This professor won $3,000 and used it to go see sloths

John Wilmes inside a canoe on a river in the Amazon rainforestPhoto/John Wilmes

John Wilmes canoes in the Amazon rainforest.

Being the numbers guy he is, mathematics professor John Wilmes knew the odds were slim.

And yet, it happened again like clockwork.

At the final faculty meeting of the year last May, Wilmes’ name was drawn for the Wellington Prize, an annual award established by an anonymous donor in 1983 that gives a Brandeis assistant professor $3,000 to spend on anything but academic research.

Wilmes did not attend the meeting when his name was drawn, something he shares with every faculty member who’s ever won the Wellington Prize.

That same week, Wilmes also won a Teaching and Innovation grant to develop a course on oral communications skills and basic programming, as well as a National Science Foundation grant for research on machine learning.

“I found out after the fact about the long tradition of faculty not going to the meeting and winning,” Wilmes said. “I certainly thought it was good fortune. It was a good week. Very surreal with how lucky I got with everything."

The only thing left for Wilmes to do was decide how to spend the money.

Madlen, his wife, offered a suggestion.

“Actually, my wife, she told me right away what I’d do. And I said, of course, why didn’t I think of that? What she told me was that I was going to see sloths, because I love sloths.”

So Wilmes and his wife set their sights on the Amazon jungle in Peru. They went canoeing and camping in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, where the Marañon River flows through a lush forest that’s teeming with life roughly 20 miles from the Brazilian border.

“It had been a dream of mine since I was a kid to explore in the jungle, so in a sense this was a dream come true,” Wilmes said. “It was very educational and enlightening. Just an amazing amount of biodiversity.”

Wilmes said he went during the Amazon’s dry season when there is less flooding, but saw from the water lines on the trees that the water level goes up several meters at other times of year.

He also saw many species of birds – hawks, vultures, toucans, parrots, cranes, and macaws – as well as small mammals like monkeys, and his beloved sloths.

What is it about sloths? 

“I don’t know, sloths just appeal to me as an animal that has a good life,” he said.

Per Wellington Prize rules, Wilmes presented what he did with the prize money at the first faculty meeting of the academic year on Sept. 13.

His successor will be chosen next May.

“It’s really fun that we have this,” Wilmes said. “I think it enhances the sense of community. I also think it’s a fun way to find out about other professors in a more personal context. It’s nice to hear about what other faculty would do if they were given $3,000 and were told they couldn’t use it for research.”

Categories: General, Research

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