What's a Watson? My Plans for the Year to Come

What's a Watson, you ask? Great question. Actually called the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in honor of IBM's founder, it's an amazing program that funds 40 just-graduated-from-college students to travel the world for precisely 12 months and follow their passions. I am extremely lucky to be one of those  students, along with my fellow Whittie Sam Perkins. If you want more deets, check out these articles from the Whitman Newsroom and our student paper, the Whitman Wire.

My project, as described on the Watson website, is titled, "One Health: The Human Impacts of Emerging Wildlife Diseases." Here's my official project description:

During my Watson year, I will explore five manifestations of ecosystem disease. In Brazil, leptospirosis is spreading from endangered peccaries to cattle. In Madagascar, deforestation is ushering people into contact with rodent vectors and lemur viruses. Coral bleaching is impacting commercial fisheries in Indonesia and dive tourism in Malaysia. And in the remote north of Russia, thawing reindeer carcasses are bringing once-eradicated anthrax back from the dead. In each country, I will begin by investigating the biology of the disease itself – its pathogen, host, and habitat – by spending several weeks in the field with ecologists and the local community. My guiding questions ask: How are you and your community affected by this disease? What related cultural practices or stories exist? What is the root problem? What actions are being taken to mitigate the impacts? By synthesizing my experiences with ecologists and community members, I hope to gather local solutions for the global threat of emerging wildlife disease, and their impact on biodiversity and human health.

This map from the Watson website shows my destiations: Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Russia (or another Arctic nation.)

Here's a more detailed overview:

August to September: Taboco, Brazil. A small town in the Cerrado (dry grass and shrubland) adjacent to the Pantanal (the largest wetland in the world). I'll be working with a biologists from a local environmental nonprofit, Instituto Ambiental Quinto do Sol, to study two diseases. The first is leptospirosis, contagious between endangered white-lipped peccary and abundant domestic cattle. The second is canine distemper, an illness of pet dogs and cats that has the potential to infect wild felids (read: jaguars, pumas, and ocelots.) I may work alongside scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund, as well.

October to December: Ranomafana, Madagascar. A popular national park with tourists and the home of endangered, endemic lemurs. I'll be working from an international research station, Centre ValBio, to assist in a mouse-lemur-trapping project. We're trying to find out exactly how deforestation effects the possibility of spillover, the situation when a pathogen switches hosts to a human being from another animal species.

January to February: Bali, Indonesia. I will be helping monitor coral bleaching, a global crisis in which heat-stressed corals evict their algal symbionts, become weakened by hunger, and often die due to a secondary infection of Vibrio bacteria. I hope to converse with local dive-tourism guides and fisherpeople to understand how communities have adapted to this cyclic bleaching in the past, and what's changing now that the cycles are happening more frequently.

March to May: Borneo, Malaysia. I hope to make connections between rainforest conservation with access to human health care. Other projects of interest include ice-ice seaweed disease and a comparison to the canine distemper of Brazil.

June to July: The Arctic. Russia? Canada? Finland? I have many options and nothing set in stone (or ice). But I want to explore the melting permafrost and see how climate change interacts with pathogens and hosts, both wildlife and human, to impact indigenous subsistence.

One of my seemingly-infinite preparations was to buy an underwater camera. I found a used GoPro Hero 2 on Craig's List (what a deal) and tried to figure out how the jumble of plastic pieces fit together.

Of course, I had to try the thing out, too. Here I am snorkeling through the reeds of Lake Calhoun, an urban picnic spot in Minneapolis. There's a nearby swimming area, but I didn't notice any other snorkels. I may have attracted a few stares.

The Watson begins... tomorrow! I plan to blog as often as I can, hopefully every day. If you want to follow along, just type your e-mail in the Subscribe box to get notified when I post something new. And don't be afraid to leave comments. I'd love to hear your thoughts, requests, questions, or suggestions as I head into the year.

An enormous thanks to everyone who's been there for me along the way. I hope this blog will repay some of your support in vicarious adventure.