Documentary by Watson Fellow Emily Stanford ’17 Accepted in Wildlife Conservation Film Festival

May 7, 2020

Carson Li ’20

woman in blue shirt holds a bat.
Emily Stanford ’17 holds a bat.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Emily Stanford ’17

Some may find it difficult to love bats, especially at a time when they are considered a possible origin of COVID-19 and Ebola. But according to the CDC, scientists still can’t definitively pinpoint exactly where those viruses come from.

Emily Stanford ’17 thinks bats are one of the world’s most misunderstood mammals. After receiving a Watson Scholarship in 2018, she started a year-long journey traveling to nine countries—Fiji, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Malawi, and Madagascar—to explore how different cultural perceptions of bats influence their conservation.

“When the media write about how bats have so many diseases, they often take it out of context,” Stanford said. “If you look into the studies where they found that bats carry more diseases and viruses than other animals, they actually sampled twice as many bats as all the other types of animals combined. Bats are easy to catch, which makes it quite easy to sample them in high numbers. Because of this kind of sampling bias, articles will take the conclusion out of context and say bats have more viruses than other animals.” 

woman holds bat.
Photo courtesy of  Emily Stanford ’17

Throughout her Watson year, Stanford lived with people who love bats and those who hate bats. She filmed the interviews on her phone and put the clips together into a documentary, and later she submitted it for entry into the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival. It was accepted this year.

“The most serious threat to bats is failure to understand them,” a bat conservationist in the documentary says. “Bats are of huge economic importance. …It’s been conservatively calculated that bats are saving American farmers almost $23 billion a summer.”

According to a wildlife rehabilitator in the film, bats eat a lot of pest insects. It is estimated that during the summer, half of a million bats at Congress Avenue Bridge, in Austin, Texas, eat about ten tons of insects every night. This makes a vast difference on the number of pest insects on the landscape that would otherwise cost agriculture billions of dollars every year.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about bats because they’re out at night, and you often see them from far away,” Stanford said. “Bats have a really gentle nature, and a lot of bat rehabbers I lived with told me that once they show people a bat up close, they immediately fall in love with it. They had no idea it could actually be adorable.”

Stanford originally planned to attend graduate school to study disease ecology. However, her experience making the documentary has caused her to think more about exploring science communication, informing people with science knowledge and eliminating misconceptions.

You may also like…

Jane Sedlak ’19 Studies the Chemistry of Wildfire Smoke

April 20, 2022

Jane Sedlak graduated from Oberlin College in 2019 with a degree in chemistry and was named the winner of Oberlin’s Nexial Prize. Given to a student who demonstrates academic excellence and an interest in cultural study, the Nexial Prize comes with a $50,000 award, which afforded Sedlak the opportunity following graduation to study art conservation at the Louvre in Paris. She is currently a graduate student at University of California San Diego.
Head shot of Jane Sedlak

The Pursuit of Research and Understanding How the Brain Works

March 15, 2022

David Shostak’20, a native of San Francisco, played four years on the varsity soccer team and graduated with a major in biology, a concentration in cognitive science, and a minor in environmental science. For the past two years, he has worked at a neurobiology lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. In fall 2022, Shostak will begin working toward a PhD in neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco. Read more about Shostak in this After Oberlin Q&A.
Head shot of David Shostak

Director Ry Russo-Young ’03 on Filmmaking, Storytelling, and Nuclear Family

January 6, 2022

On September 26, director Ry Russo-Young ’03 released her three-part documentary film Nuclear Family on HBO Max, which follows her landmark custody case that unfolded in the late 1980s. The film is an intimate look into Russo-Young’s childhood growing up as the younger daughter of two lesbian mothers and a paternity suit that threatened to upend their "nuclear family."
Ry Russo-Young takes a self-portrait in the a mirror