Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center
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Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center

September 12, 2019

You know, every single one of us has a daily
life. We get up in the morning and we go to work or whatever it is that we do and then
“Oh my gosh, I have to put gas in the car; I’ve got to stop at the grocery store.” Whatever
it is that you have to do that day — and then the day is over and you go to bed and
you do it all again the next day. Somehow in that mix, even if it’s just going into
your backyard and appreciating the flowers that are there and the butterflies that are
on those flowers and recognizing that you are part of this much larger thing that needs
your assistance. If everybody would just put a butterfly garden in their backyard that
would make a huge impact. Starting out from taking a shower in the morning and having
clean water, brush your teeth, to having something to eat for breakfast, all of that depends
on being able to understand how to manage resources and how to manage our global system.
We have one of the best centers in the world related to Ecology. It’s right here at the
University of Missouri – St. Louis and it probably is the epitome of partnerships and
how you can take an academic institution and interface with other entities; in our case
the Zoo and the Gardens and other universities to get something that’s more powerful than
a simple, linear sum of the parts. The Harris Center is a wonderful fulcrum to get everybody
together to collaborate as from the Garden and as from the Zoo and it has led to many
fruitful research collaborations. Of course, an endless number of teaching collaborations
that have been a great benefit to all three institutions and to the area as a whole. There’s
a tremendous model there for universities, for zoos, and for gardens to work together.
We start to use that collaboration to get other collaborations going on the ground,
to get other joint projects going on the ground. We have a worldwide network now, we have had
more than 275 graduates, with masters degrees or PhDs, who have come from 38 different countries.
They’ve gone back to their own countries and become leaders in biodiversity and in research
and in conservation. The idea was to protect biodiversity, to raise awareness of issues
like climate change, and to get students then trained here in the United States at the University
of Missouri – St. Louis then to go back to their home countries and provide that expertise.
But there’s also a mission component. We’re sending back incredibly versatile, incredibly
well-educated students that make a difference in their home country, but also make it easier
for us to do our conservation work because we do it collaboratively. The Zoo has conservation
programs that are around the world. Three are here in Missouri, but most of them are
international. Our students can come from those programs and build their masters thesis
or their doctoral dissertation on work associated with the Zoo. Fidisoa Rasambainarivo graduated
with his PhD and he is from Madagascar and then came here for his PhD. He studied what
kind of threats do dogs and cats pose as disease vectors to the endemic carnivores of Madagascar?
And it turns out, quite a big threat. He is now going to go back to Madagascar and set
up a disease-testing lab so that if there is a disease outbreak in Madagascar, he can
get an immediate response and test the samples from the disease outbreak to understand what
the threat is and mount a much more effective intervention. I’m very lucky and fortunate
to have had the opportunity to join this lab and the University thanks to the Harris World
Ecology Center. But I know that for every student, there is at least 100 that do not
have this opportunity. By having a laboratory in Madagascar where we can do conservation
research and molecular work, those students may have it much easier to gain these practices.
I was always very keen to get students in from Papua New Guinea and the most recent
one is Samoa Asigua who has just graduated from Dr. Parker’s lab with her PhD. There
are very few Papua New Guinea with their PhD, it is absolutely remarkable A, that she is
a Papua New Guinean, and B, of course, that she’s a woman. I’m very much interested in
research and I still want to pursue the path of Avian Malaria research. I’m hoping to actually
replicate what we’ve done in the Galapagos and take that back to Papua New Guinea or
many of the South Pacific Islands there. I believe in capacity building, I believe in
training the next generation, I believe that knowledge should be shared. It’s team efforts,
that’s really the way science is conducted. There’s very few areas of science where someone
goes up in the hills somewhere and creates the Theory of Relativity and then comes back;
maybe that happened 80 years ago, but it doesn’t happen now. Within this program, students
get to interface not only with the faculty and the scientists at the Gardens and the
Zoo, but with their other colleagues. I think it’s important to establish this foundational
information that we need for conservation, but also to motivate the public to care about
it. To make an impact on biodiversity conservation, that is saving nature, put simply, we need
for everybody to care. Everybody doesn’t care. I think that’s individually what all of our
students are trying to accomplish. We’re trying to expand our training program to add curriculum
elements from economics and from political science and from languages so that we can
train our students to not only do this science, but how to translate that science into an
economic argument. Why is it important to save this animal? It’s easy for any one of
us to work in our bontanical or our zoological institutions, or in our what people might
perceive as academic ivory towers. The Center gives us the opportunity to work in partnerships
across disciplines with the skills to understand research and to undertake it. But also, with
the practical skills to be able to go out and change the situation. What we do best
is to train students to become conservation leaders, to become really good scientists,
but also be really good at promoting their science and being able to communicate the
impacts of their science and how we manage the world in a sustainable manner. I think
that is our product right now. If we keep self-promoting in that way, I think we’ll
continue to be a winner. I’m proud of it because it’s making people more aware. We’re not going
in a good direction. The only way it’s going to be saved and the plants that we have are
going to survive is if we are helping conserve. I think everybody needs to take action in
small ways in their own lives. That’s a message I think we’re trying to get out, each individual
can have an impact. Conservation around the world starts at the Harris Center.

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