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Return to the Eighth Continent

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats.  ——— I write to you...

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats. 


I write to you from the air, bound from Johannesburg, South Africa for Antananarivo, Madagascar, capital city of the Eighth Continent. It’s been nearly two years since my last visit to Africa and even longer since the last time I set foot on the island of Madagascar, and in that time, much in my life has changed. Still, though, the memories of Africa feel fresh in my mind, and I am struck by a bittersweet nostalgia for the wide-eyed wonder with which I first made this journey back in 2010, mingled with more seasoned expectations for all that is to come in the future.

For those of you who do not know me already, and for others who might not have heard from me in a while, I suppose it makes sense to begin with a bit about myself, though I’ll try not to bore you with too many personal details as I write from Mada-land over the next  three months. God knows that bloggers can get carried away…But for formality’s sake, I should tell you that my name is Cara Brook and that I am a first-year PhD student, studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Professor Andy Dobson’s lab at Princeton University. This time, I’m traveling to Madagascar to embark on my first field season of dissertation research. In my past life, I came to the island in the middle of the sea as a conservation intern with World Wildlife Fund, an idealistic 22-year-old with an interdisciplinary environmental science degree from Stanford University, hell-bent on saving the world.

At 25, I still want to save the world, but I like to think I am a little older, a little wiser, a little more practical these days, and I delude myself into claiming to have at least a vaguely delineated plan for how I might actually accomplish these goals. We shall see. I’m on Africa time now, and my past experiences have taught me that Africa in general—and Madagascar in particular—is nothing if not unexpected. Since my last trip to Mada-land, I’ve been blessed enough to find opportunities to pursue science and conservation all over the world, and I like to think that I’ve grown a little bit more with each passing journey. There was an eight-month stint as a project manager in Kenya, a brief spell as a GIS technician for a land trust in California, then another eight months spent trapping and radio-collaring white tailed deer and gray wolves in northern Minnesota. And then this past year of graduate school, the single most intellectually stimulating environment in which I have ever been so lucky as to land myself. While intimidated and insecure beyond measure, I feel smarter by the day just being at Princeton and absorbing the brilliant workings of so many incredible minds around me…

All that is to say that I journey to Madagascar now as more than an excited kid with a dream. After a year buried in Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the Royal Society and a semester spent plugging away at differential equations in MATLAB, I’ll even dare to call myself a scientist—more specifically, a disease ecologist, interested in the impacts of habitat fragmentation on biodiversity assemblages and what those impacts mean for pathogen transmission among animal reservoirs that pose risk for zoonotic disease spillover to human communities. That was a mouthful and very grad school-ish in your eyes, I am sure, but hopefully, I’ll be able to translate that somewhat more effectively if you manage to stay reading through the summer. If not, see David Quammen’s new book, Spillover, for an eloquent synopsis of everything I want to do with my life and work…and for the nonfiction book I wanted to be the one to write. Ah well—scooped before I even started, I guess…

I’ll save sharing the exact details of my work for my arrival in the field when (if?) I actually manage to sort out those details, but for now, suffice it to say that I am heading to Ranomafana National Park in southeastern Madagascar to examine human land use impacts on metapopulation dynamics of disease. That’s a fancy way of saying I want to see how deforestation separates communities of animals that carry human diseases and what that fragmentation means for the risk of those animals coming into closer contact with people and potentially spilling their pathogens over into human communities. Diseases of interest include bubonic plague (yup, it still exists!) from rodents and a number of nasty viral pathogens from bats, among them henipaviruses similar to the Nipah virus which killed a bunch of people in Malaysia and Bangladesh in the late 90s and lyssaviruses similar to rabies, with which you are all no doubt familiar.

I’m a strange girl, I guess, and I think pathogen science is fascinating—the more dangerous-sounding the better—but I also view disease ecology as a means to a broader conservation ends. You’ll hear much more about it in the months to come, but I am collaborating with a host of folks from Stony Brook University, the CDC, and the health-care delivery NGO, Partners-in-Health, under a ‘One Health’ initiative to see if we can unite environmental conservation and human public health in the Ranomafana region. The idea is that a healthy ecosystem will mean healthy people, and maybe we can save the animals, the people, and the forest all at once. It’s a grand and exciting vision, and I’m eager to see how it all plays out. American author John Steinbeck once wrote in his environmental treatise The Log from the Sea of Cortez that, “Either nothing is important or all of it is.” And those words could not hold more true for conservation. My first Madagascar experiences with WWF taught me that you cannot study the natural world in isolation, for as ever-wise Steinbeck also noted, “ecology has a synonym which is ALL”, and that ‘all’ encompasses the human ecosystem, as well. And so I return to the Eighth Continent to investigate this ‘all’ for my PhD. Ecology is the science of organisms and their interactions, and I want to explore all of the organisms and the mechanisms by which they interact—among them, disease—in Ranomafana National Park. I cannot wait for the adventure that the future is sure to hold…


NEXT: The Threat of Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases to Wildlife

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Meet the Author

Cara Brook
My name is Cara Brook, and I am a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute for Basic Research at UC Berkeley. I study the role of bats as reservoirs for some of the world's most deadly emerging viruses, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. I bridge field ecology, cellular immunology, and quantitative epidemiology to investigate this question, at both within-host and population levels. I blog from my field site while tracking down fruit bat viruses in central Madagascar. Tonga soa --Cara E. Brook is the recipient of two research grants from the Nation al Geographic Society.