Alder Keleman: Biotechnic Detective Takes The Ultimate Field Trip

Alder Keleman’s passion for ecological issues must be genetic. The biology/Latin American studies dual major and magna cum laude graduate credits her father’s work with the U.S. Forest Service, as well as her mother’s love of all things scientific, as the primary influences shaping her interests in biological research—as well as her impressive academic career.

So it was no surprise when this past spring, both Alder’s academic and global pursuits culminated in the award of a yearlong Watson Fellowship to study the legal, scientific, and environmental ramifications of bio-prospecting in Australia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Alder is one of 60 college seniors nationwide to receive the Fellowship this year. Nearly 1,000 students from 50 private liberal arts colleges and universities applied for the award, which allows college graduates to pursue independent research project outside of the United States.

A Globetrotting Researcher

The list of Alder’s accomplishments to date is remarkable: she is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and was inducted into Sigma Delta Pi, the national Spanish honors society. Additionally, Alder is a two-time recipient of the Isabel Fothergill Smith Scholarship for excellence in both the sciences and humanities. Her love of Spanish culture and world travel led her to Santiago, Chile, and London during her junior year. Pursuing her fascination with biological research,Alder then journeyed to Jamaica and the Cayman Islands to study mammal extinction patterns. And as of August 1, she’ll be off on the adventure of a lifetime.

“I’ve been interested in sustainable development and environmental conservation for a long time,” she explains.”When I was putting together the Watson Fellowship project, what I originally wanted to look at was eco-tourism. While I was studying in Chile, I did a report on how the country’s equivalent of the forest service was trying to use eco-tourism as a way to generate funds for their national park lands. But I was having a hard time coming up with contacts for the eco-tourism project. My professor suggested that looking at bio-technology-particularly bio-prospecting-might be a good way to go about the subject.”

Through her advisor, Don McFarlane, associate professor of biology, Alder learned that the increasing regulation of biological resources, intended to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and the natural riches of developing countries, has had a chilling effect on basic scientific research. As Alder puts it,”I don’t know if I ran with the idea of bio-prospecting or it ran with me.”

Finding Answers in Bio-Prospecting

Bio-prospecting-or bio-piracy to its opponents-is a term coined to describe the centuries-old process of searching for biological organisms that can be manipulated for pharmaceutical, industrial, or agricultural purposes. Even familiar products such as aspirin and rubber, or foods like corn or potatoes, can be considered a consequence of resource exploration and dispersal.

Alder’s project focuses on several complex issues, including disputes over the “ownership” of ethno-botanical (or shamanistic) knowledge. For instance, while different countries are establishing bio-prospecting regulations, ecosystems don’t respect national boundaries.This often results in flawed or conflicting ecological policies among nations, since their indigenous groups believe that ethnobotanical wisdom is part of their traditional heritage, and not for sale to outsiders.

“There’s also the difference between the more developed perspective in Australia compared to the less developed nations,” Alder notes.”Costa Rica is more stable than Ecuador or Brazil, so it will be interesting to see how the countries look at their resources, as well as the existence of an indigenous presence, how the indigenous people are treated and recognized by the government, and whether they should receive royalties or reimbursement on the use of indigenous knowledge.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the bio-prospecting issue,Alder consulted two respected professors.”I appreciated the way David Lloyd [the Hartley Burr Alexander Professor in the Humanities] and Emil Morhardt [director of Roberts Environmental Center and professor of biology] approached issues from both sides,” she says.”In a class on natural resource management, in the face of a bunch of liberal college students, Professor Morhardt didn’t take the easy way out [by representing only the environmentalist viewpoint] but presented different perspectives. I admire that ability to look at issues thoroughly and not immediately take a stand.”

Creating Challenging Cultural Experiences

The hallmark of a successful researcher—scientific objectivity—comes naturally to Alder, who is excited by confronting foreign ideas, cultures, or environments.

“I remember when I was in Chile, one of the things that I liked best was having to think twice about every bit of communication that I had with another person—even if it was simply telling someone that I wanted sugar in my tea. Just trying to get all those nuances of communication down so someone wouldn’t immediately say, ‘She’s a foreigner, I’m sure she doesn’t understand what I’m telling her.’ I like that challenge. It’s what keeps me going back.”

Moreover, after living with what she described as a “right-wing” family in Santiago, she extolled the benefits of “getting another and different perspective on historical events, like the reigns of Pinochet and Allende.”

Then there was her induction into a now-favorite pastime, the Brazilian ceremonial dance capoeira.

“It’s a Brazilian martial art where some of the movements came from traditional West African dance,” Alder explains. “But also a way that the Brazilian slaves surreptitiously trained to fight. Capoeira is very acrobatic, rhythmic, and fluid. There’s a friendliness and energy among the people who do it-it’s a good way to build a community of people.”

Her most profound experience with difference, though, was “seeing people living in aluminum-siding shacks in Jamaica. Seeing so much poverty, I realized, for the first time, what it would be like to live in a developing country. It made me want to see more of the world and learn more about socio-economic inequalities.”

A Choice Watson Fellow

Seeking answers rather than résumé building experiences, made Alder a choice candidate for a Watson Fellowship, which allows Fellows to test their aspirations and abilities, view their lives and American society in greater perspective, and develop a more informed sense of international concern.

As she ventures out to make her mark in biological research, how did Alder choose the specific countries she will visit this year? The decision, she says, came down to language. “Part of the reason I chose these countries is that Australia is someplace I’ve always wanted to go, someplace where I can speak the language to get my point across. Since I already speak Spanish, Ecuador and Costa Rica also made sense. I’m hoping to pick up Portuguese fast enough to communicate in Brazil.”

Beyond language problems, many former Watson Fellows remark on the difficulties of being alone for a year. President Bekavac believes “inner reserves of strength and great curiosity about the world” are essential to staying the course while on a Watson Fellowship. Says Alder, “There are times that I’m worried about being by myself for a full year. But mostly I’m looking forward to it.”

While Alder’s plans to interact with scientists, activists, farmers, and others involved in bio-prospecting issues may seem daunting, she notes that they are simply an extension of her international experiences at Scripps. “I was attracted to the Watson Fellowship because I’m interested in travel,” she says. “I grew up in central Washington and spent most of my life in the same 200-mile radius until I left for Scripps. Having already spent a full year abroad, I wanted to find a way to do it again.”