Marissa was born and raised in the northern suburbs of Chicago. From there she went on to UW Madison for an undergraduate degree in anthropology, and from there to Washington University for a Master’s degree in anthropology. She is currently in her second year at the U of M veterinary school, living near Mount Zion with her dog Miles, while her boyfriend Chris is a professor of anthropology in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over these past several years she has travelled for extended periods to Costa Rica, the Congo, and most recently Guyana, all in the course of her continuing and evolving study of primates.

We initially met at the home of Karen and Les Suzukamo, where she had been invited by Betsy Rest to take part in their Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner. We were left wondering, what’s a nice Jewish girl doing hunting primates with the Wai Wai of Guyana?

So we met again recently, where this picture was taken, at the entrance to the U’s small animal hospital. Her dog Miles was intently looking away, eager to leave the scene, worried that they were about to go in to see the vet.

I’ve never been interviewed before.

Let’s start with the basics, can you tell me about growing up?

I am from the northwest suburbs of Chicago, in Deerfield Illinois. There is a very large Jewish population there, and we grew up in a Reform congregation. I have two older brothers, we are each five years apart. One is a professor of Physics in Toronto, the other works for Miller’s brewing in Milwaukee, and my parents own their own insurance business.

Tell me about high school, what were you active in?

I went to Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire IL, and I think it is the largest high school in Chicago. It has over 4000 students, about 1000 in each grade. I really liked it. I thought it was a good experience. I took part in theater in high school, a little writing and directing, and I also did the morning announcements. We would actually broadcast the news on television screens in each classroom. Looking back on it I’m kind of surprised that I did that.

How about college?

I started at Indiana and then transferred to Wisconsin, where I majored in anthropology. Since my older brother is an academic I thought I might go the academic route, and that led me on the road to studying primates.

In anthropology, there are four different subfields, there is archeology, social anthropology, biological anthropology, and linguistics. I was in interested in biological anthropology, and looking at humans through the lens of evolution. So that is where the primates come in.

After Madison I spent a year living in Costa Rica as a behavioral researcher studying white faced capuchin monkeys. We lived in the forest and recorded data on their behavior. It was a good way to get field experience, because I wanted to be a field researcher.

After that I worked as a researcher with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, again working with primates. The zoo has a conservation department, in addition to their ape house, where they do work in field conservation and have in-house research projects. I was a researcher there and studied tool use behavior in chimpanzees and gorillas. I also helped manage various data sets from research being done in Gombe National Park, in Tanzania, which is the site where Jane Goodall had done her research.

After that I ended up in graduate school at Washington University in St Louis, also in anthropology, where I studied chimpanzee tool use, and especially the development of tool use in infant chimpanzees – how they learn how to use tools, including social factors that are involved.

What kind of tools are these?

I studied a process called “termite fishing”. This is where chimpanzees will find sticks, branches, etc. that they find in their environment and modify them into a certain shape to form a ‘tool’. They then use these tools to prod termite mounds, which are large clay structures. They will modify a tool and puncture the termite mound to get at the termites. At the zoo, we had an artificial termite mound that researchers would bait with ketchup, and the apes had to find tools in their exhibit, and then modify those tools to obtain the ketchup.

What is life like for zoo animals?

I used to be really anti zoo, but working at Lincoln Park I now know that it’s not as black and white as I once thought. Zoos do come from a difficult history of taking animals from the wild and improperly housing animals. But many zoos, especially Lincoln Park, have learned from these mistakes, and are trying to modify their environments to make them more conducive for their animals. So zoos are doing things that can bring out those natural behaviors that you would see in the wild.

Apes living in accredited zoos are not taken from the wild anymore. For instance, zoo ape populations are monitored by a species specific “Species Survival Plan” to carefully monitor zoo ape populations and genetic diversity. Zoo scientists can use this information to carefully plan recommendations on breeding.

What did you do while at Washington University?

I finished my Master’s degree at Wash U, where I did work in the Republic of Congo, studying chimpanzee tool use. And when I finished that program I still wanted to work with animals, and I thought that vet school would be the best route. So I had to take a few more classes and applied to vet school.

By then Chris had finished his PhD. He studies primates as well as social anthropology, and that’s how I got involved in my current project in Guyana.

What is the study in Guyana about?

Last summer we went to Guyana, in South America. One of my bosses at Lincoln Park Zoo is now a professor here, and he studies ecosystem health, using veterinary medicine as a way to inform us about conservation, human and animal health. We usually think of vet med as small animal, large animal, but one of the reasons I wanted to come here is because the U has a great program in what is called One Health. A lot of universities have this, but the vet med program here is well known for this concept of using various aspects of medicine – human medicine, veterinary medicine, and public health professionals, for the purpose of studying animal and human health and conservation.

A lot of emerging diseases right now have an animal origin, and taking the minds of vet medicine and human medicine can help us understand these diseases – how they emerge, and how they are transmitted.

And Chris has a field site studying an indigenous group called the Wai Wai, that hunts bush meat in the forests of Guyana. So using this One Health perspective, I thought it would be interesting to also add a disease component. Because we know there is a lot of work in the old world, like Africa, looking at diseases like Ebola, and how they are transmitted. And we started thinking that this project would be a good way to start looking at new world diseases.

So we will go hunting with the Wai Wai, in an extremely remote area, at the edge of the Amazon rain forest. They hunt with bows and arrows, and with shotguns, and a large portion of their meat is primate bush meat. Then we will perform a necropsy on that primate. We will take samples of different organs, and collect fecal material, and send it to a lab to be evaluated for disease changes.

And using my background in anthropology we would conduct interviews with the individuals in the village, to ask them how they hunt and how they butcher – the different practices that they use, if they ever were injured during any butchery or hunting practices, where they get their water.

What are you starting to learn?

I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but they are seeing a lot of pathological changes, including worms in the primates. But this may not necessarily indicate disease. And their animal populations seem to be very healthy. So they may be naturally occurring parasites that are living in these animals.

Do they actually cook the animals?

That is an excellent question and one that we asked – do you ever eat raw or uncooked meat? Because we know that in some regions of Africa that is the case. The Wai Wai actually laughed at me. And they said no, never. They are always smoking the meat, consistently, and making sure that it’s cooked very well. So that might not be a pathway of transmission that we need to focus on. But maybe little cuts that they might get during butchery might be something of importance.

How do you communicate with the people there?

Guyana was a British colony and the Wai Wai have been missionized, so most of them speak fairly good English, and it was quite easy to communicate. But we did have a Wai Wai field assistant who was fluent in English.

I have an off the wall question. Bringing it back to Judaism, have you ever considered similarities between their practices and what we might learn about Kosher practices of butchery?

That’s a good question. I’ve never thought of that. I think a lot of times the cultural practices surrounding food preparation have been created to avoid transmitting disease or becoming sick.

What are your plans beyond vet school?

I expect to then get my PhD in veterinary medicine, using the research project of last summer as a pilot study, and continue in Guyana to develop that into a project to look at disease transmission between bush meat and humans.

We are applying for a grant to National Geographic and some smaller organizations. We are hopefully going to publish our interview data soon. And I am giving a poster presentation on Research Day at the vet school.

Final question, how did you get connected with Mount Zion?

Everyone has a holiday that they connect with, and I love Passover. So last year during Passover, I was a little bummed that didn’t have a chance to go home. And I thought it would be nice to have a community in addition to my vet school community.

Did you make it to a Seder?

No, I finally joined just this past summer. Though Betsy told me about the Open House this coming weekend. It’s unfortunate, that now I’m in school it may be hard to do much, but maybe over the summer I can find more time. Do you have a social action committee? I think I would really like that.

We have that, and more. And we will make sure you make it to a Seder next year if you stay in town. In recognition of the new year we welcome Marissa, and all those who have joined Mount Zion over the past year – including especially those Humans who study primates.