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Researcher of the Month
Anthropology & Biology majors, Class of 2012
2011 URECA Summer Program
Research Mentors: Dr. Patricia C. Wright,Anthropology, Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments; Dr. Michael Bell, Ecology & Evolution
No internet, no Facebook, no cell phone, living in a tent for two months — these conditions did not deter Ze Zhang, a Biology & Anthropology double major at SB, from doing cultural anthropology fieldwork in Madagascar at Centre ValBio this past summer! Not at all! Ze enjoyed the chance to be immersed in her research. And for Ze, being in the rain forest and gradually becoming accepted by the Malagasy people she’d been interviewing was an amazing experience, where “every day is a good day!” and where her life was forever changed: “I realized who I am. This is what I want to do. I don’t need many things to make me happy. .. I’m capable of doing so many things. I figured out who I want to be, what I want to do.”
Through SB’s world-class International Academic Programs, Ze Zhang has to date travelled to Tanzania (2010), South Korea (2010), and Madagascar(2011) and is herself an international student from Beijing, China. While studying in Tanzania one year ago, Ze conducted an independent research project supervised by Dr. William E. Arens, Dean of International Academic Programs, on “traditional medicine in contemporary Tanzania”, focusing on malarial treatment options. While in Madagascar this past summer, Ze surveyed households in local communities around Ranomafana National Park, as part of a team investigating transmitted/zoonotic diseases (e.g., malaria, tuberculosis). Ze will build on this summer's work for her ongoing project on “Traditional Medicine in Treating Infectious Diseases in Contemporary Madagascar" — her honors thesis project in Anthropology which is being mentored by Dr. Patricia C. Wright of the Dept. of Anthropology, and the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments. Ze’s passion for medical anthropology, in particular understanding how non-western treatments work in curing illnesses, was initially sparked by an Anthropology class she took in spring 2009 with Prof. Margaret Gwynne — “a class that changed my whole life.”
Since February 2009, Ze has also been deeply engaged in evolutionary biology research, working in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Bell of the Department of Ecology and Evolution. From doing the meticulous fossil preparation, to taking measurements, to doing research on the variation of bones in fossil stickleback fish (Gasterosteus doryssus) – and finally presenting a poster last April at URECA’s campus-wide poster symposium, Ze has enjoyed seeing the project through its various stages: "Every time I look at the fossils, the samples, I think: ‘They’re my babies. I prepared them.’ Every time I look at them I recognize them. .... It’s like building a building from the very start. From scratch. I actually did something!”
Ze’s long term plans are to pursue graduate studies in medical anthropology, and eventually obtain a medical degree. During her first year at Stony Brook, Ze enjoyed being a member of the SB Marching Band (2008). She also joined and is committed to the Stony Brook Volunteer Ambulance Corps/SBVAC as an EMT (2008-present); has served as a Teaching Assistant in Asian & Asian American Studies, Biochemistry & Cell Biology and Chemistry; and is a huge advocate of Study Abroad: “Study abroad is going to change your life. … You learn how to talk to people, how to go out there and explore on your own.”Reflecting on her research experiences at SB, Ze expresses tremendous enthusiasm regarding her mentors, Drs. Bell and Wright:“They’re both really amazing mentors. They see you as a person, not just a student. They see you as a person capable of doing research, and having the ability of carrying on a project.” Below are excerpts of Ze's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about the project you worked on this summer.
Ze: I was in Madagascar for 2 months. I had stayed an additional 4 weeks after the Study Abroad program to do my research. And I was at this research station called Centre ValBio. It’s in Ranomafama National Park, the park founded by Dr. Patricia Wright. What I’m really interested is medical anthropology. I really want to learn how people from different cultures (other than Western) perceive or understand medicine, how people treat illnesses with traditional medicine. A lot of times, western medicine isn’t really available. In the entire township of Ramonafama, for instance, there’s only one hospital, one nurse and a midwife.
So how did you go about doing the research?
We did household surveys. I was working with an infectious disease team. While the team was collecting water samples, fecal samples of cattle/humans for the research on zoonotic causes of diseases, like malaria, like plague, etc. I was focusing on the cultural side when we were doing household surveys. In total I interviewed 21 households in two separate villages, Ambatolahy and Ambodiaviavy. I talked to them about how people collect water, about what they do when they get sick, hygiene practices, whether they use any traditional medicine, and about their religious beliefs (i.e. if they’re Christian, Buddhist, etc.) To my surprise, a lot of the people I interviewed told me they were Catholic.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
At first, I wasn’t really accepted by the people, because I look white, I don’t look local. And I had a translator. I was trying to learn Malagasy but I still needed to work with a translator. I wouldn’t say the survey or the research went as well I hoped. At times, it was frustrating to do surveys and know that people actually lied to you, or would misrepresent themselves or even their beliefs, their religion. But I think there’s an interesting twist. What I believe happens is that people sometimes tell you the answer that they thinkyou want to know. For example, if I asked: “Do you use traditional medicine? Do you go to traditional healers?” they might say “no, we only go to clinics and see western doctors” thinking that's what I wanted to hear. But if I followed up, “But you have a traditional healer in your village right next door…”, then they would then admit: “…oh we didn’t know you knew that. Yes we go to him.” So there’s definitely a trust issue involved.
It must be difficult, trying to collect so much detailed data, and do these detailed
surveys —but being only there for a relatively short time.
Yes, that’s true. At first, we’re just testing waters. They don’t know me; I don’t know them. . . But after a while, we really had a great working relationship. They understood what I was working on, and that I’m genuine, that I’m not trying to take anything away from them or steal secrets of medicine. They really helped me with my project. I kept going back, talking to people, letting them know that I really want to learn more about them. I’d say, “I’m a student, trying to learn .”. . . And with time, they took me in. I went from people being wary of me, to people letting me know that, yes, they’re my family.
I had the opportunity to talk a few times to the president of the traditional healing association, and at the end, he thanked me, and encouraged me to come back. One of the traditional healers I met, a 91 or 92 year old woman, said to me: “You’re my daughter now. You’re my family. My ancestors see you. They think that you are genuine.” Days like that let me know that what I did meant something! That was one of the best feelings, knowing that you have been accepted by the people. That I’m one of them and they know my name. The other researchers I worked with on the team would say, “How do they know your name?" Because every time we walked through the village, people said “Hi Ze.”
Did you know you wanted to be involved in cultural anthropology, when you first came
to Stony Brook?
When I first came to SB, I thought about other majors, I think perhaps still being more under my mother’s influence. (She had told me actually to apply only to Stony Brook! She knew the reputation of Nobelist CN Yang). ... I didn’t know I would choose biology or anthropology as majors. But a medical anthropology class (Ant 350) I took with Prof. Margaret Gwynne (now retired), that one class changed my whole life. One person. Or two people....or three professors ....they can really change your whole life!
So I’m a double major now, with Biology and Anthropology. People always ask me: why cultural anthropology and biology? Wouldn’t physical anthropology make more sense? But I think it makes sense. Culture elaborates on the biological differences. You have to know the biological foundations. Once you understandthe foundation there of evolution, the basics.... then you can really carry on into the cultural differences.
How did you first get involved in research at Stony Brook?
I have two ongoing projects, in anthropology with Dr. Wright, and in biology with Dr. Bell. Actually, it was Prof. Bell who introduced me to Dr. Wright! I’ve been doing research with Dr. Bell, in what I call “the fish lab” for a long time now—since I was a sophomore. I met Dr. Bell through an Undergrad Bio. Open House in 2009. When he learned that I was always interested in fossils, he said he had a project for me, working fossil samples of stickleback fish. So I spent ~ year, two to three semesters, preparing the fossils. They’re covered by rocks and dirt. So it takes a while to uncover them and prepare them. They’re really small—and delicate. You have to use a microscope and little probes to uncover the little bones. It was hard at first to learn the techniques. And a little tedious at first. …But eventually, after I had prepared about 300 samples, Dr. Bell said, "Now you have your fish. Let’s do some research, let’s do some actual work.”
When you have a continuous experience, like the research experience I had in the Bell lab, ...I think that the research project becomes really your baby. Every time you look at it, every time you look at your data, you are reminded: I collected this, I worked on this. It’s something precious that I’ll remember the rest of my life. Every time I look at the fossils, the samples, I think: ‘They’re my babies. I prepared them.” Every time I look at them, I recognize them. It’s like building a building from the very start. From scratch. I actually did something!
Was it hard to cope with doing repetitive work?
Actually it wasn’t for me. I would remind myself: I ‘m with ….fossils! And I really like fossils! I like fish too! I got a shirt that says “I like fish” and I wear it to the lab sometimes.
How has research enhanced your classroom knowledge/learning?.
The research I did really helped me understand the materials I learned in classroom. It really helped me learn about research methods, and even about statistics, and biometrics. There’s a lot of learning on your own when you do research. But the experience you get – the information, the knowledge you gain – it’s priceless. I learned so much from my research. More than any classes I’ve taken at Stony Brook.
One thing about Dr. Bell is that he pushes you to do better. I really appreciate that. Dr. Bell taught me critical thinking. He was encouraging me to “Go do this, you can do this. You’re smart enough to do this.” And Dr. Wright, she’s wonderful too! They’re both really amazing mentors. They see you as a person, not just a student. They see you as a person capable of doing research, and having the ability of carrying on a project.
I know you presented your project in Dr. Bell’s lab at the URECA symposium last April,
and will be presenting the research you did Madagascar at the URECA poster symposium
in April 2012. What was the URECA experience like for you?
It was good. I never had designed a poster before. I had to think about: How do I sell it? How do I get people interested in fossils? In fish? I found out that I liked being able to get out there and talk to people. I met a lot of people around my poster, and talked to them. It was definitely a good information giving & information receiving event!
Sounds like you’ve had many positive experiences here at SB!
I gained a lot from Stony Brook and I really, really appreciate it! At first, I wasn’t really expecting much for college. I understood that in college that you learn, you get your degree and then go on to graduate school, find a job. But here, I really think that I found out who I am. When I was in Madagascar, there’s no nothing, no internet, no Facebook, no cell phones. …. I was living in a campsite. I was camping for two months. I was living in a tent. You have very basic way of living, not many things. I realized who I am. This is what I want to do. I don’t need many things to make me happy. … It’s really been a learning experience, going to college and getting involved in research, and in research/study abroad. Being here in SB made me realize: I’m capable of doing so many things. I figured out who I want to be, what I want to do.