An Inextricable Connection
by Amy Yomiko Vittor
As a child growing up in a family practicing Nichiren Buddhism, I was always encouraged to have big dreams and to contribute to the world. I had no concept of limitations, and thanks to my parents' conviction in my inherent potential, I went out into the world with excitement and hope.
As challenges arose, my parents taught me about the Buddhist concept of the oneness of life and its environment, which explains how our lives and our environment are inextricably connected. At times when I am struggling, it is always easier to blame external circumstances; however, the empowering aspect of this teaching is that a profound change in ourselves gives rise to a change in our environment.
Experiences of traveling globally cemented in me a love of the world and its diversity. I witnessed the beauty of the Saudi Arabian deserts, the breathtaking complexity of the jungles in Thailand and the historic old cities of Europe. In my mind, this diversity was best embodied in the tropical rain forests, where thousands of species could be found in a single tree. A passion for the rain forests was coupled with a desire to help people in sickness--I wanted to become a doctor. Moreover, I wanted to find out how human health is linked to the environment. Just as understanding the concept of the oneness of life and its environment in my personal life allowed me to create change in my environment through my own development, I gathered that understanding ecology-health dynamics could lead to healthier people and better environments in which they dwell.
I made my way to graduate school to study public health to investigate the relationship between deforestation of the Amazon and malaria transmission. In the Peruvian Amazon, there had been a recent upsurge in cases of malaria. My hypothesis held that deforestation was leading to the creation of breeding sites for the Anopheles malaria mosquito, thereby contributing to the rise in malaria.
I set out to Iquitos, a jungle city in northern Peru, where I assembled a team of biologists and fieldworkers. We spent countless hours in the rain forest collecting adult mosquitoes throughout the night and mosquito larvae during the day. We made door-to-door visits to survey people's living conditions and check their blood for malaria parasites. The work was fraught with challenges and obstacles. In the face of deception, robbery and our boat catching on fire, I struggled to stay positive.
I realized that I had been trying to contribute to the world primarily through my research, but in order to make a truly lasting contribution I needed to connect heart-to-heart with the people immediately around me. With this realization, I began developing precious friendships with the local community. My research also fell into place and led to new findings that confirmed my hypothesis.
After three years in the Amazon and completing my PhD successfully, I returned to the United States to study medicine. Deciding to broaden my horizons, I taught science in schools in southern and eastern Africa during my summer break. During my residency in Internal Medicine, I worked at a hospital in Gaborone, Botswana, taking care of critically ill HIV patients.
Now, I am an Infectious Disease fellow and work with patients with HIV while consulting on hospitalized patients with infectious diseases. As part of my fellowship, I will be returning this year to Ethiopia and Peru for new research. This time, I intend to examine the dynamics between ecology, urbanization and mosquito-borne encephalitis viruses such as yellow fever and dengue, ever in search of the links between life and the environment. Nichiren (1222-82) writes: "The ten directions are the 'environment,' and living beings are 'life.' To illustrate, environment is like the shadow, and life, the body. Without the body, no shadow can exist, and without life, no environment. In the same way, life is shaped by its environment."
[Courtesy, July 2010 SGI Quarterly]