America is, whether you want to admit it or not, a nation of immigrants. The country and culture that we have today was founded by immigrants, grew through immigration, and relies on the the hard work and innovation of immigrants to power our economy. My own father and brother-in-law are immigrants to this country from the Caribbean. It is fitting then, that some of our most beloved, beautiful, and brilliant birds are annual immigrants from the south. In this Creature Feature, we will explore a group of brightly colored little songbirds with a boisterous personality - the wood warblers.
I have always enjoyed observing plants and animals do what they do. Birds hopping about in tree tops foraging for insects, turtles basking, squirrels chasing each other across a lawn. This is probably why I’ve always liked keeping critters at home as pets, I could observe them and get to know them up close and personal. The more you observe something in its natural environs, the better you are able to understand it. So it is with science. If we can observe and understand science as it happens in real life we will have a better understanding of who scientists are, why they do what they do, and the value of their work. Allow me to introduce Science in Living Color, a blog series where you will be introduced to people whose work intersects with and relies on science all over the world.
To kick things off we will meet a man who is not a scientist, but a public policy officer. Nevertheless, his work is 100% dependent on critical biological and environmental science on a daily basis.
Over the past few weeks there have been two significant scientific marches here in the US, The March for Science last weekend, and the Climate March just yesterday. These have been powerful demonstrations, with literally tens of thousands of people coming together in support of science, environment, and positive change. In a climate (atmospheric and political) that is changing (in more ways than one), these were ways for supporters of science to make their thoughts and opinions known to those in power.
We should remember, though, that the best way to really change what people think is through face-to-face communication. The person who thinks funding for ecological research is a waste isn't likely to change their mind because a bunch of people wearing Patagonia and hiking boots stood on Boston Common in the rain. They might, however, see things differently after honest communication, hands on experience, and genuine interaction with science. In Boston, there was a Kids March with educational demonstrations, activities, scientists excited to talk to kids (ok, grown ups too). This is what we need more of!
Spring is beginning to spring here in New England. We've had some warm weather mixed in with some deep freezes, but our amphibian amigos are out and about!
Red-backed salamanders belong to a family of lungless salamanders called Plethodontidae. Many of these salamanders live their whole lives on land, and since they breathe through their skin (no lungs, remember!), they need to keep their skin moist by spending their time hidden under leaves, rocks and logs. We use small wooden squares called 'cover boards' set up in a grid to mimic natural cover and track salamander populations.
Let’s play a little word association game. When I say scientist, what sort of thoughts and images cross your mind?
Maybe you thought of a person with glasses in a lab coat surrounded by microscopes and beakers (a perfect image of one of my personal favorite scientists Dexter Boy Genius). Or, maybe you thought of scientists out in remote places pulling ice cores out of glaciers, or at a mountain-top observatory studying the stars. A common theme running through these different visions of scientist is that they are all somewhat inaccessible, either hidden in a laboratory, or far away in the field or on a ship doing their science; and you are here, in the real world, not doing science… But is that really the way it is, are scientists really so different from the rest of the world? What are these mysterious women and men doing in their labs and institutions all over the world?
To get to the bottom of that question we must first ask ourselves: what is science? What is the end goal of science, and (an increasingly asked question) can I trust it?
If we think back to the stereotypical pictures of scientists we just came up with, one common factor between them is curiosity. Scientists are driven by curiosity because they want to know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes a scientist gets so fixated on a particular question that they devote their entire lives to finding a solution. As a community, scientists are working together to figure out the way things work, or, as my friend and fellow ecologist Joe put it: “as scientists we seek to increase our [humanity’s] ability to perceive the world.” In the end, this is the mission of science, to explain, as best as we can, the world around us. So, how do scientists go about finding answers to their questions, and how do they know when they are right?
Why is one of the most important types of questions any scientist asks. Why do apples fall when I drop them? Why does the temperature decrease the higher I go up a mountain? Why do I find this Spruce tree on the north side of the mountain, but not the south?
Asking and answering why questions is a critical aspect of being a scientist, so, it is only natural that I ask: why am I a scientist? Why do have a passion for science, particularly biology and ecology? Why have these drawn me in so much that I’ve decided to dedicate my life to studying them? Looking back at my life’s winding road that has led to pursuing a PhD at the University of Massachusetts I can see four main influences that have shaped who I am today:
Time spent outside:
First, let me clarify here, some people spent a lot more time out in woods and wildernesses as kids than I did. I rarely went camping, my dad didn’t teach me to fish as a boy, and I’ve never been hunting. Nevertheless, the time reading books up in the branches of the pine by our driveway, catching frogs in streams and ponds, searching for snakes in the woods, and later, hiking and fishing was special time where I developed a relationship with nature. Without a love and appreciation for the outdoors borne of experiences and relationship with nature, I never would have become who I am now.