or at jvaughan@keepmecurrent.com. 

Sam Matey, 18, of Gorham will graduate from college Saturday.