Biology major Zoë Campbell ’09 is part of an exciting new PhD program funded entirely by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is a partnership of five universities in the U.S., Scotland, and Tanzania. The goal is to improve the health of livestock and communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. As a graduate student, she will spend three years as part of an international cohort of 16 at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (Arusha, Tanzania) and one year at Washington State University (Pullman, Wash.). She responded to email questions from Arusha—when she had electricity.

Tell us about your Peace Corps work. I was an environmental extension officer from 2012 to 2014, living in a rural village in the Mbeya region of Tanzania. There some project highlights included grafting avocado seedlings with a women’s group, teaching environmental education to fifth and sixth graders, and applying for a grant to replace an older toilet at the primary school. Most of the time, however, was spent learning Swahili and participating in the daily activities of the village. 

Between the Peace Corps and grad school? I worked as a wildlife technician for the Bureau of Land Management in Medford, Oregon. Peace Corps has a program that helps returned volunteers get federal jobs, so that worked in my favor. 

Why focus on livestock? Livestock in East Africa, especially in poorer rural areas, are not only food, but also sources of income. They act as bank accounts and can be used as gifts, bride prices, sold to pay school fees or household expenses, and they are a status symbol.

The 2007 census in Tanzania reports that 99 percent of agricultural households in Tanzania keep indigenous chickens, and 40 percent keep larger livestock such as goats or cattle. For anyone interested in poverty reduction, food security, or human and animal health, focusing on small holder farmers and their livestock is a good place to start.

I came into the livestock scene from the back door, beginning with academic and work experience in ecology and wildlife, then an interest in East African culture and languages. I studied abroad in Madagascar for a semester while at Macalester, so maybe things started there. 

What preparation did you have before going to Tanzania? The other WSU student and I enrolled through Washington State and spent August and September taking coursework, meeting supervisors and relevant faculty, and developing our research proposals. The doctoral program is interdisciplinary, so we will incorporate methods and theories from economics, social sciences and global animal health into our research.

What is your research project? I will be looking at the factors that affect uptake or adoption of a poultry vaccine with the goal of developing intervention strategies that encourage vaccine use at the household level. 

What’s everyday life like? I live on the fourth floor of a pink and white hostel. It has more style than my dorm room freshman year in Turck, plus a bathroom filled with buckets and a communal room to cook in down the hall.

The buckets are important because although the bathroom looks quite normal, with a toilet, shower and sink, most of the time water isn’t running and there is certainly no hot water. When the water comes, you just fill up the buckets for later, and I usually just bathe with the buckets too because then I can add a little hot water. Sometimes my Ethiopian neighbor sings, but the hostel is usually pretty calm. Classes are starting after the Tanzanian election. Before then I often went to the main campus to study, went to meetings, and handled administrative things. 

Biggest challenges? In the last few months, electricity and water have been extremely unpredictable country-wide, which makes basic tasks as a modern student frustrating, to say the least. Times, dates, and plans are slippery. Transportation (other than passenger motorcycles) to leave the school grounds is unreliable. I was taught that generally it is worthwhile to fix things that are not working, but more often than not, you just live with it here. I am trying to get better at waiting.

Thankfully, my Swahili allows me to get perspective on things from other people, particularly my neighbors in Mbeya from my Peace Corps days—the Mnali family. They taught me Swahili, how to cook, how to work the system. I call them up when I have good news or problems, or have questions about cultural things I don’t understand. It is no exaggeration to say I might not have made it through Peace Corps without them, and I am certainly depending on them again now. 

The best parts? It is exciting to be part of an international, interdisciplinary research cohort; there is the sense that our work is new and important. Also, Tanzanians take pride in being welcoming, and they are very warm toward guests. Even if you are having a rough day, at least one person will probably tell you that they are happy you are here, and give you the time you need. That is the very thing that feeds the cycle of perpetual lateness, but everything has its silver lining. In true Macalester spirit, it feels good to work on practical applications for real world problems.

December 28 2015

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