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The impacts of spillover on biodiversity: An interdisciplinary learning journey

Diana Alvarez
09 October 2020
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3 mins read

Through June and July this year, I participated in the online learning experience ‘Explore ID: COVID-19, Complex Problems, and Interdisciplinarity’. This course delivered by LIS brought together 53 students from around the world, applying an interdisciplinary approach to learn about and respond to some of the challenges the world faces due to the pandemic.

As part of the learning programme, I participated in an elective course titled “Why prevention is complex: “navigating multiple levels of reality” led by professor Ash Brockwell. This elective covered a wide, interdisciplinary range of topics – from the ecology and genetics of the COVID-19 virus, to the social and political implications of pandemics.

During the course, we critically engaged with current debates and controversies around these complex problems by examining them through multiple disciplinary lenses that influence our perception of reality. These disciplinary lenses encompass the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. They provide insights into how social, political and historical processes influence the outbreak, transmission and management of viral diseases. We also learned about the concept of “multiple levels of reality”, which categorized reality into objective, subjective, and “the hidden third”.

Applying these principles, we looked into infectious diseases, coronaviruses in particular, and the science of ‘spillover’ – how viruses make the leap from animals to humans. Considering the link between spillover and ecological change as a way to understand why preventing new pandemics is so complex, we dove into how pandemics start in the first place- How do social, economic, historical and political factors intertwine with ecology to make ‘spillover’ increasingly likely, and can anything be done to prevent it?

To address this challenge, students were given a choice of four topics to research: The illegal wildlife trade, logging, artisan mining, and intensive farming. Each student would conduct research into their chosen topic, and create a mind-map, showing how the issue relates to the challenges of preventing spillover of zoonotic viruses to humans, and thinking about it from different ‘Levels of Reality’. These include:

Individual / Economic (e.g. livelihoods)
Ecological (e.g. habitats, ecosystems)
Social (e.g. societal norms, dietary preferences, living conditions)
Political (e.g. corruption, bureaucracy, inertia)
Historical (e.g. colonialism, historical inequalities, exploitation)

After we had each created our own mind map, we collated the ones that addressed the same topic, adding different perspectives and discovering more challenges to the prevention of spillover within one area.

– Logging group
– Illegal wildlife trade
– Mining
Intensive Farming

One of the main challenges we identified through this mind-map exercise was the risk that decreased biodiversity poses for humanity. In particular, we found that both wildlife trade and intensive farming are harming biodiversity, either through mass deforestation of areas that are home to countless species, in order to create fields for farm animals, through to the capture, exchange and killing of specific animals, for medicinal or other purposes.

Finally, we brought together the four topics and our learnings, demonstrating the complexities of the whole picture, and discussed opportunities for policy solutions and practical actions to prevent the next pandemic.

Explore ID was a great way to learn about interdisciplinarity and apply these new skills to a relevant real world problem that affects us all. Through the prevention class in particular, I’ve learnt how to apply interdisciplinary modes of thought to the study of infectious diseases, by exploring historical, social, political and scientific perspectives on the prevention of spillover, transmission and escalation of infectious diseases.

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