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Young Explorer Returns to Madagascar to Track Infectious Diseases

Young Explorer, Cara Brook, is back at work in Madagascar. Photo by Evaline Cheng; Morondava, Madagascar; August 2013.
Young Explorer, Cara Brook, is back at work in Madagascar. Photo by Evaline Cheng; Morondava, Madagascar; August 2013.

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the spread of infections diseases to humans through bats consumed as bushmeat. 

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Five months ago, I wrote to you from an airplane, bound from Johannesburg, South Africa to Antananarivo, Madagascar, nervously embarking on my first field season of dissertation research and plunging—for the first time in two years—back into the whirlwind of memories that is my Eighth Continent. I spent three and a half months in Madaland this past summer-that-was-winter, and after a six week sprint home in Princeton, New Jersey, I’m returning again to the island in the middle of the sea.

It seems a whole different lifetime ago that I sat in this same airport terminal, waiting to board the plane to Madagascar—I felt little more than a clueless child at the time, with a backpack, a dream, and not much of a plan. This time, I’m a second year PhD student with qualifying examinations looming on the horizon, and I am here to answer a question and collect boatloads of bat-related data.

Bats in the Spotlight

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, bats have received much attention in recent years for their role as reservoirs in many of the world’s emerging zoonotic diseases—including Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, SARs (and now MERs) coronaviruses, and of course, rabies and related lyssaviruses. Old World fruit bats of the suborder Megachiroptera—called megabats or flying foxes—have shown themselves to be particularly effective hosts for many of these highly virulent RNA viruses.

In Madagascar, one of a handful of places on the planet where both Asian and African clades of flying fox coexist, we wonder about viral sharing and transmission dynamics. And in a land where bats are consumed widely as bushmeat, we wonder about human risk for viral spillover. As a PhD student in disease ecology, I’m hoping to assess the impacts of hunting on declining populations of Malagasy flying fox and gauge what this disturbance and heightened human-animal interface means for both wildlife and human health.

A True Team Effort

My research committee member, Professor Bryan Grenfell, accuses me of leading the Tom Sawyer PhD. “Has anyone new offered to test your samples today?” he teases, poking his head into my office. I wrote something similar last September, but in my few weeks back at Princeton, the degree to which the outside world seems desperate to help me is kind of astonishing.

If all goes well, December will find me exporting serum to collaborators at Cambridge for antibody testing for henipaviruses, sending ectoparasites in ethanol to the University of Buffalo for bat fly identification and Bartonella screening, and delivering dry blood spots and microscope slide smears to Columbia University for PCR of hepatocystis and other blood parasites. And those are just the finalized collaborations—there are a handful more discussions still in the works…

I am blessed to be able to flit between the equally remarkable and yet completely different worlds that are Madagascar and Princeton. In Madaland, I learn how to ride a motorcycle, speak Malagasy, catch bats, draw blood, hire local help…In Princeton, I learn math—MATLAB and R—and I present posters and give talks and attend meetings and teach undergraduates. I love both kinds of learning, but I have a long ways to go.

I think of the PhD like a mountain I am climbing—if I stare at my feet and keep plugging away, I find myself inching forward. Sometimes, though, I lean back and look up, and the hill just seems so steep and long…But my committee member, Professor Andrea Graham, assures me, “There will come a wonderful moment, when you’re nearing the summit, that  you will finally see the route to the top.” Perhaps, and yet,  I still sometimes wish I could fast-forward five years and look down on the route instead of up. But then, I suppose, there will be mountains beyond mountains, and the journey will continue on…

Returning to a Second Home

It’s an exciting time to be returning to Madagascar, where they held the first elections since the 2009 political just last Friday. Things seem to have progressed peaceably, but it looks as though there will need to be a run-off in mid-December between the top two contenders, Jean-Lousi Robinson and Hery Rajaonarimampianina.

It’s strange to have spent the weekend picking apples and canoeing among the maples and be bound now for the sweltering streets and political tensions of Tana. In a way, it feels like going home as I leave it, too. One of my many friends in Peace Corps Madagascar told me that it is America now that leaves him lonely, and Madagascar is “the land where things make sense.”

For me, each country makes sense in its own way, and I feel sad to leave America this month, just as I was sad to leave Madagascar last month. And yet I am the lucky one, for my life spans both worlds—and I leave one only to say hello to the other. I get the best of every world, and it is making me happier than I’ve been in my entire life.

Read Cara’s entire blog series