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DQ Blog

AUGUST 2012. BANGALORE

I flew into Bangalore, at the invitation of my old friend Ravi Chellam, to participate in the Student Conference on Conservation Science, held there during the first week of August.  It had been ten years or so--I don't recall exactly, but too long--since my last trip to India.  Great to see Ravi and his wife Bhooma, and to meet so many bright, intellectually hungry, poised and confident young conservation biologists. They were enough to give you hope for the future--which is something I don't say lightly.  During the four days of the conference I heard some very smart and useful talks, including one by Umesh Srinivasan, on understory bird populations in logged habitat, which eventually received a prize for best of the conference.  But I wasn't just there to listen; they put me to work, doing one plenary lecture (on zoonotic diseases, derived from my Spillover research) and two workshops (on science writing for the general public).  The event culminated, on Saturday evening, with a plenary talk by Bittu Sahgal, another old friend of both mine and Ravi's.  Bittu was empassioned and inspirational, as ever.  In closing, he told the next generation of conservation biologists: "I wish you curiosity.  And I wish you courage." 

Immediately following the SCCS meeting, also in Bangalore, was another: The bi-annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology,  Asia branch.  Again, hundreds of bright young (and some senior) biologists, not just from India but from all over the region, including Indonesia, Mauritius, and China. Those sessions, plus a good meeting with the tiger biologist Ullas Karanth, plus a quick trip over to Chennai, where I did two more lectures and toured the Madras Crocodile Bank, went far toward filling out this two-week India visit.  They worked me hard (I think it was four lectures, four workshops, and a panel in nine days) and treated me well (plenty of fine Indian food, and I scarcely was allowed to pull out my wallet).  I stayed in a guest-house apartment at the National Center for Biological Sciences, an impressive institution full of researchers and grad students, where my

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NOVEMBER 2011. CHICAGO

Greg Dwyer is a mathematical ecologist, Greg Dwyer is a mathematical ecologist.based at the University of Chicago, who studies outbreak populations of forest insects.  His work involves trying to understand the extreme boom-and-bust cycles of species such as the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), which explodes occasionally into huge infestations, defoliates trees throughout a region, and then suddenly crashes.  After a period of years at low population, another gypsy moth outbreak begins, the numbers increase suddenly and grotesquely, the infestation peaks for a year or two—and then comes another crash.  The main factor driving the crash phase of the cycle is viral infection, killing gypsy moths like a medieval plague.  That's why I recently went to see Dwyer at his office on the UC campus.  I thought his research and his ideas might help inform the final chapter of my book in progress, which concerns the ecology and evolution of scary viruses—the ones that kill humans, not gypsy moths.  The book will appear next year, under the title Spillover. 

Greg Dwyer is a mathematical ecologist.Dwyer is a rare combination: a highly sophisticated math guy who creates mathematical models of ecological processes, and a field man who still goes into the forest, collecting his own data.  He also runs a lab, in which he and his grad students and postdocs can watch the moth-virus interaction in its excruciating stages.  The virus in question is called nucleopolyhedrovirus (NPV).  There's a whole group of NPVs, some infecting such other forest insects as the Douglas-fir tussock moth and the Western tent caterpillar.   This one is specifically adapted to kill gypsy moths.  It consumes them from within, it dissolves them, it virtually melts them down—the way Ebola virus supposedly (but not in reality, only in the pop literature of Ebola hype) melts a human body.  For a gypsy moth, it's no hype.  "They pick up the virus," Dwyer told me, "they go splat on a leaf."

Then he showed me.  In the basement of the biology building, he unlocked a door to what he called "the dirty room" of his lab complex and invited me in.  From an incubator, one of his postdocs

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EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

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SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

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THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest