Catherine Bolten, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and member of the Eck Institute for Global Health, shares details about her extensive research in African countries on zoonotic disease transmission and primate interactions with human development.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your research program. How and when did you first become interested in the field?
A: I have been working in Sierra Leone since 2003, but mostly in an urban area where I was examining post-war development issues. I had transitioned to a new project that examined human-chimpanzee relations in a rural area in 2014, just as the Ebola epidemic was taking hold. Most researchers at that time were focusing on bushmeat as a potential source of Ebola transmission, but I noticed in our daily work that people interacted with the forest in hundreds of different ways that made virus circulation possible: eating fruit they had found that had already been nibbled by an animal, collecting bamboo that monkeys had slept in and defecated on, digging water holes that chimpanzees also used… this led me to work on methodology to track the material proximities between humans and non-human primates that could be disease pathways. The next step was to collect chimpanzee and monkey feces to see if they are carrying any diseases. My collaborator in Sierra Leone is currently working to analyze these samples.
Q: What are you currently working on, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
A: The current phase of my work is establishing the forest-fallow period for the farmlands that all the villages in my site use. There is a fascinating dynamic of human population growth, the need for money to pay for school that puts extra pressure on farmland, the advance of an elephant grass savanna desert, and increased material proximities between humans and non-human primates in the remaining forest fragments. We are working with the local villages to generate strategies to turn back the elephant grass, reduce the pressure on fallow farmland and the forest, and decrease the daily indirect contact that people currently have with other primates.
Q: What is your greatest scientific/research achievement to date? Is there a publication you are most proud of?
A: I am most proud of my ability to work at the intersection of humanistic social science (my home field is cultural anthropology) and my training in biology. Having started my research career in ethnobotany (finding local medicinal uses for plants in Botswana), and then spending a decade working in urban development, I am now collaborating with a molecular biologist and primatologist on this project. We have several publications in preparation and review that will—I hope—start to make an impact.
Q: What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of training students?
A: Watching students begin to develop their own fascinating questions once in the field is by far the most rewarding aspect of training them.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: This project is still quite new and we see it bearing interesting questions for quite some time. I don’t see myself shifting to another project for at least five years.
Q: What’s something you enjoy doing in your free time?
A: My husband and I own two acres of land behind our house and are working on a permaculture garden. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see monarchs, hummingbirds, and a variety of bee species this summer, and gardening is one of the ways I relax. We also have a big mutt puppy, Archie, who keeps us on our toes.