2017 Winner: Miranda Welsh

The Ecology of Disease

In our sections of Writing 101: The Ecology of Disease, we work collaboratively to understand and address a contemporary threat to global health: emerging infectious diseases (EIDs). EIDs are diseases that are new to a population or have recently become more common, relative to historic levels. Over the past 70 years, the number of EIDs in human, animal, and plant populations has increased dramatically. In our course, we take an ecological and systems-based approach to investigating EIDs, which means that we start from the premise that: 1) pathogen transmission is a process that responds to multiple factors, 2) the relative importance these factors can vary over space and time, and 3) host-pathogen interactions are a complex system with emergent properties at each level of investigation (from cells to nations). As such, understanding and addressing EIDs requires the input and expertise of multiple disciplines.

We begin our semester by reading, discussing, summarizing, and analyzing primary and secondary sources of information on hosts, pathogens, and disease from scholars in biology, ecology, evolution, geography, public health, anthropology, cultural studies, history, and economics. Through our writing and discussions, we work to faithfully represent the work and contributions of these scholars, and to identify the applicability of their work to the problem of EIDs across multiple scales. Next, we work to synthesize across sources to assess support for several hypothesized drivers of EIDs, and to generate new, interdisciplinary hypotheses to explain the phenomenon of EIDs. In the second half of the semester, students conduct independent research and compose a defense of one of these novel hypotheses. We conclude the semester by considering the challenge and importance of science communication and public outreach (especially now!), and by using feedback from community members to translate the content of our research essays into a product for a public audience (ex., blog post, video, curriculum, news article).

In addition to the goals common to all writing 101 courses, I also aim to help early-career students become more confident scholars and more effective collaborators. To this end, we work to develop strategies for approaching primary source readings from previously unfamiliar disciplines, and to develop several frameworks on which to ‘hang’ new information and combine information across sources. We also work to create and articulate a unique relationship to the material at hand, and to recognize how our experiences and values influence that relationship. Throughout the semester, we collaborate to teach each other about our readings and develop a collective knowledge base, to improve our written presentations of that knowledge by giving and receiving critical feedback, and to brainstorm new connections and approaches to the problem of EIDs.

I initially developed this course because my background is in community disease ecology and biology. In moving from my graduate career to a research program of my own, I wanted the opportunity to explore other approaches to the study of disease and to improve my ability to collaborate across disciplines. My students turned out to be an integral part of this process, and I continue to be impressed by their capability, creativity, and ambition. Many of my students have developed novel hypotheses that I would be excited to explore and test. Many of them work in labs on campus, and have combined that work with our material to develop and research hypotheses that they could actually test while they’re here. Whatever I end up working on next, I’ll definitely use some of the creative and effective forms of communicating that work to a public audience that my students have developed. I’m grateful for the unexpected set of collaborators I’ve gained, and I look forward to expanding that group in subsequent semesters!