First Quarterly Report: Three Months on the Watson

The Watson Foundation doesn't require much in the way of deliverables. The only products it requests are four quarterly reports in the form of "long letters home" and a short presentation at our final conference. Here's the first of those reports.

First Quarterly Report

Date: October 27, 2017
Countries you were in: Brazil, Madagascar
Countries for next quarter: Madagascar, Indonesia
Current location: Centre ValBio, Fianarantsoa Province, Madagascar

Dear Watson Foundation,

I’m writing from a slate-tiled balcony attached to Centre ValBio above a bamboo rainforest in eastern Madagascar. The research station is nestled into a cliff face. To exit on ground level, I can walk down three flights of stairs, or up one. Either way, I’ll be surrounded by tree ferns, rain that rises from the ground as mist, and the tinkling song of Souimanga sunbirds, an endemic species that fills the ecological role of hummingbirds. Right now I’m watching a Mascarene martin swoop insects at eye-level. The sun is casting a brilliant white light on Cumulus congestus clouds, a brewing thunderstorm. Today is my break between lemur-trapping sites, so I’ll be cozy and dry as I listen to raindrops strike the roof.

Looking down on Centre ValBio Research Station from Ranomafana National Park.

As you’ll probably hear from thirty-nine other Watson Fellows, my experiences over the first quarter of this year have been too expansive to summarize in a letter, but here goes! I spent my first two months in Mato Grosso do Sul, a Brazilian cattle-raising state that you can locate by pointing your finger smack-dab in the center of a map of South America. My initial plan was to study peccary leptospirosis and its impact on food security in Pantanal. That didn’t work out. The Wildlife Conservation Society unexpectedly closed its Pantanal program a few months before I arrived, so I was welcomed into the Watson by scientists at loose ends, without funding, unemployed. At least, I figured, my worries were minor compared to theirs.

Lygia led me up to the edge of a cliff in Cerrado with my eyes closed so she could surprise me with this panoramic view of Pantanal below us.

I feel extremely lucky to have found a homestay with two women who I’ll call friends for life, environmental journalist Lygia Freitas and Cerrado botanist Duca Andrade Santos. Duca spent the past decade as outreach director for the WCS, and she’s called “the Mayor of Taboco” because she’s the person everyone turns to for help. I lived at Quinta do Sol, the postage-stamp nature preserve Duca built from scratch. At first, I was disappointed to realize I would be living not in my dream ecosystem, the Pantanal wetland, but its arid neighbor, the Cerrado savannah. That disappointment turned to gratitude as I fell in love with Cerrado’s wacky fruits, endemic buriti-palm swamps called veredas, and semi-deciduous forests.

Alexine, me, and Duca looking out over an expanse of intact Cerrado ecosystem.

Duca and I crafted a low-cost research project: a survey of vaccination in domestic cats and dogs. The project is a step toward conservation of jaguars, pumas, ocelots, maned wolves and crab-eating foxes, all of which can contract canine distemper and other diseases from pets. It was also an ideal excuse to meet fifty of Duca’s neighbors and move quickly beyond small-talk into topics like zoonosis, human-wildlife conflict, and vaccination. If we stopped by a house between the hours of 12 and 2, we were nearly always invited to stay for amorço, a lavish meal for which “lunch” is a bland translation. One of my favorite menus was feijoão (soupy, salty brown beans), arroz (white rice), salada (raw cabbage or tomato with vinegar) and cebollada (sautéed chunks of zebu beef with onions).

One rancher told me about his practice of placing dead cows in termite nests as a form of pest control. A vegetable-farmer treats her ill chickens with injections of milk. A man from town shared his pathogen-specific protocols for eating beef, explaining in Portuguese, “To prevent rabies, foot-and-mouth disease, and carbuncle, you just have to cook it well, but brucellosis is hard to kill––you must cover it with salt and leave it in the freezer for at least one night before cooking.” I have no idea how these practices align with institutional scientific knowledge, but I’d be interested to test them on a sort of Microbial Mythbusters.

I taught ultimate frisbee for gym class at Taboco's public middle-school.

Beyond the anecdotes, I developed a deep map of Taboco through its culture surrounding animal disease. Nearly all residents vaccinate against rabies, which affects humans, but very few against other diseases that can cross into wildlife, like canine distemper and parvovirus. As a conservation tool, I’m proposing that the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, whose mission includes endangered-species health, and the Ministry of Health, which runs the annual rabies campaign, work together to offer vaccinations against critical wildlife zoonoses to Cerrado pets.

Need a rabies vaccine? Are you a dog or cat? You've come to the right place.

When I wasn’t discussing puppy diarrhea over lunch, I realized my dream of swimming with giant vitoria rede water lilies in Pantanal, completed my first freshwater scuba-dive in the nobody-knows-how-deep Lagoa Misteriosa, and showered in the wind-blown Rio Peixe waterfall. I waded up to my waist through a mossy slot canyon at Vale do Bugio until Lygia noticed an enormous rattlesnake, coiled on a chilly boulder and blocking the way forward. (On my way out, I counted the bodies of seven bloated bats floating around me, another good reason to leave.) I learned to vaccinate cats against rabies by first holding them up to a tree, which they conveniently latch onto with their razor claws, and then injecting the bubblegum pink serum under a tent of skin. I played ultimate frisbee with middle schoolers, surveyed a forest for peccary-edible fruits, drank guaraná soda and terere tea at barbeque dance parties, and sat in on a falconry class at the Federal University. For my last week in the country, I attended an infectious disease conference called DIERN and incubated a whole colony of thoughts on collaborative survival with microbes, the topic of my most recent blog post. The best moments surfaced when I stuck my neck out and struck up conversations with strangers.

The Lagoa Misteriosa sinkhole before my first freshwater scuba-dive.

On a personal note, I struggled in Brazil with the lack of structure. When I woke up without an agenda, I was pulled in two directions: inertia coaxed me to the computer screen, where I’d organize data or write a blog, while momentum urged me to hike through a vereda or plant seedlings in Duca’s agroforestry garden. Either way, I felt uncertain if I was doing the right thing. How late should I sleep? How often should I help wash dishes? I reflected on my anxious thoughts, which I like to call brain weasels, and realized how much I fear disappointing the people I look up to. Living, eating, and working in the same home as my mentors gave me little space in which I felt okay being imperfect. When I opened up about these insecurities in a blog post, Lygia and Duca responded with tears, hugs, and hours of advice about the struggle to balance life goals, avoid workaholism, and just be happy. They helped me relax. I started singing while I cooked, sleeping in a bit later, and saying no thanks to invitations when I felt overwhelmed. Duca and Lygia challenged me to love generously and live intentionally. I can’t thank them enough for helping me transition from the rigid scaffold of college into the open-ended uncertainty of a Watson year.

Facing my fear of heights by peering out over the cliff of the Rio Peixe waterfall.

My flight from São Paulo to Johannesburg was delayed by an hour-and-a-half, just long enough to strand me in South Africa for a night with no currency and no clue. I managed to arrange an afternoon tour to Lion Park, where I met the megafauna species I’d grown up watching on TV: white lions and sacred ibis, blesbok and giraffes. My taxi driver gave me a thorough, unsolicited, and hugely appreciated lesson on Apartheid and South African politics. The detour to continental Africa turned out to be a highlight of my Watson experience, perhaps because it was so unexpected.

Unusual white lions at the Lion Park outside Johannesburg.

The next day, I arrived in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, or just Tana. In the customs line, I was handed a pocket-sized tourist pamphlet advertising the tropical beaches of Nosy Be and a public service announcement: Pour prévenir la maladie à virus Ebola, eviter de changer de siège assigné au cours du vol. English translation: “For prevention of Ebola virus disease, avoid changing seat assigned during the flight.” Intriguing, from a disease perspective, if a bit unnerving. In Tana, everything felt different than anything I’d felt before. Verdant green rice paddies filled roadside ditches. The smoke of burning garbage was heavy in my nostrils. Within 48 hours I was vomiting, and an outbreak of pneumonic plague had one out of every four pedestrians wearing facemasks. The streets felt hostile. After three frantic days of organizing research equipment, I was relieved (and more than a little nauseated) to leave the city behind on a nine-hour drive to Centre ValBio, my current home in the eastern highland rainforest.

A market in Antananarivo.

Plague surveillance in rural Madagascar: a military-medical checkpoint where cars are stopped and the passengers are asked if they feel sick.

My initial plan was to assist Dr. Sarah Zohdy with her lemur-disease project, but when Sarah decided against visiting Madagascar with her new baby, I found myself running Project Hydra. For every challenge I tackle, three more sprout in its place. There are the scientific tools, camping equipment, food, schedule, transportation. There are the traps. There are the Microcebus mouse lemurs, or tsitsidy in Malagasy, world’s smallest and cutest primate. There’s blood to draw, lice to collect, hairs to tweeze, feces to scoop. There is money to wire, cash to withdraw, receipts to submit. There was the government minister who suddenly announced he would be tagging along for a week in the backcountry, and the equally sudden cancellation of said visit. There was the evening a Malagasy graduate student knocked on my bedroom door to inform me he would be joining the project. Somehow, I turned out to be a grad student’s mentor. Rakotondrasoa Maminiaina Gaetan, the student, has turned out to be an integral part of Team Tsitsidy.

Our nocturnal, outdoor "lab" on a blue tarp.

An especially orange mouse lemur, Microcebus rufus. We will let her go back on the same tree where we caught her, once we've stolen her lice and taken a blood sample.

On expedition days, Team Tsitsidy swells to include fourteen porters, a local guide, American scientists, Malagasy researchers, and a cook. In interstitial moments, the team condenses to its nucleus: me, Gaetan, and our expert guides, Zakamanana François (Zaka) and Rabaovola Bernadette (Menja). We spend eight days at a stretch camping in the fragmented forests around rural villages, isolated from internet and electronics by a half-day hike. These days are precious. My mouth waters over unsalted white rice with round-beans. Uninterrupted, I sit cross-legged on a rice bag and read book after book. I press ferns in my journal. Some afternoons, I trade sketches for Malagasy words with girls who intrude shyly into our camp after school.

Our local cook, Velomanana Edmonde, serving bowls of white rice for Team Tsitsidy at our camp near the village of Ampitavanana.

Inside Centre ValBio, I’ve struggled with the sterility of life in a research dorm. I miss the fruit bats that roosted in my bathroom at Quinta do Sol, the tree frogs that lived in my toilet, and the jubilant smiles of Duca and Lygia at breakfast. Another regret is that, ironically, I’ve had little opportunity to explore the primary rainforest for which Ranomafana is famous. My focus on fragmentation and disease draw me to the seedy outskirts of ecosystems. I wade through vary, rice paddies of translucent orange water and shocking green leaf, and tavy, slash-and-burn agriculture whose smoke obscures all but the nearest mountains.

The vegetable market in Ranomafana Town, where Menja helped me purchase tomatoes, ground beef, and rolls so I could prepare American-style hamburgers for Team Tsitsidy.

Rice paddies are flooded because rice can grow dry or wet, and the water keeps pests at bay.

On the fifth of December, I’ll ship a box of dried blood, ear lice, and lemur hair off to the States and set out to explore more of Madagascar. I have my eye on the spiny dry forest, the boulevard of baobabs, the Ifaty coral reefs (which I’ve heard are thoroughly bleached, making for an interesting comparison to my next stop), the gorgeous mitso color of Phelsuma day geckos, and any bird-watching tour I can join for cheap. On Christmas, I’ll fly from Tana to Bali. I’ve heard the Indonesian island will be on collective holiday through the first half of January, so I’m looking forward to solitude, writing up my thoughts, and acquainting myself with the local curries and seafood and birdlife before diving (get it?) into a project with Reef Check Indonesia. I’ll be helping two coral conservationists, Derta and Jaya, evaluate how successful their reef restoration program has been so far. I can’t wait to move in with a homestay, survey diseased reefs by scuba, and improve my limited Bahasa Indonesia vocabulary from the few tantalizing lessons I took this summer in a Minneapolis Starbuck’s.

The surface is ringed in forest as I float in Lagoa Misteriosa. I'm excited to do saltwater diving in my next country, Indonesia.

The past seems like a lifetime ago, and the future is nearly unimaginable through the tangled underbrush of the present. Thank you, Watson Foundation, for trusting me with this enormous year. Until next quarter!

Yours truly in bamboo and bacteria, Microcebus and microbes, vary and viruses,