At the crossroads of public health and biodiversity conservation — not by design but ready to act.

By Dan Zevin, Conservation + Technology Advisor

Contributions by Jennifer Mangold, Director of Fung Fellowship

A forest.
A forest.

Paving a unique path with the Fung Fellowship concept since 2016 with our initial Health + Tech track, the program has been working hard to launch its new Conservation + Tech track in Fall 2020 since conceiving of the idea in April of 2019.

The new track was in response to a crisis we recognized in our world. Not only are millions of plant and animal species at risk of going extinct, but our own species’ unmitigated pressures on natural ecosystems and non-human species alike are truly unsustainable, meaning they are also rife with dire consequences for people as well.

How strange it now seems that we announced the launch of the biodiversity-focused Conservation + Technology track on the eve of a global health pandemic with its source at the heart of the current biodiversity crisis.

Thus, with two upper-level undergraduate student program options focusing on public health and biodiversity conservation, we find ourselves today at an interesting crossroads indeed, and see connections that just can’t be ignored. It was certainly not by design, but the Fung Fellowship is now perfectly positioned and especially interested due to the recent crises to have our students work on the ever-increasing problem of zoonoses — infectious diseases that originate in animal populations, but then cross over to humans.

“We find ourselves today at an interesting crossroads indeed, and see connections that just can’t be ignored.”

Most experts agree that the current coronavirus pandemic is a direct outcome of wild animal exploitation in China. Although the precise location and reason for why the coronavirus was given the opportunity to “jump” to humans is still unknown, like other past zoonoses that have threaten people globally (e.g., SARS, MERS, Ebola, and perhaps even HIV/AIDS), the problem often begins at the interface between growing human populations and their surrounding natural environments, where either a lack of human-produced food results in intensive hunting of wild animals (aka the bushmeat trade), or where cultural beliefs in delicacy aspects and/or magical powers of certain species leads to over-utilization. In both cases, unsanitary handling of the wild meat also compounds the issue.

What is perhaps most distressing is that the coronavirus pandemic was entirely avoidable, with time enough to take action since the somewhat-similar (but perhaps less infectious) 2002–03 SARS outbreak. But looking back in regret never solved anything before, and therefore, we must move forward now with appropriate locally-based education programs, environmental protections, and the support of governments. If we cooperate, learn from our mistakes, and above all, take action, we can protect ourselves from future outbreaks through a growing international community of partners and like-minded supporters.

A group of around 40 young adults pose for a group photo.
A group of around 40 young adults pose for a group photo.

How the Fellowship intends to contribute

The Fung Fellowship is ready to do its part. The new Conservation + Tech year-long Fellowship (with the opportunity for an additional honors program the year after) will recruit and train 55 new undergraduate students each year through an experiential curriculum, co-designed with our students where they work on real-world projects in interdisciplinary teams to address biodiversity conservation problems by designing technology solutions. Industry and community partners are an essential program component and provide immersive opportunities for these students in the field and with the communities they are serving.

Throughout their training, Fung Fellows develop skills in leadership, entrepreneurship, emerging tech, storytelling, and inclusive design, which builds positive mindsets and values in empathy, equity, and understanding. Our model also teaches our students how to build inclusive teams, take risks, and above all, gain confidence in solving real-world problems within a community that embraces their diverse experiences and perspectives.

To date, the Fung Fellowship’s debut Health + Technology track — a collaboration between UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering and School of Public Health — has trained 145 undergraduates in the design, prototyping, and implementation of tech innovations that address real-world public health challenges. Fung Fellows in the Health track have presented at national conferences, won international design competitions, launched new health-tech ventures, and pursued careers in medicine, policy, public service, engineering, design, and healthcare management. Through a new partnership with UC Berkeley’s Rausser College of Natural Resources, we are now extending this successful program model to the field of biodiversity conservation.

Our partners are on the frontlines

We are enormously grateful and thrilled that our students will soon be assisting and working directly with some confirmed and other potential partner organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Network, Rainforest Connection, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation X Labs (to name just a few!) that are already collaborating every day with international governments and local populations in areas prone to such outbreaks in order to protect wildlife while simultaneously educating and helping people live healthier and even more prosperous lives; all of which helps prevent future global zoonosis threats. Together we can encourage a greater desire for peaceful coexistence and cooperation among ourselves and with nature, and help others realize that just about everything we do collectively here on Earth has an impact on and plays a role in our forever-shared future with this one-of-a-kind, life-giving planet.

We need your partnership and support!

If you would like to partner with us on this effort, or support the Fung Fellowship in other ways, please don’t hesitate to reach out! The leadership team can be reached at fungfellowship@berkeley.edu, and all inquiries will be considered.

“Just about everything we do collectively here on Earth has an impact on and plays a role in our forever-shared future with this one-of-a-kind, life-giving planet.”

Learn more about the Fung Fellowship at fungfellows.berkeley.edu.

The Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley is shaping the next generation of health, conservation, and technology leaders for a better world. 🌱

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