Into the Wild
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 forLucy 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 famedUC 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.
Living in 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.”
Feeling an 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 Idid know that the academic environment would start me down that path.”
Spelman has now found her path at RISD. This fall the globe-trekker is teachingThe 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 teachingBiology 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 society.”
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 nutrition.
“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.”
Spelman doesn’t plan to be away from the wild for long, however. While on break from teaching, she’ll visitKaranambu Lodge, an eco-tourist destination in the heart of Guyana, South America. She's been returning there to research wildlife since 1995. Thepristine 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.
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