Montana State University

studentlivin'@msu: Trip to Madagascar inspires, tires

October 14, 2004 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


John Kinross-Wright with tree boa.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Excuse John Kinross-Wright if he's seemed a bit tired lately.

The Montana State University senior recently returned from two weeks in Madagascar and five days in Arizona. Now he's trying to make up the work that he missed while collecting exotic plants and microorganisms on the island near the southeast coast of Africa. Kinross-Wright majors in biochemistry, serves as senator with the Associated Students of MSU, works in an HIV research lab, belongs to the Golden Key honorary society and occasionally helps the Red Cross.

"I function better when I'm busy," said the Big Timber native who's applying to medical school and relaxes by learning new songs on his electronic keyboard.

Kinross-Wright serves on a regional board for residence hall advisors and went to Arizona to help plan a conference. He then flew to Madagascar with Gary Strobel and 10 others to look for plants and microorganisms with unique and beneficial properties. Strobel, a professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, has traveled to Australia several times on such a quest, but this was his first trip to Madagascar. It was also the first time he'd invited students. Kinross-Wright and graduate student Jeff Cameron went from MSU. Others were two undergraduate students from Brigham Young University, a National Geographic writer and a medical doctor to extreme locations.

"It was a neat trip," Strobel said. "It was something I think every college student should be exposed to, actually."

Kinross-Wright said, "It just kind of reaffirms what I want to do. I want to do medical research. They have a large problem with medicine down there. Hopefully, I will be able to go back sometime and volunteer some time there. It's definitely a place I would like to return to."

Kinross-Wright, the son of Paula Curtin and Jeremy Kinross-Wright of Big Timber, underwent heart surgery when he was six months old and again at two years. Healthy since then, he saw Madagascar children whose limbs were deformed by polio. Natives and visitors worried about getting typhoid and malaria. The threat of parasites kept him from swimming in fresh water.

"The people are really nice, but incredibly poor," added Kinross-Wright who paid for the $6,000 trip himself with help from his parents.

Most people he saw in Madagascar only owned one or two sets of clothing. They lived in bamboo huts or other types of shacks. In the capital city of Antananarivo, he saw unattended children walking the streets.

"It's just really different," Kinross-Wright said. "There are no police anywhere, no traffic control."

As far as plants and animals go, Madagascar was a treasure trove of biodiversity. Kinross-Wright held a tree boa around his neck and an insect called a walking stick in his hand. The insect was more than six inches long. He saw the world's smallest reptile. The group encountered lemurs, chameleons, spiders, ants, snakes and leeches.

"Several people got leeches," Strobel said. "There was blood all over the place. These leeches tend to hang on the plants. As you're going through the bush, they drop and somehow get on you."

Madagascar probably has 10,000 different plant species, and 8,000 of those grow nowhere else in the world, Strobel said. His group collected about 40 plants, and he expects to find more than 1,000 microorganisms in them.

"The boys helped with collecting samples and asked a lot of questions and got to see life in a Third World country," Strobel said. "There's no question about it. It changed their perspective."

Kinross-Wright said, "I had a really great time It was a great learning experience."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu