o’connor ’26 focuses on bats for new doc

Every year, the Bailey COE awards fellowships to fund summer research opportunities for Wesleyan students across all majors and class years. Most recently, the Bailey COE awarded more than 40 fellowships to Wes students.  Zack O’Connor ‘26 is a prospective film and environmental studies double major. For his summer project funded by the Bailey COE, he produced  a documentary about white nose syndrome, a devastating fungal disease that has had a catastrophic impact on bat populations across North America. Zack’s film focuses on how white nose syndrome has impacted bats on Martha’s Vineyard.

Hi, Zack! Would you mind sharing a bit about yourself?
I’m from Barrington, Rhode Island, a small town just outside of Providence. I grew up alongside the ocean, and love swimming. I swim competitively at Wesleyan and have been swimming for most of my life. One reason I wanted to come to Wesleyan was the amazing film program. I wanted the opportunity to combine my interests in the environment and oceans with filmmaking. Growing up, I would always take my camera around Martha’s Vineyard and make small films, just for fun. Having access to this grant was an amazing opportunity to engage in work I already love doing. 

What inspired you to create this project?
I took a documentary film class with Professor Sadia Shepard. The course was designed for first-year students and I loved it. It was a chance to do hands-on production work during my first semester at Wesleyan. Many of the film classes are based on analysis and theory, which I also really enjoy, but I thought this class was a great opportunity to develop a creative project with other people. Each time it’s offered, the course focuses on a different theme. When I took the course, the theme was the environment, specifically water and sustainability. During the class, film and environmental studies major Joel Rader ‘23 came in to show his own project he created through the COE grant, and I knew I wanted to apply. Professor Shepard really encouraged me as well. 

My grandparents are from Martha’s Vineyard, and I have been visiting them since I was young. They are very involved in conservation on the island, and they put me in touch with Dr. Luanne Johnson, one of the cofounders of BiodiversityWorks, a conservation organization focused specifically on wildlife monitoring and research on Martha’s Vineyard. Dr. Johnson suggested I make a film about one of the greatest ongoing wildlife disasters: white nose syndrome, an extremely contagious fungus that spreads amongst bats and is responsible for killing about 90% of the North American bat population. 

What role do bats play in the ecosystem?
Bats are definitely overlooked when it comes to the role they play in the environment. They are often seen as pests. However, they are a necessity when it comes to maintaining a balanced ecosystem. The bats they were studying are responsible for eating around 3,000 mosquitos a night. They play a large role in pest control. Bats serve as an excellent reminder that every species plays a crucial role in their respective environment, whether we acknowledge it or not. 

What footage did you capture?
We studied two species of bats: Northern Long Eared Bats and Little Brown Bats. Dr Johnson’s  team was doing hands-on research at night. They would set up large nets that were pulled up like a curtain, near an old abandoned barn where the bats were known to be roosting (resting, during the day). After dark the bats would fly out of the barn and into the nets. They were carefully taken out, one by one, and the researchers would take measurements, tag the bats, and safely release them. I had the chance to film the whole process. I would spend four to five hours a night filming, and would wrap up around one or two in the morning. 

What other initiatives are BiodiversityWorks involved in?
Martha’s Vineyard is such a popular tourist attraction, the reason being the amazing biodiversity of the island. The island has such a unique landscape, consisting of marshes, ponds, and forests surrounded by the ocean. BiodiversityWorks works with numerous species found on Martha’s Vineyard, including beach-nesting shorebirds, whose nests can be easily damaged by people or dogs walking along the coastline, and Black Racer snakes, for which they have built tunnels so that the snakes can cross dirt roads without being crushed by vehicles. The common theme for the organization’s initiatives is to protect species that are adversely affected by the growing number of people on the island each summer (over 200,000 people at times). BiodiversityWorks also spreads awareness and gets students and community members involved! 

Where are you in the production process?
Right now I am editing the film. It is a meticulous process! It definitely takes a while for all of the footage to load onto my computer and I have to sort through hours of footage, but it’s worth it. There are some great close-up shots of the bats that I am excited to include in my movie. I am hoping that when I go to Martha’s Vineyard for Thanksgiving I can get a few remaining shots, but I definitely plan to finish the film this year. 

Is there anything that you are excited for in the future?
I’m hoping to major in film and environmental studies, and would love to apply for this grant again. I have some ideas for future documentary projects I would like to create; I am very passionate about environmental filmmaking. I’ve been set on it since I came to Wesleyan. I’m pretty confident that this type of work is what I want to do in the future!