Thoughts on Theses: Melissa Sheth
Issue   |   Wed, 11/16/2016 - 00:40

Melissa Sheth ’17 majors in anthropology and biology. Her thesis discusses human-animal interactions that have led new pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) to emerge in the last few decades. Her advisor is Professor Deborah Gewertz in the anthropology department.

Q: How would you describe your thesis?
A: My thesis is specifically looking at human-animal interactions and how they’ve changed in the past few decades to facilitate pathogen emergence or to enhance pathogen emergence in human populations. What I’m looking at are spillover events, which are when a zoonotic disease — that is, a disease that has its reservoir in an animal host — manages to escape from the animal host, enter the human population and propagate there. Zoonotic diseases are really important in today’s global health network, simply because most — the vast majority — of infectious diseases that humans experience are zoonotic in origin. Being able to look at opportunities of when certain spillover events are occurring is really crucial to understanding not just how the disease is transmitted, but in perhaps preventing future outbreaks of some epidemic.

Q: So what aspects of those diseases are you looking at?
A: Each chapter represents a different infectious zoonosis … [in] different geographic locales. So for example, my first chapter is focusing on avian influenza in Vietnam, although this disease is pretty prevalent in Southeast Asia in general. What I am interested in is looking at how humans in Vietnam are interacting with hosts of avian influenza, which are most commonly chickens or poultry, essentially because epidemiologists have noticed a rapid increase in the number of people who are falling ill with avian influenza. My question is, why? What is changing about how humans are interacting with poultry — either in an agricultural sense or in a food industrial sense?

Q: How do you go about doing your research?
A: I read promiscuously. That’s the term that my advisor has coined, and it’s very apt in my situation … I’ve just been reading, and reading, and writing, and taking so many notes. It can be a little bit frustrating sometimes. There are times when I’ve read books, really interesting books, and they might have had an aspect here or there that was relevant to what I’m writing, but they’re not completely applicable. It’s a little frustrating, in situations like that, because you realize you’ve spent all this time reading a book, and you think, “Ah, I don’t actually know if I’m going to be using it.” … As you read promiscuously, and as you read more, you start to make connections in your mind between different articles and between different authors, and from there you begin doing a little bit more in-depth, topic-specific research. You start emailing authors of the articles asking for more information, you start talking with your advisor and networking to see if there are other professors of other institutions who specialize in your topic or who might have more insight. You start talking with people in other departments. You really realize, in a way, that by starting broad and getting narrow, you focus better on the development of your writing and your topic.

Q: Why did you decide to do your topic?
A: I have been pre-vet for around eight years now, so it’s been a long time, and I’ve always been interested in animal diseases. One of the things that I’ve learned from my practical experiences working with animals in a clinical veterinary setting is how similar a lot of the diseases they get are to human diseases. And so just on my own, when, because I’m nerdy, I was doing my own research, doing my own things and learning that a lot of the origins of human illnesses are found in animals really interested me. I just wondered why. I look at trends and I wonder why those trends exist. … A lot of my reason for doing this just stemmed from my own curiosity, which I think is really important. Just as general advice, I think it is absolutely crucial that anyone who wants pursue a thesis choose a topic that they are passionate about and that they’re interested in, because they are going to be spending a significant amount of time with the material, a full year at least, and they are going to be devoting a lot of their resources and energy into pursuing this one goal and answering certain questions. If they’re not passionate about it or if they don’t like what they’re doing, it’s not going to be fun. And I think part of the reason why I’ve really enjoyed writing a thesis so far is because I am always excited to learn something new about my specific topic and I’m excited to make connections that maybe other people haven’t noticed before.

Q: What has been the hardest part of doing your thesis?
A: For me the hardest part is trying to balance contributing something new to anthropology and proposing this novel technique — not only proposing a novel technique for analyzing epidemics, but also actually implementing it in my chapters and synthesizing information from various sources into a perspective that is more complete, I believe, of how disease is transmitted from animals to humans. It’s very hard, balancing that while also understanding that I’m not doing my Ph.D. and [that] I only have a year to finish my thesis research, so there are just inherent limits in the amount of information I can gather and the degree to which I can use that information in my writing.

Q: What advice would you give to future thesis writers?
A: I already mentioned the importance of having a topic that you care about and that interests you. I think another huge aspect of what makes a thesis successful or not is the particular advisor that you work with ... But I would say — that to the extent that you have a say in who your advisor — is to choose carefully. Make sure it’s someone who has a style of working that really coincides with your own … Personality-wise, you have to be able to get along with your advisor. I mean, this is someone that you meet with fairly frequently. They’re going to actually serve on a panel during your thesis defense that you have to present. Making sure that it’s someone you like and that you get along with is really important too. I think your advisor really dictates significantly the success that you’ll experience in your thesis. I’ve been lucky enough to have a really great advisor.

Q: How has your advisor helped you with your thesis?
A: We meet fairly frequently, and she’s been extremely supportive. She has always made it clear that she thinks that what I’m doing is important and that I should also believe that it’s important, and she has been able to direct me to people who are experts in this particular field and who have been extremely helpful ... That’s been extremely helpful. She’s also just someone who’s very easy to talk to at least for me. It’s just really nice to have someone to go to to talk about things — because I know I can talk, and I have talked, about non-thesis things with her, and have been able to learn a lot about her and about myself through that too. I’ve been very fortunate to have an advisor who cares a lot about what I’m doing and who is willing to support me in every way that she can.