Into the Wild
Faculty member Lucy Spelman, who teaches in the History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences department, healed gorillas in Rwanda.
For most people, tending to gorillas in the midst of lush
African greenery is the stuff of adventurous dreams. But healing exotic creatures
in the wild is all just part of a normal day’s work for Lucy Spelman, who teaches in the History, Philosophy +the Social Sciences (HPSS) department.
From 2006–09, the veterinarian – who specializes in
zoological medicine – worked in Rwanda as a field manager for the famed UC Davis Mountain Gorilla
One-Health Program. While there Spelman routinely kept the endangered species
from poachers’ snares and contracting human diseases. But the One-Health Program
does more than synchronize rescue efforts, she says. It operates under a “one-health”
philosophy – a belief that the wellbeing of a region depends on recognizing the
total unity of environment, animals and people.
Rwanda “was an incredible opportunity to work in rare situations that are, by
definition, collaborative,” Spelman explains. “We need to do this in other
places. It doesn’t have to be such a rare thing.”
urge to return home to the US, Spelman left Rwanda’s untamed frontier to share the
message of one-health medicine. “I had to go back and learn new things – and
spend time with people who have other perspectives,” explained
Spelman. “And I didn’t know what that was going to look like. But I did know that the academic environment
would start me down that path.”
now found her path at RISD. This fall the globe-trekker
is teaching The Art of Science Communication, a course that enables art students to communicate important
global issues to a general audience that is largely science-illiterate. And in the spring, she'll be teaching Biology of Animal-Human Interactions. Not surprisingly, her fall students are becoming versed in the one-health philosophy she understands so
well – a planetary mindset geared towards solving tough problems like hunger,
poverty and climate change through communication.
“We need to
help people feel empowered to change the world,” Spelman explains. “And that
doesn’t mean just reading a textbook. It means having a more science-literate
To nurture this, Spelman is asking her students to research
a topic of interest. For the final project, the students are asked to create a visually engaging presentation that communicates their topic. They are free to choose the media, says Spelman. Options include, a website, a fine art piece, an illustrated article, or new product designs. The ideal projects are aimed at a global audience with little or
no technical background on the chosen subject, Spelman explains. And the
projects-in-process this semester run the gamut from color therapy to
“I want students
to feel comfortable thinking strategically about how to communicate [the
research],” Spelman explains. “It’s about encouraging them to get the facts – and
then creatively work in different ways to communicate the information.”
plan to be away from the wild for long, however. While on break from teaching, she’ll
visit Karanambu Lodge, an eco-tourist destination in the
heart of Guyana, South America. She's been returning there to research wildlife since 1995. The pristine refuge rehabilitates abandoned river
otters, one of Spelman’s main interests. And eventually the veterinarian even hopes
to start a project of her own there that embodies the one-health mantra.
“I feel very optimistic that humans have solutions
for things. It’s our motivations that become questionable,” Spelman says. “Everything
is very connected. If the problems are linked, the solutions are linked.”
When not in the classroom, Spelman (also known as Dr. Lucy) is the Exotic Animal Specialist at Ocean State Veterinary Clinic in East Greenwich, RI.
, History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences