What is public health grad school and why am I doing it?

It’s nice for family and friends to have some idea of what you spend your days (and student loan money) doing. So what the heck I’m doing in grad school specifically? It always seems so nebulous when I try to explain it. Mainly people ask: how is public health different from medicine? Public health is about identifying and preventing the causes and consequences of illness and disease on a population level. Medicine is what you need on an individual level after you become ill. They often overlap, but ideally we want to reduce sickness and the need for medical treatment.

Environmental health specifically is the interaction of the natural, built, and social environment and public health. More than just focusing on naturally occurring chemicals or diseases, the department is increasingly focusing on urban planning, climate change, socioeconomic factors, food production, and air pollution, to name a few.

School: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Degree: Master of Health Science
Certificate: Risk Sciences and Public Policy
Department: Environmental Health Science
Track: Population Environmental Health
Core elements: environmental science, epidemiology, toxicology, risk sciences, biostatistics, human physiology

This is actually the hospital and medical school, but my building is right next door.


Here is a useful diagram that gets put into every lecture in every public health class I’ve ever taken:



Toxicology: the study of toxins and how they affect human health. This includes characterizing substances like chemicals, elements, and pollutants by their physical properties (e.g. whether they are polar is extremely important) and how they cause disease and cancer biochemically. Cell biology, DNA, metabolism, physiology, etc. Example slide from lecture of how alcohol affects the liver:



Epidemiology: We learn how to design studies that will help us measure and infer the distribution, causes, prevention, and control of diseases in populations. These can be, for example, studies of a people assigned to a treatment or placebo (randomized controlled trial/clinical trial), or large numbers of people that are followed through time to see what exposures lead to what outcomes (cohort study). We learn about how to measure and compare outcomes between different exposure groups and how different variables interact to produce health effects. Things get very complicated. Example lecture slide about how we begin to calculate the incidence of a disease in a study population from an introductory course:



Biostatistics: the tools of public health. Statistical analysis is how we decide whether public health studies show us an association between factors and disease. We use, for example, probability concepts (like odds of exposure & disease, normal (z), t, and F probability distributions), linear regressions (simple, multivariate), etc. Epi and biostats are like brother and sister. Example slide about using sample measurements from a population:



Risk Science: The paradigm of risk assessment goes from characterizing the hazard and its dose-response (toxicology), to quantifying the exposure (epidemiology). To then assess the risk in the population, you can use formulas to estimate how many excess deaths or cancer cases will occur in a given population (e.g. the U.S.) from this exposure. This field also includes communicating risk to the public and lawmakers and incorporating it into legislation to protect public health (think EPA regulations like the Clean Air Act, Clean Drinking Water Act, etc. that dictate maximum levels of contaminants that are allowed into public water & air). Hopkins offers a separate certificate for this sequence that happens to correlate well with the classes I’m already taking for my degree, so I’m getting a bonus certification, basically. Example introductory lecture slide about dose-response:



Environmental Science: Environmental chemistry, earth science, botany, hydrology, geology, atmospheric science, etc., as they relate to public health. For example, how is ground-level ozone pollution (smog) formed from vehicle exhaust (nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon particulates) and sunlight? Climate change is a huge part of this discussion in public health because it exaggerates climate extremes and alters the hydrology and atmosphere of the planet. This creates, for example, more urban heatwaves, droughts, heavier monsoons, melts glaciers, and decreases available fresh water. Example lecture slides from introductory classes:




International Health: As you may know, I have big dreams of working internationally. My department does not have much of an international focus, but I’m ok with that, because my degree teaches scientific skills that I wouldn’t be able to get from the more theory-based International Health department, and I’ll be better able to apply what I know in an international setting. I’m taking a few classes that will help integrate my education with knowledge about developing countries.



What do I want to do after I graduate is always the #1 question, and as usual, my #1 answer is: I DON’T KNOW! I’ve already started applying to a bunch of summer gigs, internships, fellowships, and jobs that range from the U.S. to South America to Africa. It will depend on what I am qualified for and what organizations I apply to. I’m pretty open, so I don’t stress too much about my direction. The important thing is to try to be of some help to other people and my discipline before I die. Overall I love this school and I (almost) wish my program were longer than one school year.

Oil & Health in the Amazon Course

January 12 was the last day of the 10 day tour of Ecuador I did with three college students.

For a long time, it was doubtful the course would happen, but many factors came together to make it a success. Here’s the story:

Freeda (head of Cloud Forest Institute) and I had discussed at the end of the last course what future courses might look like. She wanted to delegate responsibilities to more people, and I felt like I would want a bigger role with translating and guiding. We wanted to run the same course again in summer 2012, but it took me a while to figure out how to advertise well enough and get enough people informed and interested in attending. In my impatience I decided to set the new dates for January 2013 instead of waiting until summer 2013.

No one else could attend as a teacher in January, so I was on my own from the beginning. I decided to design the itinerary around the subjects in my thesis, since that was what I knew best, and I already knew how to get around to the places I would want to take people. After months of conference calls with AMP & CFI leaders and members, phone calls with nonprofit friends for advice, and emails with my Ecuadorian contacts, the course was taking shape. We decided on 10 days and set the price at $1000. This is a relatively low price because of low overhead costs in our small nonprofits.

Over the months, there were dozens of people interested in attending the course. In the end, three students decided to pay the course fee, buy flights, and meet me in Quito. Three turned out to be a good number of people for me in terms of transportation, logistics, handling money, and booking hotels. Their ages ranged from 21 to 25.

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The trip took us from Quito, the capital city in the mountains, out to the Amazon rain forest in the eastern part of the country. The goal was to present issues and debates surrounding the oil industry to the students through firsthand experience with people and places. I tried to let the students draw their own conclusions.

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To me, most areas surrounding these issues are quite gray, but they appear black and white to many people. For example, an oil company is right now in Secoya territory mapping out seismic testing. BAD right? The Secoya should kick them out! Actually, many if not most of the community are hired by the company right now, earning more money per day than they would from farming. Some of them have no source of income at all. The community is by no means unified for or against the industry. More information on these issues to come. Check out the documentary CRUDE for an overview of these issues and the lawsuit.

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I am flabberghasted and delighted that we were able to follow the itinerary without any mishaps, missed buses, bad weather, or getting lost, robbed, sick, or bitten by anything poisonous. Hooray!

Second trip to Ecuador (for fellowship thesis)

Long overdue update on all this Ecuador business: After the six week trip with Amazon Mycorenewal Project and Cloud Forest Institute in summer 2011, I started discussing with the groups the possibility of taking a leadership role in future courses.

Before that could happen though, I had to finish my thesis that I had started on the first trip. It had become clear to me that I was more interested in the changes taking place in the Secoya community because of oil industry development (rather than mycoremediation of oil spills) at this stage of my studies.

So I planned a solo trip back to Ecuador for January 2012 to stay with the Secoya in the Amazon and conduct interviews. This took all of Fall 2011 semester at Hopkins. I had no idea how intensive the process was for getting permission for human subjects research. I ended up with about 20 pages of research plans, justification, permission forms, consent forms (in English and Spanish), pages that assured the people I talked to would not be negatively affected, and the signatures of my advisor and the Hopkins Institutional Review Board.

I was nervous about going on my own, but help from many amazing people in the U.S. and Ecuador allowed it all to work out! Thanks to Hernan Payaguaje, Donald Moncayo, Laurie, Brad, and the other people from Esperanza that gave me advice, and my advisor Dr. Parker who made sure I didn’t do anything stupid.

Basically, I wanted to find out more about how Secoya medicine & health practices have changed due to oil development in the Amazon. I found that before they were contacted by other cultures, they used a system of plant based medicine with a shaman as healer and spiritual and cultural leader. Christian missionaries first brought vaccines and discouraged shamanic healing, then oil development created towns where the Secoya could go and encounter more Western medicine.

The Secoya developed a strong political organization to negotiate with oil companies and the Ecuadorian government for services they wanted in the community in exchange for allowing oil prospecting in their territory. They fought to have a few Western style clinics built, and a doctor and nurse paid to work there and serve the community.

It is clear that traditional plant based medicine is not the culturally uniting factor it once was. Life in the community has changed drastically in that and countless other ways. But there is an interest in reviving traditional knowledge through educational programs and medicinal plant gardens. Some poeple hope that the billions the oil giant Chevron owes to the Ecuadorian people will help fund programs like those.

So that is an extremely shortened version of what I wrote about in my thesis, and I didn’t include many important details so this post doesn’t get too long. But any clarification you might want - just ask. The poster I presented on this is included in my Facebook photos, as are many photos from the second trip, if you want to take a look (album Spring 2012).

Experiments

After returning to Mindo from the coast, we decided to get down to work.

PLANT INHIBITION STUDY
A student from a previous year of the program set up an experiment in Lago Agrio that, for whatever reason, she was unable to follow up on. It involved various boxes of soil that each had different quantities of crude oil contamination. Mycelium was added to some of the boxes to test whether the oil could be remediated. Since she didn’t come back to test the soil, we decided to use it for our own experiment - a plant bioassay.

We started by choosing a few different types of plants that we had seeds for - onion, chive, chia, among others. We planted them with potting soil in egg crate containers to count how many of each type of plant germinated in normal soil. Onion and chive grew the best, so we decided to use them for the inhibition study.

We planted onions and chives in each type of soil that we collected from the contaminated soil experiment. We want to compare how they grow in contaminated soil to how they grow in our uncontaminated potting soil. So we should ultimately be able to see whether and how much the oil contamination affects the growth of these plants, and whether the soil that was treated with mycelium provides better growing conditions.

MYCOREMEDIATION STUDY
Mindo is our home base in Ecuador because it is where Freeda’s Cloud Forest Institute is based, and where her family lives. We wanted to work on a local project here to get more involved with the community, so we looked into remediating the soil at an auto garage across the street that we assumed had various pollutants like motor oil & gasoline.

Katie and I talked to the owners of the garage and got their permission to use some of the soil at the bottom of the workstation for remediation using myeclium. We collected a bucket of earth and brought it to the backyard to work on it. I put some of the soil untreated into a small container to test it for total hydrocarbons. Unfortunately, there is not a lab close to Mindo, so Katie had to take the sample to a lab in Quito to be analyzed. We don’t expect the results back for another month.

We prepared to remediate the rest of the soil by getting sawdust, burlap, and cardboard for mycelium to grow on. We added wheat grains that were already colonized with oyster mycelium to the sawdust so that the mycelium would start growing on that.

Then we made a series of layers in baskets like this: burlap on the bottom, inoculated sawdust, dirty soil, cardboard, inoculated sawdust, dirty soil, cardboard, etc. The idea is that the mycelium will colonize the sawdust, spread to the soil, colonize the cardboard and run throughout the basket, eventually digesting the contaminants in the soil.

We divided the soil into two experimental groups. In the first experimental group, we added 1 liter of soil to 4 liters of substrate (sawdust inoculated with oyster mushroom mycelium). In the second experimental group, we added 2 liters of dirt to 4 liters of substrate. We will later test the soil in each experimental group to see which soil is remediated better, i.e. which soil has less hydrocarbons.

As a control we mixed an intermediate amount of soil- 1.3 liters - with 4 liters of UNmyceliated substrate in the same layer system in the basket. A control is necessary to make sure that any reduction in hydrocarbons we see in the experimental groups is because of the MYCELIUM in the baskets, and not just because of the plain sawdust and cardboard the soil is sitting in.

This experiment will hopefully tell us whether installing a mycelium filter in the garage would help in cleaning out contaminants before the rain washes them into the river by the garage.

The Coast Part II - Bahía

We went to Bahía to stay for three days. Bahía is a city on the west coast, 20 minutes south of Canoa, that sprang up relatively recently.

That area of the coast is dry tropical forest, so now during the dry season, there is little rain, and the land is generally dry and brown, like American forests in the fall. In this area, as in much of Ecuador, much of the land area has been cleared, burned, and used for raising cattle.

Clearing forests is a serious problem because the soil is more easily washed away in a strong rain, which happens frequently in the rainy season. That’s one reason why mudslides are common here. And these floods and mudslides can wipe out entire towns in a rainy season, especially with extreme weather events like El Niño, when the storms are unusually intense. Not to mention the loss of species that comes with deforestation.

This is one example of how ruining ecosystems for short term economic gain, like cutting forests for cattle pasture, is ultimately not worth the money. The immediate profit is far outweighed by the damage done to the surrounding towns when massive floods and mudslides wipe out homes, infrastructure, and businesses. The natural environment is more economically valuable when it is preserved.

We went To Bahía because an organization called Planet Drum is based out of Bahía. Planet Drum grows trees to reforest devastated areas by the coast, planting up to 5,000 new trees a year.

We worked with them for a few days, using used plastic bottles as pots to grow tree seedlings that would later be planted on hillsides.

We talked with Planet Drum about the ecosystems, their struggles as an nonprofit, and their plan to create an ecological institute for students and volunteers from anywhere in the world to come study the ecosystems, biodiversity, and sustainable development. We hiked through the land they purchased for the future site of their institution.

We also visited the two local schools where Planet Drum runs a program to teach children about the importance of preserving the health of ecosystems and biodiversity. The kids gave poster presentations about everything they had learned during the year, which included pollution of the air, land, and sea, deforestation, loss of species, recycling, composting, and conservation.

The Coast Part I - Canoa

We arrived on the coast on Saturday to a tiny beach town called Canoa, which means canoe in Spanish. There is a special dish here called ceviche - a cold seafood soup with lemon juice and cilantro, that we tried for lunch on Sunday.

The newest oil pipeline - (OCP) for heavy crude - flows west over the Andes through Papallacta to the coast where it is refined. There is a large refinery in Esmereldas, farther north up the coast, where the oil is processed and shipped out. Even though a large portion of Ecuador’s economy is the production of oil and petroleum products, Ecuador still imports oil. The country has to buy back the petroleum products from the companies that export it, which is part of the reason why this country has so much foreign debt.

To start, the government takes out loans from the World Bank to build the pipes, wells, drills, and other infrastructure that the oil companies will use for extracting oil. Foreign multinationals estimate the amount of oil they will be able to extract, and they only have to pay a tax if they extract at least as much as they estimate. Then Ecuador has to buy the oil back after it is refined. Because of this deal, the country hasn’t made enough from either pipeline to pay back the original loans. This deal for both of Ecuador’s main pipelines, planned and financed by the IMF & World Bank, clearly hasn’t been the economic boost for Ecuador’s economy that it was promised to be. And we’ve seen the ecological damage first hand.

Papallacta

Then I had to say goodbye to most of the people in the group, as only five were staying on the last two parts of the trip with me. Some of them stayed in Lago Agrio for a few days to finish up the experiment and conduct ecological surverys. Some went back to the Secoya to find out more about the oil pollution there. Some went back to the US, and some are still traveling around South America.


Papallacta

We drove in a van from Lago Agrio to Papallacta, following the oil pipeline that flows to the coast. Along the way, our guide Christian, an ecuadorian who lives in Mindo, told us about the frequent pipeline spills and bursts that occur along its length. Near the volcano, the pipeline bursts whenever the volcano erupts, which is at least once a year. The pipeline has a ‘failsafe mechanism’ - a valve that automatically stops the flow of crude oil when it detects a leak. These valves are positioned every 18 kilometers along the pipeline, which means that when there is a break, 18 kilometers’ worth of oil spills out from the pipe.

In 1989, a landslide damaged the pipeline, and thousands of barrels spilled into the Papallacta river. Christian told is that the municipal water for the city of Quito is piped in from Papallacta. So a few years ago, there was a major pipeline break in Papallacta that contaminated all of the public water in Quito.

We stayed the night in Papallacta, high up in the mountains at over 10,000 feet. It was beautiful and green, freezing cold, misty, and drizzled constantly, essentially like being inside of a cloud. The medicinal hot springs made up for the weather, though.

Further on the way to the coast, we walked down to look at the San Rafael waterfall. I had never seen a waterfall before, so you can imagine what an impact the largest waterfall in Ecuador made on my little eyes.

I later learned that this waterfall might not exist in a few years: the river that forms the waterfall is scheduled to be diverted for hydroelectric energy. This is one of many projects in Ecuador being financed by Chinese investors. Many of Ecuador’s current social reforms are being paid for through more oil drilling concessions to Chinese companies.
This article explains the hydroelectric issue in more detail: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12680487

How can we avoid ecological disasters like hydroelectric dams while still using the power from our environment for our own use? We had a guest speaker earlier on in Mindo named Jeff Metcham. He is a conservationist, among other things, and he co-authored a proposal for sustainable and ecologically sound hydroelectric power in Ecuador. The proposal involved setting up small, community-managed plants that would put the power in the hands of the community while maintaining ecologically sound practices. Looking at these pipelines and dams, we should ask ourselves what we are willing to give up as we - as consumers - continue to support unsustainable and destructive ways of harvesting energy. An important thing that I am realizing here is that we do not have to destroy our home to capture its energy, we just need to think of better ways of working with what is already in place for us to use.

We visited another waterfall, one that we could walk right up to. The wind and mist were so powerful the more we neared the falls that it was like walking in a hurricane. The roar filled the valley as my shoes were slipping off the rocks and my clothes got soaked through. It was unreal standing next to such power.

Meeting the Secoya

We were lucky to be able to meet with the Secoya community, a native people that have lived near Lago Agrio since long before the oil exploration began. They are open and accepting of foreigners, even though they were uncontacted only fifty years ago. We took a three hour bus ride to visit them, which included barely fitting our big bus on a tiny motorboat ferry to cross a river.

The Secoya have american students from Esperanza International staying with families and working with the community to preserve their culture and adjust to the changing environment around them.


Cultural center. Siekopai refers to the Secoya people in their native language (Secoya).

The discovery of oil brought in foreigners, industry, businesses, diseases, destruction of the forest, and pollution of the rivers. Because of frequent breaks and spills in the oil pipeline that runs along the river, the Secoya have long given up fishing in their once plentiful source. The fish they eat now are raised in small ponds in their village. Many of the Secoya still drink and bathe in the river because they have no choice.


The Aguarico River, now too polluted to fish in.

I spoke with a 51 year old woman in the tribe, Cecinda, to ask her about her experience with the entrance of oil companies and how her village has changed in her lifetime. Her father, uncle, cousin, and friend all have cancer. She told me that they didn’t have these kinds of health problems before their rivers became polluted. I asked her what she thought about all of us Americans coming to the community, and she surprised me by saying that she absolutely loved us. She was very happy that we were visiting the community and hoped that more people would come to stay, not only once, but that we would keep coming back for our whole lives.

I really wasn’t expecting that kind of a response, and it helped me to feel less out of place here - less like a foreigner looking in from behind a glass door. I recognize that I am here with no real knowledge of the hundreds of years of exploitation and colonialism that have rocked this country, largely because of foreigners - foreigners with my skin color. My ancestors have not been kind to this land and its people. But I have to think about the fact that I am here to learn, and that all learning starts from a point of ignorance.

We took a motorboat ride down the river Aguarico to the river Shushufindi and stopped at what we were told were ‘botanical gardens,’ cared for by a local named Alfredo. An American student staying in the village we visited had helped him to market his land to tourists and make it more accessible: they had recently installed a staircase leading up the steep riverbank to the entrance and built signs describing the area’s history, plants, and wildlife.

The ‘gardens’ to my surprise, turned out to be a tract of jungle. It was the densest forest we had yet been through , the kind where the canopy is too dense for rays of light to shine through, vines hanging from the trees and huge mosquitoes flying around, and log bridges laid over streams. We saw trees hundreds of feet tall. Alfredo said a certain kind of tree - the ceibo - were the daytime homes of forest spirits, and when the spirits enter the trees at dawn and leave the trees at dusk, a great noise like a gunshot can be heard ringing through the forest. After seeing two tarantulas by the main house, we had a wonderful dinner of yucca, salad, and fish wrapped in banana leaves.

A few people in the group came up with an experimental design to set up before leaving Lago. Basically, it involved gathering old oil from a pit and mixing it in varying quantities with soil. Then we inoculated the mix with oyster mushroom mycelium to see which batch turns out the most mycelium and mushrooms. This kind of experiment will be able to tell us: how much oil is too much? How well does the mycelium degrade different amounts of oil? What concentration of pollution in the soil is ideal for the mushrooms to grow?


Preparing the experiment.

With simple experiments like these, we hope to get a better idea of how best to remediate polluted soil. We want to come up with a step by step protocol that anyone can follow: local people whose land is contaminated, bioremediation companies, oil companies, nonprofits. The reason why this hasn’t been outlined yet is because not enough published research has been done to show what the right concentrations of soil and substrate and oil should be, and which species of fungi are most effective for remediation.

AMP has had problems with their experimental field installations being destroyed. One was dismantled by the military here and got bleached by the sun, and the other was taken apart by Petroecuador, who was ordered by the government to remediate the site of the spill. We were told that the company came in with high pressure water hoses and presumably salvaged some of the oil up from on top of the water to refine and sell. The rest of it we can still see in the area where the spill was - including on the banks of the nearby river, in which we later saw people swimming and washing their clothes.

Lago Agrio

We drove out to Lago Agrio, which is the place where the first oil well was built in Ecuador. The town grew from the activity of the oil industry, and even now is mainly just an oil town.

Donald Moncayo, a mycologist and friend of AMP, has lived in the area his entire life, and he took us on a tour of some of the sites where waste and crude had been dumped in large quantities. The first site he took us to appeared on the surface to look like a normal patch of land with dirt and plants growing on it. But Donald shoveled less than two feet below the surface to show us that the soil is saturated with petroleum. The land is still polluted.

The story behind sites like this is that it used to be an open pit of crude. Sometimes Texaco would test the flow rate of a well by measuring how many barrels of crude would run out during a certain amount of time, like a minute, so they would know how many barrels the well was producing per day. And the crude would run out into these pits that the company created specifically for this purpose. This pit was ordered to be remediated, and so years later the company returned to put a thin layer of dirt over the top of it.

The handful of dirt Donald brought up from a few inches under the surface reeked of petroleum. But you could look at it and think it just looked like dark dirt. So we put some bottled water in a bowl and mixed the soil with it. The oil flows to the top and sticks to the sides of the plastic, creating a dark brown sheen.

He showed us the “cuella de ganzo” or drainage pipe that all of the pits have. The pipe is level with the top of the pit and allows oil and water to spill out when it rains so that the pit does not overflow. All of these pita have drainage pipes that lead into a stream or other water source.

The second pit we went to was never covered. Over decades, leaf litter from the trees and plant material fell onto the top of the pit, creating a layer of dirt for plants to grow on top of. The roots of these plants are quite superficial and don’t extend past the thin layer of soil on top. The later of soil, roots, and tar on the surface of the pit make a solid enough surface to walk on, which Donald did. I don’t recommend it though, because falling through a weak spot would like like falling into quicksand. That causes cancer.

Walking down to look at the stream, the water looks clear enough. But if you take a stick and stir up the mud on the bottom, - or as Donald explained it, when an animal comes to drink and steps into the stream - an oil sheen appears on the surface and the water turns gray. In many places there is an orange buildup below the surface. Donald said this was from iron released from drilling, which then oxidizes in the water - rust.

Downstream from this area, you can see the sheen from the oil on the riverbanks, and there were people bathing and washing their clothes in the river.

Mycelium running in Mindo

The first section of this trip is over, the one that was focused on fungi.

Here are some terms that will be useful to know:
mycelium - the underground network of cells that make up most of a fungus. The mycelium excretes enzymes that break down materials into compounds that it can ingest and use for energy. If you compare a fungus to an apple tree, mycelium would be the whole tree, and the mushrooms would be the apples - the fruit.
inoculate - to add mycelium to a substance, in the hope that the mycelium will ‘colonize’ it, or spread all throughout it.
substrate - organic material, like sawdust and corn husks, that mycelium can grow on.
mycofilter - layers of substrate and inoculated materials that soak up pollution, like oil, and use it as food to produce mushrooms. Used to catch pollution before it seeps into the ground or into a water source


Here’s a look back at Mindo:

We went on a hike to look for fungi on the way to a nature preserve. But everyone in the group spent so much time meandering about and looking for mushrooms that we never actually made it into the preserve. We saw some horses, a small waterfall, and had a nice walk, though. That trip was our first introduction to what would be the main mode of transportation for the next week: riding in the back of a pickup truck with five other people.

There is a garage across the street from our hostel that looked like it was potentially letting motor oil and gasoline leak into the adjacent stream. So the founder of AMP, Mia, got the permission of the owner to install a mycofilter in the floor, to catch any pollution before it seeps into the ground or gets washed into the stream. We were originally going to take soil samples to get a baseline measurement of how polluted the soil was, but sending five or so samples to the lab in Quito for testing is logistically difficult because they have to be kept on ice and it costs a few hundred dollars to test for total hydrocarbons. So we will probably just install it knowing that it will do some good, even if we don’t quantify it.

To prepare for the mycofilter, we collected different substrates for the mycelium to grow on, like corn husks and sawdust, and put a bunch of grain and sawdust that had already been inoculated with oyster mushroom mycelium. So our hope is that the mycelium will colonize the bags, and then we can spread the contents of the bags with cardboard and more sawdust on the floor to create a mycofilter in the garage.

Every meal here has been basically the same: soup with yucca (a potato-like tuber), rice & beans with some variation of fish, chicken, or beef. Luckily I’m not tired of it yet, like some of the others. My favorite drink is a colada, which is thick and made using oatmeal and fruit juice. You can also get a “batido” almost anywhere, which is fruit juice with milk, basically a milkshake without ice cream. Breakfast is usually eggs, fried or scrambled, which is fine by me. It’s so much better than in Spain, where I would be lucky to get a small chocolate cookie for breakfast.

Mindo

After a long and winding bus ride through the mountains, we arrived in Mindo.

This is a huge change from the city. Mindo is a tiny town with dirt roads in the middle of the mountains. Words are failing me as I try to describe this place. It feels like the rainforest - because it is. It rains every day. It’s lush. It’s wet. It’s thick and green. The flowers are bright and the clouds are close by. Strange birds call and insects chirp. Stray shaggy dogs wander the streets everywhere. Everything is dripping constantly - the roofs, the trees, the wide, dark leaves - and from my bedroom I can hear the river rushing downhill.

Our hostel made of wood and is open air: there are windows, but most of them have no glass. There is a roof, but no walls completely close off any room. As I write, I am huddled under my mosquito net hanging from the ceiling above my bunk bed (I’m on the top bunk, there are four other people in this room). Mosquitoes are not a problem here, though, and there is no risk of contracting malaria at this altitude.

This place is ostensibly a paradise, but there are some problems that warrant attention. I learned today that this town has no waste water filtration whatsoever; all the sewage goes directly into the river. The water is safe here upstream, but not so good for anyone living downstream. Could the river eventually benefit from mycofilters (mushroom mycelium filters that can remove toxic compounds) on their wastewater streams? Probably, but any project like that is a long ways off - in terms of economic and scientific feasibility. In short, mycofiltration like that is such a new technique that it will have to be tested more and made to be profitable before it can become the norm.

We had a basic introduction to mushrooms, first at the farm, and then more here in Mindo. We’re learning about remediation of toxic wastes using plants and fungi. It’s so difficult to describe a foreign country in a few paragraphs, and I hope I’m doing it justice. The energy here and among the group is intense; all of these people are here because of their passion for learning and helping other people. Exploring this country is an otherworldly experience.

We started our van ride to Mindo today and stopped for a few hours at Ricardo’s organic mushroom farm. It’s a small-scale family farm that values sustainability. Basically, Ricardo and his family, along with another family that lives and works on the farm, use steam-pasteurized sawdust and inoculate it with the fungus that they want to grow, like oyster or shiitake mushrooms. They let the fungi grow in hot, dark rooms from the bags of sawdust, and then they can harvest the mushrooms when they are ready. Ricardo mostly sells the mushrooms to restaurants, but he also invites students and groups like us for tours to learn about organic farms, growing mushrooms, and permaculture.
Permaculture is basically organizing, alternating, and blending the plants and crops you grow so as to replenish the nutrients in the soil without the need for fertilizers, and without harming the land.

In the video are the mountains in front of the farm, permaculture gardens, two houses where the families live, and the dark greenhouses where the sawdust is pasteurized, inoculated, and where the mushrooms are able to grow.

Quito

Today was my third full day in Ecuador. It’s been so difficult trying to write down what it’s like here that I’ve been putting it off for fear of not relating my thoughts well enough.

The full day of traveling on Saturday was exhausting and uncomfortable, which is what I expected. But it was also ridiculously exciting, especially because I was undeniably very alone, going somewhere I had never been, going to meet people I didn’t know. Right before landing in Quito, the capital city, I saw the network of lights carpeting the black earth, rolling over the hills, and crawling up the bottom of the mountains to the West. I was overcome with wonder at arriving on a new continent, and I had no idea what to expect.

The Mariscal district where I was staying is the choice district of many Americans and Europeans - that is, it’s the gringo district. “Gringo” is a not-so-bad term for white people. At least, no one has ever used it in a derogatory way towards me, and we all call ourselves gringos anyway. In Spain, the term was “guiri,” which is the word in my link. It’s still a confusing feeling standing out as a foreigner, and more so here than in Spain. I don’t know what people are thinking when they look at me; do they resent my presence here as a tourist? Do they think I am just here to make myself feel more cultured, to snap some pictures and then go back to America? Why is this the impression I have?

A girl who works at my hostel directed me toward a market nearby, so I set out walking. I don’t usually bring a map around with me in a new city because I like to learn the streets by memory. Looking at a map also makes you look lost, and I feel that it’s best to look like you know where you’re going. It’s already obvious by my light skin that I’m foreign, so I try to play that down.

The park with the market was beautiful - large, green and open. There were hundreds of people there: children on bicycles, parents with picnics, couples meandering, teenagers in packs, soccer games, vendors selling shishkabobs and cotton candy. The market was a string of tent stalls set up along a path around the park selling clothes, jewelry, figurines, purses, and knapsacks.

My second day of exploring Quito, two friends and I walked through the streets and up a long, steep hill to get to a small art museum featuring a famous Ecuadorian painter Guayasamín. Many of the paintings were Picasso-esque, some quite grotesque and all powerful and bursting with pain.

The streets of Quito are fun to walk - they’re dusty and loud with craggy uneven sidewalks. The black exhaust from the traffic is overwhelming. Children try to sell you packs of gum and cigarettes for fifty cents. We got a big lunch of rice and meat with a bowl of potato soup and a glass of juice for $2.

I got to know the people in my group - there are twelve of us, plus the five leaders. We are a diverse group - there are students, amateur mycologists, a reporter, environmental activists. Some have been traveling in other South American countries, working on organic farms, some want to start their own mushroom farms. All of them are passionate, vibrant people that have incredible knowledge about fungi, medicinal plants, microbiology, botany, chemistry. They are independent and well-traveled people, with interesting perspectives on life and I’m lucky have this time to get to know them.

T-minus one week to departure

On July 9th, I am traveling to the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador.

The above title “no tengas miedo” sums up a good part of my sentiment about traveling. It means “don’t be afraid” in Spanish.

Despite my gung-ho attitude about travel, I’ve been getting raised eyebrow looks that say, “Well, good luck coming back disease-free and with all your limbs.” Just to clear some people’s minds (Nanny and Poppy!) I got my Hepatitis A and Yellow Fever vaccines, and I’m taking anti-malaria medication. As for my limbs, I’ll make sure to watch out for man-eating jungle spiders and whatever other mystical creatures lurk in the dark heart of the forest.

So why am I going to Ecuador in the first place? Because Johns Hopkins is true to its ideals as a research university. They awarded me a research grant as an incoming freshman - the Woodrow Wilson Research Fellowship - to go and find out about whatever I wanted. My heart had always been set on South America. So after two years of thinking about it, my plans fell into Ecuador. 

A brief history of the area: The Oriente of Ecuador is a highly biodiverse area of rainforest and is home to various indigenous peoples. Texaco found oil in the Oriente in the 1960s and began a drilling operation there that lasted almost 30 years. The company apparently dumped billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the waterways and dug about 600 unlined pits for sludge waste, most of which remain today. The people in these areas have reported cancer and diseases from living with this toxic waste (note: Chevron-Texaco disputes these claims).

Here is a short video from TIME magazine about the issue. (Sorry for the ad, it’s short.)

The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) is a small organization based in CA that is researching how to use fungi to clean this waste (mycoremediation). Basically, the fungi use the oil as food and convert the toxins and carcinogens into harmless products: water and carbon dioxide. I’m jumping on to this project because these guys have all the right ideas. Their methods are sustainable and cost effective, and if they succeed in getting their techniques off the ground, the local people could benefit long term not only from the cleanup of their home environment, but also from the cultivation of mushrooms for food and income.

So I’m meeting up with people from AMP and the Cloud Forest Institute (CFI) for six weeks, and they are going to take me and some other students all around Ecuador to learn about the rainforest ecosystems and the history of the oil industry there. My goal is to learn as much as I can about the interactions between the environment and the health of the people there.

Here is a map of the general areas where I will be. Our trek will include a few days of crossing the Andes Mountains.

I’ve been stocking up on the gear that I will need for traipsing around in the rainforest. Shown here, I have: heavy duty insect repellent, voice recorder for interviews, malaria medication, poncho, headlamp, binoculars, swiss army knife. The tyvek suit and respirator mask are for my safety when we visit toxic waste sites and collect mushroom specimens for research. 

I am told that we will have at least weekly and sometimes daily internet access, so check back for updates. On we go, in the name of science!