University of Iowa

Orangutans, Rainforests, and Research

February 2nd, 2015

The following reflection originally appeared on the UI College of Public Health news page.

Brandon Woods spent the summer of 2014 in Borneo on an internship sponsored by EcoHealthNet, a training program for graduate students interested in multidisciplinary health and infectious disease research. Woods, a student in the DVM-MPH combined degree program offered by the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Iowa College of Public Health, wrote about his adventure.

Brandon Woods

Brandon Woods in Borneo (photo courtesy of UI College of Public Health)

Spending the summer hiking through the tropical rainforests of Borneo conducting research on one of the most endangered Great Apes in the world seemed like an incredible dream when I applied for the EcoHealthNet research exchange. When I discovered that I was accepted for this project, my jaw dropped and I was grinning from ear to ear. After researching rainforest packing lists and bidding farewell to my family and friends, I boarded the plane and was bound for an unimaginable adventure.

The two goals of my project were to study the abundance of endangered wild orangutans in different habitat gradients and survey for the prevalence of viruses and parasites. My project was divided into three stages: collecting samples in the field, testing the samples in the lab, and analyzing the results with my research mentor. Working with a small team of forest rangers and brushing up on my Boy Scout orienteering skills, I conducted four line transects in each of nine sites. During each transect, I searched the jungle canopy to count orangutans and their nests, recorded my observations, and collected fecal samples.

Trekking through thick rainforests across rough terrain made my sweatband soggy, but the diversity of wildlife and plants that I saw kept my spirits high and dry. After my fieldwork ended, I moved into the air-conditioned and immaculate laboratory, which was a refreshing change from the mud, heat, and humidity. With help from a lab scientist, I applied my knowledge of microbiology and extracted DNA, conducted Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) for virus screening, and performed diagnostic parasitology. 

My project wasn't all work and no play; I also got a taste of the local cuisine and culture – spotting Proboscis Monkeys on a Kinabatangan River cruise and savoring some of the best seafood in the world were two of my highlights. Saying goodbye to the colorful country of Malaysia was bittersweet, but I spent one week at the EcoHealth Alliance headquarters in New York City collaborating with my mentor on the project's conclusions.

As a veterinary medicine student, this multidisciplinary research project epitomized my professional goals. I'm interested in the crossroads of human and animal health, and gaining ground-work experience learning about emerging zoonotic diseases is a jump-start to my career. Collaborating with experts in wildlife conservation and international public health reinforces my goal of earning a dual DVM-MPH degree. My EcoHealthNet research exchange on orangutan conservation in the jungles of Borneo was an outstanding educational experience!

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