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Meet Ethan: from Harvard to the Rainforest

Hey friends!

Today we want to introduce you to Eshan! Film maker, story-teller, statistician, economist, nature lover, we recently had the pleasure of hosting him at Iracambi where he is making a film about us. He experienced his first overnight bus journey, shadowed our researchers, walked our trails, interviewed staff, students and community members and filmed our starry nights.

Here he is in his own words.

I am here in Brazil with a Harvard program called DRCLAS SIP (Summer Internship Program) that sends students to do internships in a bunch of different areas, and I’m actually working for a startup in São Paulo at the Google office. It’s my first time in Latin America, my first time in Brazil, and my first time traveling solo. A lot of exciting firsts.

Who is Eshan? 

There’s a lot of things that make up my identity. One really formative experience was my cancer journey. I was diagnosed when I was 4, and I went through two years of treatment. That shaped me very fundamentally into the person I am today, and the person I try to be in the future. There were a few other medical things which happened in high school which shaped my trajectory, both into medicine and out of medicine. And into some kind of business studies.

During covid I found another part of me behind the camera – it allowed me to see the world in a completely different way than I ever imagined I could. A big part of that was that I had other surgeries during covid which kept me bedridden for two months, so I was pretty much restricted on top of being on lock down, and this forced me to change the way I see the world. And I was able to find more happiness in an unbelievably difficult time.

I was also hugely into performing arts.

When I was really young, I used to be shy. Super closed off. And then my parents put me into a lot of performing arts studios, and I was able to perform on the Today show in Europe, and in the Library of Congress.  I got to travel a lot, do really incredible performances with a lot of incredible people and without those experiences I wouldn’t have been able to do that, or interview people and talk to strangers! I’m still not perfect….  It was during covid that I started interviewing people and making blogs in a multimedia form. It was really engaging to me, and it forced me to get out of my comfort zone.

I’m also an only child – that’s another thing.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and I still live there, my parents and myself and my dog. I joined the school of performing arts in the Richmond community. I did a mix of everything, whatever they asked me to do. I sang I acted, I danced. It was an inclusive arts program with people of all abilities, all needs, people on the autism spectrum, people who spoke in sign language, everyone could perform on the same stage in front of audiences of thousands. It was really exciting.

Most people try to shelter their kids from having difficult conversations and having that kind of experience. Especially in the hospital. I’d go there regularly and talk to people of all different backgrounds, all different abilities, and the pain and happiness which they went through really allowed me to be a much more empathetic person as well. That also translates into the way I make documentaries.

Your first love was medicine. What changed your mind?

It was those surgeries I had during high school. My cancer journey got me into medicine, and I was really hung up on being a pediatric oncologist for a long time. But then I got the other two surgeries which was a brutal experience. They were hip surgeries, almost the equivalent of a hip replacement. There was a lot of pain. A lot of intense emotions. It changed the way I viewed medicine, I didn’t think I could be a practicing physician or surgeon or oncologist any more. I wanted a little bit of distance from all that.

For a long time, I hid behind the identity of being a cancer survivor but I didn’t want that to define the rest of my career. If I applied to med school, that would be the essay I would write, and I wouldn’t be able to escape that identity which had been with me from a very young age. So I took a leap.

Going to Harvard helped me take that leap, because I saw it as a clean slate. I’d been doing a lot of research, a lot of medical stuff before applying to Harvard, but I went there to move into something new. I started in economics. Then I changed into statistics with a minor in economics. Now I don’t know what my plan is – I have a strong desire for medicine and a strong desire for conservation. And I think it’s possible to blend the two together in some way or other…

What was the trigger for your interest in the environment? Was it climate change anxiety?

No, I don’t really have that – I feel it’s something that has been created by the media.  A lot of people see that on Facebook and Instagram and TV, and when you step out into the world you see that things are not that bad. So with me when I was having surgery I knew I needed to get out, and what better way than connecting with nature? That got me hooked on the environment. But I’ve never felt anxious in the way that some of my peers have, because I’ve been able to see people for example in flood zones, and I’ve seen the way they handle those experiences. For me, it (nature) was more a way of connecting physically and spiritually during that time of distress.

When I was accepted on the program, I started looking for conservation organizations in Brazil. I kept looking and sent out hundreds of emails to see if anyone wanted help during the couple of months I would be here. I spoke with Gabi and Robin and thought this is cool, but I still didn’t understand what it was all about. I had no pictures or images of Iracambi except out of social media, and it was leap of faith. Way out of my comfort zone!

But I would do it again. Everyone at Harvard asked me what the heck was I doing getting into a bus and traveling for nine hours? They said I was wasting my Brazilian experience, but I don’t think so. They are sitting in São Paulo drinking caipirinha, but I think I’m doing pretty well with my Brazilian experience. 

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