Fourth Quarterly Report: How to Sum Up a Watson?

Here is my fourth quarterly report from the Watson Fellowship. If you're into math, you might notice that means it is also my final quarterly report. How to sum up a Watson year? It's impossible, but here goes. Below, find the briefest description of my final three months, followed my take-aways from the year as a whole. To catch up, feel free to (re)visit my firstsecond and third quarterly reports here.
A sign in the Edmonton Airport, on my way to study changing pathogen ecology in the Canadian Arctic.

Fourth Quarterly Report

Date: September 1, 2018
Countries you were in: Indonesia, Malaysia, Scotland, England, Canada
Countries for next quarter: United States, Madagascar (!)
Current location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

Dear Watson Foundation,

Quviasupit? Are you happy? This was the question my friend and fellow scientist Mialisa Nuna asked me the other day as we walked down a dirt road in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. We were on our way to buy candy char, a smoked and sweetened treat of pink-fleshed fish.

“How do you say, ‘yes’?” I asked her. The sun was stooping toward the northern rim of the sky. But up here, 200 miles above the Arctic circle, it wouldn’t dip below the horizon all night.

Iiiii,” Mialisa replied, a slow, falling-off assent formed in the throat.

Iiiii,” I imitated poorly. She smiled and nodded. Good enough. I was happy.

My home at the High Arctic Research Center in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut during a midnight rain.

How else could I answer, after a year of exploring collaborative survival with microbes?
Since I last wrote, I have dived among bombed coral reefs on Pom Pom Island, painted a nest-box for endangered hornbills in Malaysian Borneo, presented research on sand fleas and climate change at the Planetary Health Alliance Meeting in Edinburgh, glued backpacks onto hedgehogs on North Ronaldsay, interviewed the founder of the One Health MSc program at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and flown in a helicopter to follow snow geese across the Canadian Arctic. Already I sense memories slipping away: place names, faces, the order of things. The product, it turns out, is not an album of discrete pieces but a multidimensional picture of my world that continues to be sculpted.

Postcards collected from Malaysia, Indonesia, Scotland and Walla Walla. Written in Canada. Mailed to England, Malaysia, Seattle, Walla Walla, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Guam.

As I explored wildlife disease, I thought often of Aldo Leopold’s lament that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Leopold meant that a trained ecologist senses with painful clarity the damage humans inflict on ecosystems. But as I shifted my focus from macroscopic hosts to the microbes themselves, I came upon a somewhat hopeful truth: humans are not actually wounding the world. Rather, we are shifting power to the microbes. 

Consider, for a moment, the various pressures we exert on our planet, and notice how each one benefits microorganisms. Plastic pollution and oil spills: bacteria eat that. Stressed human bodies: an ideal home for pathogens. Endangered species in small populations: a more homogenous pool of immune systems with which to cope. Rapid environmental change: no problem when you evolve one million times faster than a human. Warming climate: faster replication. Overuse of antibiotics: an ideal situation for evolving resistance. I came to realize that we are not ruining our planet beyond capacity for life––we are simply heading for a microbial future. Microbes run our bodies and our planet; they are creative and intelligent; and if we wage a war against them, we are going to lose. Nobody wants to wage a losing war, so I set out this year to explore an alternative: not annihilation, but collaborative survival with microbes.

An ode to the Black Death of Edinburgh, Scotland---a microbial past.

A stuffed-microbe of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium behind 50 million deaths in medieval Europe.

I want to share four of the tools for collaborative survival to which I was introduced. First, to live well with microbes, we may need to place ourselves back into functioning ecosystems. This idea came to me during a tour of Dr. Renato Andreotti e Silva’s lab in the dusty cerrado of Brazil. Here, forest is rapidly being converted to pasture. Cattle ticks have become resistant to pesticides in the past decade, and the bacterial diseases they spread are costing the cattle industry billions of dollars. Dr. Andreotti researches alternatives to pesticides, principally vaccines, but we also discussed a fungus that attacks ticks, the restoration of habitat islands for tick-eating birds like cattle egrets, and a native forest canopy that would decrease livability for ticks. It dawned on me that organisms have been relying on food webs for their healthcare since life first evolved three-and-a-half billion years ago. After all, a pathogen of a pathogen is a friend. Modern healthcare, on the other hand, is a recent invention based on medicines that lose their usefulness after a few decades. It seems to me that inserting ourselves (and our cows) back into functioning, complex ecosystems will become an important component of healthcare in our future.

An Amblyomma tick through a microscope in Dr. Andreotti's lab in Campo Grande, Brazil.

Cattle art on the wall of Dr. Andreotti's home, depicting the local Nelore cattle.

In order to see creative solutions like the ones I discussed with Dr. Andreotti, we need to stop thinking of microbes as invisible agents of badness and start respecting them as interesting, capable organisms. That brings us to our second tool: noticing microbes with curiosity. One of my favorite writers, Anna Tsing, writes that a smelly brown mushroom called matsutake “can catapult us into the curiosity that seems to me the first requirement of collaborative survival in precarious times.” I find that microbes serve the same purpose. In Bali, I met a man named Nyoman Sugiarta who quit his job as a tourism hotel operator ten years ago for the life of a volunteer coral conservationist. When I asked what had caused this drastic change, Nyoman cited the day he learned that coral is not an inert rock, as his parents’ generation had assumed, but a living thing. It is a microbial monster composed of gelatinous, tentacular animals harboring verdant, single-celled algae within their translucent skin, under attack by an invasion of whip-tailed Vibrio bacteria. This epic entanglement is invisible to the incurious eye, but to Nyoman, it became the cause of a lifetime. “Once I knew all that,” Nyoman told me, “I couldn’t let the corals die. There’s so much left to learn!” My conversation with Nyoman was but one example of how powerful a force curiosity can be, allowing us to discover previously unimagined opportunities for collaborative survival with unrecognizable forms of life.

Diving to clean algae off a coral nursery near Pom Pom Island, Malaysia.

"Explore beyond what is visible or known." I found this perfect journal in the Edmonton Airport as I headed home on the very last day of my Watson year. I think that swirly design must be a single-celled organism---don't you?

Curiosity on its own, however, is not enough. I met many people who were unable to pursue their curiosity because they were hindered by poverty. The third tool is nothing new, but it’s critical: if we are going to live well with microbes, we must do something serious to reduce economic inequality. One of the most bruising stories comes from Josia Binamandraisoa, a woman I met in the outskirts of a Malagasy rainforest, and 67 of her neighbors who told me of their experiences with a skin parasite called the sand flea. Everyone with whom I spoke had been affected by the itchy pain of these fleas burrowing into their feet, and sand-flea season is expanding due to climate change. The nauseating reality is that this disease is preventable by simple measures—floors and shoes—yet these items remain unaffordable luxuries to workers in much of Madagascar, where the average daily income is only 70 cents. Instead, parents resort to spreading kerosene and insecticide over their children’s feet to prevent sand fleas from biting. This cheaper remedy is not an agent of collaborative survival, but a toxic weapon that damages both microbial and human life. The solution is obvious, but until a full-time job earns enough money to purchase shoes and a floor—the living wage it deserves—we will not have the resources to live well among microbes.

A sand flea embedded in a farmer's toe near Ranomafana, Madagascar.

At times, the suffering and intractability of poverty and neglected diseases got me down, especially because solutions to poverty often appear at odds with attempts to conserve our first tool, functioning ecosystems. Then, I came across the fourth tool: Planetary Health, an embryonic movement that seeks win-win solutions for ecosystems and human health. I was introduced to this concept by Etty Rahamawati and the rest of the amazing staff at the Alam Sehat Lestari hospital on Indonesian Borneo. In this region, illegal logging to pay for healthcare is a major source of deforestation contributing to the decline of endangered orangutans. To address this primate’s impending extinction, Alam Sehat Lestari was founded to provide high-quality healthcare for non-cash payments, including native seedlings. The hospital also buys-back chainsaws and offers microloans to help loggers shift to alternative livelihoods. Since its inception ten years ago, 25,000 hectares of secondary forest have grown back, and microbial diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea have decreased substantially. This is Planetary Health, the recognition that human and environmental health are deeply entangled, and any solution aimed at improving one will find greater success if it integrates both.

To support community health, Alam Sehat Lestari provides goats and training to widows in the community of Sukadana, Indonesia. Here, Ibu Hafsah and Ibu Setiawati check for pregnancy.

Ibu Hafsah's goat house against a backdrop of rice paddy and tropical rainforest.

At the Returning Fellows’ Conference in California, I presented these ideas to my 36 fellow Watsons and watched their presentations in turn. Each of us took a different approach to the year: focusing on one corner of a continent or circling the equator; navigating megacities or settling in rural communities; offering a listening ear to people in pain or celebrating self through glitter; probing a trauma from the personal past or launching into the unknown of strange lifeforms. As I felt inspired by each project, I also critiqued my own, and I realized that although gender and race are woven into the fabric of collaborative survival with microbes, I did not go to the same lengths as some of the other fellows to draw out these threads. As I return to my project sites in Madagascar and Borneo this year, I will challenge myself to be more educated, compassionate and willing to feel discomfort as I listen to another person’s truth. What I am helping and hurting with my presence? What problems and solutions have I overlooked because of my own privileges?

My sketch-notes of three talks from the Watson Returning Fellows Conference. 

My fellow Watson Fellows.

A month ago, the village next to Centre ValBio in Madagascar was ransacked by armed bandits called dahalo. Between eight and 20 bandits robbed five homes and multiple stores in Ambatolahy, stealing $1,100 and murdering Jean François Xavier Razafindraibe, a biodiversity guide with Centre ValBio. Western tourism and research have resulted in employment and, just last year, electricity for the village––a step toward living well with microbes––but they have also put Ambatolahy on the map for bandits. I am reminded that when I enter another’s home, even well-meaning actions can have unintended consequences. I don’t think the solution to banditry and violence is to remove myself from international research, but I do feel a renewed sense of caution when engaging with affairs that are only partly my own. When I return to the lemurs and viruses of Madagascar in October, I will do so with the light step and attentive ear of a guest.

Here I am making brownies for a dinner party outside the house of my friend and guide, Menja Raboavola, near Ranomafana, Madagascar.

At the beginning of my Watson journey a year ago, I sat in a patch of Brazilian sun, struggling to translate my day’s interviews with cattle ranchers, when my host Lygia Freitas sat down beside me. “Aqui é aroeira pica-pau,” she told me, squeezing my shoulders with her arm. Aroeira is a hard-timbered tree, the kind a persistent woodpecker might spend hours hammering only to dent. The phrase means, “Here is an aroeria woodpecker,” here is someone who doesn’t give up. At the Watson conference, I met people who struggled to cope, who dismantled and reassembled their itineraries, who overcame crises, who revised their dreams, who care deeply. I am humbled, inspired and challenged by all of you, my new family of aroeira woodpeckers.

A crimson-crested woodpecker explores Quinta do Sol in Brazil, my first home on the Watson.

To everyone: obrigada, misaotra, suksma, terima kasih, nakuukmik, quana, thank you.