Gideon Erkenswick Watsa got his first job serving burgers at Johnny Rockets, got a degree in sociology, and biked alone from San Francisco to Chicago without a cell phone. Today he screens South American monkeys for diseases like malaria, leptospirosis, trypanomiasis, and filariasis. How did he get to where he is, and what does being a monkey health monitor even entail? Find out in this Ask Me Anything session, and check out the field courses he is teaching for FPI (Primates to Predators in India and Conservation in Action at the Osa Peninsula).

My Proof: You can send me an email to my account with Field Projects International (see photo), and I will respond. You can also compare that picture with the advertisement on FPIs Instagram account

Comments: 130 • Responses: 44  • Date: 

20JPorter51 karma

This in not the question you wanted, but what was working at Johnny Rockets like? Actually seems like an enjoyable job.

giderk60 karma

Heck no! It is absolutely the question I wanted. That's why I put it in title. Working at JohnnyR was great, although my location wasn't big on singing and dancing, I never found out why (must have been above my pay grade). It was intense work I recall. We had to make fries, chicken tenders, handle cash and credit card payments, serve food from the cooking line. Not a dull place, and had I wanted to continue in the restaurant business I feel I would be well prepared. I think ketchup should always be served in the shape of a smiley face.

io____oi17 karma

Do you become familiar or have a bond with the monkeys over time? Do they recognize you?

giderk25 karma

That's an awesome question. As far the monkeys that I work with, if anything, I sometimes get the sense that they know me by my ridiculous pink hat, you can see it in one of the pictures associated with this photo presentation

I definitely bond with them, but I'm not sure they feel the same about me. Every year, I get really excited to see what's new with some of the long lasting individuals. Did they switch groups (amazing when this happens), did they have a baby (and how many), are there new scars indicative of a bad encounter that they survived. It's sad when an old fav goes missing, but it happens, it's the real world.

double_turd14 karma

Soooo... you got older?

giderk1 karma

This seems more like a statement than a question.

3slyfox9 karma

What do you enjoy the most about doing this?

giderk10 karma

Are you talking about the AMA session or the monkey disease stuff?

3slyfox7 karma

the monkey disease stuff

giderk10 karma

Just look at these guys., page may take a moment to load. Can't help but love the host animals.

Also, I love discovering new things. It doesn't happen very often, so when you find something, for example malaria infections, you get really excited and try to understand what it is doing there.

Recently we screened for tuberculosis and leishmaniasis, no real success there. We'll screen for leptospirosis this coming summer. These are all things that, even as a human, you don't want. If we don't find them, it's good thing. If we do find them, it's not necessarily a bad thing, we just need to establish if it is normal or not and what it means for the population. We have just been funded to establish a genetics lab in the jungle itself, so we'll screen for viruses on the spot when that is up and running next year, it will be called the Green Lab, first of its kind. Definitely enjoying the projects as they expand.

io____oi7 karma

If you could bike from SF to Chicago again, what would you do differently? Was there any point during the ride where you felt unsafe?

giderk24 karma

Nice question! Makes me wonder if you also do bike tours?

That was before I became a biologist. Doing it again, I would photograph insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals in the different places I went (travels with more purpose). Then I think I would try to stop at schools along the way and show them what I had been finding in their area. I think that would be fun and get lots of young people excited about spending some time in their backyard.

My biggest fears were climate related. Getting caught in the middle of an enormous storm or tornado without shelter. I went through Kansas during tornado season, there were some freaky moments. Then there were other moments when I almost peed my pants at how fast I was moving down a mountain on very skinny tires that could give out and send me to my demise. There are other things, but the list will get a little long so I'll stop with those two memories.

Have to add, I tried to call my parents at one point and they only heard heavy breathing on their end. So they called the police department in the Colorado country where they thought I was. Someone actually drove the roads for an hour and found me at 9pm. I thought I was going to jail, lights and everyone were flashing, and then the officer says "have you called your parents lately". Can't believe that happened.

io____oi4 karma

I would like to do a bike tour one day! I started watching some videos made by Rapha and I've been daydreaming about it. Were there any physical changes or fatigue that you went through?

giderk5 karma

Yup, I think i developed what is called a baker's cyst behind my knees. Essentially, for a few weeks it was such that I could bike endlessly but could not get off the bike and walk more than 1 mile. It was rough for a moment.

You totally should do it, and if you can convince another crazy person to join you, that would be even better. If I do it again, I'd try to find a buddy.

LocalInactivist6 karma

How much crossover is there between the two jobs?

giderk7 karma

Between JR and disease research...hmmm. Collecting samples from wild animals is a rush, making shakes and fries for 3-4 tables is a rush. Lots of technical things to learn about working samples in a laboratory and lots of technical things to learn about making food in a kitchen (lab work is similar to cooking or baking, in my opinion). Finally, lots of funny characters and weird behavior to keep you occupied with in a restaurant like JR and also in the field on a research team. That said, a monkey has never asked me out on a date, but a customer at JR did one time (actually her parents did:).

PKMKII3 karma

Did you take them up on the offer?

giderk1 karma

I don't recall that I did, can't remember why. Maybe because I would forever have to doubt if her love was real, or if she (or her parents) only loved the uniform.

abrightredlight5 karma

How did you get to where you are?

giderk2 karma

Thanks for your question, I always find it helpful to hear how people ended up where they are. In my case, becoming a disease ecologist was not planned. I thought after college that I might like to do something in public health, and helped immigrants and migrant workers gain access to family services and health care in Kansas. When that job ended I volunteered to assist a monkey study for a year in Peru. I found that field work suited me, and started seeing that wildlife need as much of a voice as anything else. When I returned home, I took the GRE, applied to graduate school and luckily got in, and the focus of my lab group was disease ecology in the Galapagos islands. I started to study similar questions as my peers but with the focus being monkeys in Peru.

burrowed_username5 karma

Have you ever deep-fried a burger?

giderk2 karma

Have not, is it good?

burrowed_username2 karma

It can be, though occasionally I've had it go bad.

giderk3 karma

I've never heard of something like that, and don't personally have a deep frier. But, now that you have mentioned it, given the chance to try it out, will do!

trogers19954 karma

the title sounds like working at Johnny rockets was just a starting point for your career, what is so bad about working at Johnny rockets?

giderk1 karma

Check out my response to @20JPorter, JR was not a bad thing at all to me. I felt that juxtaposing JR with what I currently do made for a sweet AMA title.

giderk4 karma

Have to take a break to feed 16mo-old twins a snack. There will be another AMA that my partner and I are doing about how field biologists survive pregnancy and then twins. It's funny because we study monkeys that almost always have twins too, ironic. I will be back later to respond to any new questions . Thanks for the great conversations.

rigbly3 karma

Why didn't you stay at Johnny Rockets and complain about how much you make per hour on social medias?

giderk2 karma

That's combination that doesn't seem very fun. Seems like the kind of existence I would avoid. But I did enjoy my time at JR.

Siwatlaali3 karma

If monkeys and disease ecology were out of the picture, what would your dream job be like?

giderk7 karma

Now we are talking. I think I would have to be doing something in outer space. I am completely unqualified for any of those jobs, but I wouldn't be too picky. I'd be happy to open up an orbiting Johnny Rockets:)

Siwatlaali3 karma

What are the biggest research related challenges you have been faced with both in the field and out of it?

giderk6 karma

Good questions, both with potentially long answers. I'll do my best to be concise and please let me know what if anything you would like more details on.

Regarding challenges in the field: It took my research group about 1 years to set-up our primate mark-and-recapture program, which allows us to collect biological samples that I use to screen for parasites and pathogens, and individual-level data that can help us understand how parasites and pathogens are distributed. Outside of the mark-recapture program, we collect a lot of samples by just following primate groups, but even that takes time to develop because most groups are not habituated to human observers; which makes sense, we people don't like being stalked either:) So, in the beginning, we had to get very inventive with different methods for attracting primates until we found one that worked really well. Part of this was just a matter of putting in hard time.

Here you can see a nice photo story of our mark-recapture program:

Out of the field: When you start out everything is new, and there is a pretty big learning curve. When you look for parasites under a microscope, everything looks suspect at first. Developing search images was challenging, not to mention that identifying parasites by morphology remains tough even for experts. This is part of the reason why I decided that I would spend time learning to use next generation sequencing techniques to identify parasites in samples. It is very efficient and can be really accurate if you have good DNA reference libraries. The challenge with this is acquiring funding to do the genetics, because sequencing costs are pretty steep.

Here you can see some parasite images:

Siwatlaali3 karma


giderk3 karma

My pleasure!

whatsthehappenstance3 karma

What's your favorite species of primate?

giderk4 karma

I have one that I like working with the most, the titi monkey. Here it is

My sample size is still limited to monkeys in the Madre de Dios of Peru. Things may change as research broadens to other populations of monkeys.

Finglished3 karma

When did you know you want to be a monkey health monitor?

giderk9 karma

I love that job description! Thank you.

If there is one magical moment when I fell for monkey parasites and disease, it had to be when I was looking at a particular monkey called LBR (the BBC called him "red beads"), and you can see him in the Monkey Planet series, in the Family Matters episode. I looked at his blood, and he was exploding with filarial nematodes. I said to myself, "how the hell is this guy alive." Then he remained alive for the next 5 years, through tooth decay, tick infections, and all. Studying him, and a few others, has become like a Netflix series I can't stop watching.

Finglished5 karma

Wow, I have no idea what filarial nematodes are, but that sounds interesting as hell! Like some kind of Netflix sci-fi series, where humans have been infected with some strange disease. Maybe you will be the specialist that save us all one day.

giderk5 karma

So filarial nematodes can cause elaphantiasis in humans, among other things. Google that for some freaky images. I have yet to see this condition in a wild monkey, the day I do, you'll read about it in the paper.

Siwatlaali3 karma

Other than adquiring scientific knowledge, data and samples during your trips to Peru, what else would you say you learnt from being there? Or what would you like to get to know more of?

giderk5 karma

Goodness gracious, where to begin. What I've learned from being in the field includes (not exhaustive list): - how to hide in a forest (not kidding) had to do this one time when a massive gold mining strike took place and the research station was being threatened. - some people may think this is sad, but how to let nature take its course. In a city if you see a wounded animal, please help it. In a protected forest, you have to just let it be. We had one incident when a well meaning individual captured a ground thrush because they thought it was injured (actually it was just how these birds behave). They put it in a box to "let it recover" and rats came and killed it:( - appreciation for birds, insects, herps. So much downtime studying monkeys that it is impossible to not start occupying your mind with new hobbies, like identifying birds and insects - I think i better stop here

What do I want to know more about: - how parasite and pathogens impact monkey behavior. I've got some studies in mind that involve scent marking behavior and parasite infection. - I'd like to learn more about plants. they are fascinating in the Neotropics and the basis for everying. If I wasn't teaching another course at the same time I would be taking the Field Projects International course AmazonianABCS with Dr. Varun Swamy - It would never be possible, but I would be fascinated to see how the indigenous populations in the Amazon that remain in voluntary isolation survive in the forest. - again, probably should stop here.

Thanks for awesome question, makes me think of so many things.

tantrim3 karma

What do you think the odds of you or your colleagues are of becoming patient 0?

giderk2 karma

Relative to the majority of people in the world that don't work with wildlife, VERY HIGH. Relative to other people that study diseases in wildlife, MEDIUM. I don't currently work with bats, or apes, or generally sick animals. Actually, I am more worried about making a monkey patient 0 than becoming patient 0.

MsGoogle3 karma

Are there any zoonotic diseases that you fear?

giderk5 karma

Yup. Viruses that aren't yet known to science and cause quick death. Would rather not get famous from one of those. We take a lot of precaution when handling the animals. For the most part we don't interact with really sick animals, they get removed from the study population by natural causes (so many predators for little monkeys). If I knew that these monkeys where competent hosts of something virulent like Ebola, Marbug, and Hanta Virus, we would have to handle them very differently.

giderk4 karma

Just to add, one of my BIGGEST and frequent fears is that we give something to them while doing our work. Common colds, flu, bacterial infections that cause enteric disease. Wildlife are not meant to be exposed to so many thing we commonly get and can treat. It would be devastating to cause a massive of epidemic in a wildlife population like the one we work with. They have problems enough!

lo0ilo0ilo0i2 karma

What's your opinion about the movie "Outbreak"? Is that something that can really happen?

giderk2 karma

Good question, happy to give my take, but sadly you will have to give me a real quick run through of the plot. I faintly remember snippets from a long time ago. Like all movies I am sure it is full of some truths and some blatant exaggerations and misperceptions, playing on our fears no doubt.

For example, you can't really treat a virus except to provide someone with supportive care. You can try to disrupt the activity of a virus, if you figure out its cellular and molecular pathways, but that is slow and tedious research, nothing like movies depict. Vaccines only work if they are given to people ahead of time.

Extremely high virulence of a virus doesn't really come about through mutation within a single host population where it has been successfully living for a long while. From the perspective of a virus, if it kills the host too quickly, before transmission, then it will fail to disperse to new hosts, and thus ends the outbreak.

You definitely can have viruses from other species, that when they make that rare, successful jump cause fast and unstoppable death of the host.

I'm just stabbing at thin air here, but I will be watching outbreak really soon now that you have brought it up.

Master_of_Abstinence2 karma


giderk2 karma

This is called ASK ME ANYTHING, you can't possibly be off topic. This is hard to answer because there are so many variables. I would want to know if the person had a hard time taking classes, or doing well in classes. Also, would want to know what sort of career they had in mind. I feel like people in the restaurant business have some acquired skills that can be really valuable in other fields. For example, multitasking, organization, good when face to face with others, can deescalate situations, understand how a structured workflow can make things way more efficient. Businesses crave people with those skills, the technical knowledge is usually easy to teach on the job. There are ways to do extremely well in college classes without spending every moment studying, knowing what to study is a huge life saver, and knowing how to present information, whether it is a poster, paper, or talk can make a big difference too.

Timedoutsob2 karma

Were there serious food hygiene issues at Johnny Rockets that lead to your interest in exotic diseases or is that just coincidental?

giderk1 karma


hugz4drugz2 karma

Hard or soft tacos?

giderk2 karma

This is getting personal. I prefer hard taco shells, and those people that don't, not sure what they are thinking. Like a sugar ice cream cone versus those thin cake ice cream cones, who would ever want the latter:)

LivingstoneInAfrica2 karma

What was your favorite food/drink from Johnny Rockets?

giderk2 karma

I recall a mushroom swiss cheese burger and cherry-chocolate milkshakes being my fav

JJBiggs272 karma

Do you screen the wild primates back in the kitchen or out in the dining area? Is there any concern about these exotic diseases spreading into the burgers and fries? Do you let the primates wear the paper hats while you screen them?

giderk2 karma

You've just described my dream tonight. Two completely different periods of my life converging into one crazy episode of monkeys, disease, burgers, fries, shakes, and ketchup covering everything.

FigueroaYakYak2 karma

I read recently that Plasmodium knowlesi, which was thought to only infect monkeys, is also spreading to humans and causing malaria. Have you seen any evidence of South American monkeys being a reservoir for human malarial parasites as well?

giderk2 karma

Yes, actually. Along with a few co-authors, I JUST published a paper on finding chronic infections of Plasmodium brasilianum in wild tamarins (very small monkeys in Peru). According to the literature P. brasilianum was for a long time regarded as a distinct lineage that only infects non-human primates. There are now multiple studies (including mine) that have looked for genetic differences, serological difference, morphological differences that might characterize P. brasilianum, and all without success. By all accounts P. brasilianum is identical to P. malariae, which infects humans and has a global distribution. Its is incredibly fascinating, because if these two lineages are infact the same, then P. malariae/brasilianum is the most successful species of Plasmodium of all time. There are other cool things about it, for example it is frequently found in animals that are infected with other species of Plasmodium (which is one reason why it is under detected), it is not as pathological, and it exists at really low levels of parasitemia, apparently for long periods of time. So, we do have some evidence suggesting that malarial parasites likely flow between human and non-human South American primates, and we should study a lot more about it.

Here's the paper:

Afterhoneymoon2 karma

I’m a high school teacher at a school with a lot of low-income folks, what advice to you have for kids who want to go to college but do t have any support?

giderk2 karma

Too many kids meet this description and it sucks. I don't believe people should have to pay for higher education or healthcare, so many problems with the US system. My advice comes down to a real practical decision. If you aren't fortunate enough to receive financial aid, take a loan or burrow money (if it is even an option) when you know EXACTLY what you are going to do with your college education. If you have no other way, then you have to think about college as straight forward investment, and make sure it will pay itself off down the road. Making this determination is definitely not easy, and things are infinitely harder if/once you have dependents (so you have to plan ahead really well). I would not advise making this determination alone. Be brave and ask to talk to people in different professions (don't just talk to people you know), talk to school counselors, talk to your high school teachers (like the one that asked this question).

giderk1 karma

I'm signing off from the AMA session, thanks to everyone that joined in.

iambluest1 karma

What's it like working for the Trump Whitehouse?

giderk7 karma

Gosh, I can only speculate about it, as my current occupation is pretty removed from the Whitehouse. I get the impression there is not much job security there. I'm pretty content with monkeys and other wildlife in the rainforest.

iambluest5 karma

I figured diseased primates in a swamp would be similar, at least.

giderk5 karma

Lol! Nice set-up.

time2fly21241 karma

What is your favorite magic: the gathering color?

please be white please be white

giderk1 karma

If you had only asked this question about two decades ago I would have instantaneous answer for you. All of that magic went away at one moment in a garage sale

XiejaminBen1 karma

So was the decision to promote you to monkey disease screener come from corporate or is that a decision that can be made by your manager?

Have any of your exotic disease discoveries benefitted Johnny Rocket or lead to applications in general?

giderk1 karma

Sorry to be brief here but nope, nope, and nope. My findings have applied conservation and, in some cases, public health value.

batman610921 karma

Would you feed one of your primates a burger you cooked from Johnny Rockets?

giderk1 karma

JR burgers are not the point. I would not feed burgers.

freepickles2you1 karma

At what point did u realized u wanted to do that whole primate thing?

giderk1 karma

There were a few similar questions posted already above, early on in the session

LouCifer_loves1 karma

I screen wild primates for exotic diseases...

So you work at Planned Parenthood?

giderk1 karma

You will have to clarify the question and how you've made a connection to Planned Parenthood.

condomchewer1 karma

Everyone has to start somewhere. Is it supposed to be special you started in a field that most people have to?

giderk1 karma

See similar post above

Cat_Waffles0 karma

are you one of the Zuckerberg clones?

giderk4 karma

If I was, how would I know?

LocalInactivist2 karma

You get sued by the Winklevoss twins.

giderk1 karma

Negative then.