BIMS week -get involved & catch BIMS Bites

by Leslie Townsell of BIMS

This year, the ICB blog and BIMS, Black in Marine Science, have been collaborating monthly to highlight scientists from the BIMS organization. It is our hope that this collaboration has further fostered connecting a phenomenal network of colleagues in marine bio and informed our readers about BIMS research as well as their continued work to not only create a network but also a safe space for their members.

This month, Leslie Townsell, Chief Operating Officer at BIMS, currently interning at The Georgia Aquarium shares with us about BIMS fantastic annual week of events:

Summer of 2020 ignited a movement for Black folks in nature. We wanted to normalize being Black in nature. On August 9th 2020, Dr. Tiara Moore tweeted “Hol up where the Black in Marine Science week at?!! Let’s gooooooo. These weeks been having me hype especially because I dip between a lot of disciplines” This tweet pictured below started a movement, the BIMS movement to be exact.

A screenshot of a tweet from Dr. Tiara Moore that jump started BIMS week.

We hosted our first BIMS week at the end of November 2020 and had a huge turnout. Folks from all over the world tuned into our virtual week of Black amplification, storytelling, and excellence!

Late December of 2020 we decided BIMS needed a permanent place in the community and we started the paperwork to form a nonprofit organization. In January we created new programming for our YouTube channel BIMS TV: BIMS Bites, BIMS Bites Kids and BIMS Dives.

BIMS Bites, is a bi-monthly video series that premieres Fridays at 1pm ET on our YouTube channel. The videos are five to eight minutes in length and are based on topics in marine science disseminated by Black marine scientists. BIMS Bites Kids is a monthly video series that premieres Saturdays at 11am ET, with videos ranging about five minutes in length. The talking points are targeted to children in order to create more excitement and greater understanding of science. BIMS Dives is a monthly live stream series which premiers on the last Friday of the month. The live streams run about one hour in length. Two moderators discuss a hot topic in marine science with an expert in the specified field. Viewer participation is encouraged by asking questions to the expert. Additionally, BIMS TV hosts special events with various members of the BIPOC community. All videos on BIMS TV are made ASL accessible to create an equitable scientific environment.

A screenshot of the BIMS TV page with the most recent videos pictured.

BIMS Bites topics include discovering what marine science is, understanding the water cycle, exploring climate change, discovering bioluminescent life, coral reef restoration, plastic pollution, and many more. BIMS Bites Kids topics include learning about sharks, oysters, sponges, sea stars, and plankton to name a few. BIMS Dives topics touch on science communication, research and academia, innovation and technology and coastal biology among various other things!

In additions to BIMS Bites, BIMS Bites Kids, and BIMS Dives, you can find past #BIMSWeek events on BIMS TV. You can enjoy book excerpt readings through #BIMSReads, listen to a virtual therapy session through #BIMSCares. Watch a powerful keynote on pursuing the unknown or how to fall back in love with science. Watch newly minted SCUBA divers discuss the joys and challenges of diving. Learn how to connect with your audience and network through the BIMS workshop series!

BIMS Week is back this year! During the week of November 27- December 3, 2022 you can find us celebrating our annual BIMS week! This year is slightly different because #BIMSWeek2022: #MarineScienceIsLit is officially a UN Decade of Ocean Science endorsed activity. So come join us on BIMS TV to find out why marine science is lit!!!

A save the date flyer for BIMS Week 2022

#BIMSweek will be filled with litty hours, panels, workshops, keynotes and many more special events so stop by BIMS TV to find an event perfect for you! Join us on Friday, November 25 for a special BIMS Dives event led by our BIMS Week day leads to learn about all the different events occurring during BIMS week!

connect with BIMS

Twitter :@BlackinMarSci and Instagram via blackinmarinescience

YouTube –

And don’t miss out on Leslie Townsell’s (@MelanatedMarSci) blog

Including Indigenous People in Research and Pedagogy – a SICB sponsored workshop overview

On Friday the 18th of November, a group of scientists attended a zoom focused on including indigenous people in research and pedagogy presented by Ripan S. Malhi and Ulrike Muller

The workshop was based on Appreciative Interviews of Liberating Structures. (

image from site listed above and see

When asked why they attended the workshop, several of the attendees responses included:

finding a community of others who are seeking to decolonize their practices

learn effective ways to promote DEI that is specific to indigenous people and how to become a better advocate

how to build a partnership that’s mutually beneficial when students contribute through community service and have the opportunity to learn indigenous ways of sustainability managing natural resources

to gain skills to create an inclusive classroom and respect for other cultures

learn about how indigenous knowledge is included in biology classrooms and reflect on how similar strategies can be employed in my own.

learn effective ways to promote DEI that is specific to indigenous people and how to become a better advocate.

At the onset of the workshop, Ripan started the workshop with his first experiences in studying population genetics. In grad school at U.C, Davis in late 90s to early 2000s, he was participating in learning about population histories of indigenous people in North America. The Phd advisor in the lab had 100’s of tubes of blood of indigenous people that he’d collected from a variety of places all over North America.

In Ripan’s 4th year an indigenous archeologists invited him to Round Valley reservation to give a talk and collect samples. It was his first time to perform research outside the lab and talk with California’s Indigenous people. He was excited to collect new samples as in the lab they’d been working with samples that had been collected for other reasons than the ones their projects focused on.

At end of talk he gave, an elder asked “Why should we trust you?”

The elder talked about scientists taking samples previously, yet never coming back to relay any results. Ripan knew that this extraction without communication was a model he didn’t want to follow however, he didn’t know how to do community engaged work to keep this from happening until he worked with a bioarcheologist, Jerry Cybulski, who had worked with first nations for 20 or 30 years. (

Harold Harry (left), community member and collaborator on the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, and Jerry Cybulski, curator of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. Malhi met Cybulski in 2004, and the two collaborated on research until Cybulski’s retirement in 2013. (Image courtesy of Ripan Malhi)

During this time, Ripan learned that you should go back annually and have the people who you took samples from involved in reports and in every part of the work. They work with tribal leaders and the local community to write and M.O.A. (memorandum of agreement ) that they revisit at least annually to ensure both the scientists/researchers and the community are having their needs and goals met with the research. Armed with this knowledge, Ripan developed a fellowship program that trains scholars in genomics and teaches them how to approach it in a way that’s attractive to indigenous communities differently.

When discussing the hardships of this type of work, one that Ripan noted, “I struggle that it is my job is to do this type of research yet often the smaller communities have people to work on this who are doing a dozen different jobs at the same time. If they’re working with me, it’s going to be on top of all else they have going on. Finding balance between not overstepping and speaking for them while also making things easier for them is a struggle. I don’t want to speak to what people want yet I also want to lighten their load if they don’t have time to speak for themselves.”

Aside from being sure to have an M.O.A., these steps were also given on how to be mindful at various stages in your research work:

  1 Work with those who are already established

  2 Be respectful and transparent, it needs to be mutually beneficial  

3 Be aware of intertribal politics that you must be conscious of

In the second part of the workshop, Ulrike shared about her work to have students engage in a decolonizing project in the classroom. In this effort she hopes to address the colonizing issues within the natural history collections.

To start, she has students work to answer questions about species such as

Who contributed the specimen?

Who named the specimen?

Who is honored in the name?

By doing this, students discover that certain collections, such as the mammal collection, have been contributed by nearly all men. Students also find that most of the collections have been dominated by white males. Ulrike offers the students opportunities to bring in their own specimens so that they’re actively working to change the contributor record.

She finds that many of her BIPOC students are contributing, yet in order to make sure everyone feels included, she works hard to frame the work in language that is not shaming to students of privilege. Ulrike noted that using language that empowers those students to be allies rather than shames them is important.

Another practice that Ulrike works on to help bridge the gaps between local communities and academia is to have them share practices and contrast their local practices with academic medicine. They start by focusing on a health issue such as cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health. Ulrike then asks:

“What do you, your family, your culture and community do to promote cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system health?”

This line of inquiry helps to respect local and indigenous knowledge in a constructive way. In Ulrike’s class they go on to explore what academic medicine says about what the students have shared that their culture does.

While examining this, they usually realize their cultures have similar practices and goals as academia does in regards to cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health.

Ulrike hopes to help her students recognize that local knowledge is equal to academic knowledge. Another hope she has is to help them see that it’s important not to “parachute” into communities to extract knowledge but rather invite them to share and collaborate.

After Ripan and Ulrike shared, attending scientists were invited to discuss their own experiences with the subject matter at their universities and in their research. The major ones that were touched on again and again revolved around the fact that grant funding does not allow for time to develop relationships that can be needed for forming the M.O.A.’s and or following up with local communities.

Another concern was finding the time, resources and staff to have adequate follow up and continuation once a set research project is finished. There was also a wide concern of how to implement best practices without being exploitive.

Many great ideas were exchanged to meet these needs such as having PhD students involved in summer programs to help with initiating programs and following up afterwards, working with your universities liaison (first becoming aware of who they are and if your university has one) who can help form relationships with local tribes or agencies.

There was also discussion surrounding working to improve the cultural competencies of staff in regards to their local student population and address historic exclusion that universities may be participating in.

Great resources were also shared as well such as :

Overall, this workshop helped to connect those who are interested in this topic while also generating some excellent questions about how to best engage with indigenous communities in research practices. It also offered help for how to begin raising awareness in the classroom of colonizing practices that have persisted and how we can work to change them.

Of course none of these issues can be solved overnight, but with meetings such as this one, we can at least begin to chip away at some of the longstanding practices that have hurt the communities around us, and do our best to begin to do better.

Connect with Ripan and Ulrike via



Resources shared in workshop:

research collaboration resources


○Trisos CH, Auerbach J, Katti M. Decoloniality and anti-oppressive practices for a more ethical ecology. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 2021 Sep;5(9):1205-12.

■Ulrike: I love this article, but then a friend is a co-author, so I am clearly biased

●other useful websites and resources:

○Ecological Society of America – Traditional Ecological Knowledge Resource page:

■Ulrike: good section on resources for Collaborations and Partnerships with Indigenous Communities

Article that includes a “7Rs of Indigenous Research”

Banquer. L. (2017). Transforming Spaces: A Decolonizing Approach to Collections Stewardship at the Burke Museum. Unpublished master’s project, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.

Art in Bio- ICB author Noah Bressman & IOB author Rene P. Martin

by Andrew Saintsing, Andrew Saintsing, Graduate student at the Poly-PEDAL Lab , Berkeley

Our Art in Bio series frequently highlights the important role that art plays in science. Art is a form of communication that can distill complex and abstract ideas into concrete images and sounds. In other words, it is an essential tool for disseminating new insights both to the scientific community and to the wider public. But scientists don’t just make art because it’s important. They also make it because it’s fun.

Rene P. Martin Noah Bressman

I recently spoke to two ichthyologists, University of Kansas graduate student Rene P. Martin and Salisbury University assistant professor Noah Bressman, who consider themselves artists. Both Martin and Bressman are talented enough to sell their work, but they didn’t start making art with that goal in mind. Nor did they start making art for the sole purpose of communicating science. Making art is a fun hobby for both Martin and Bressman, and while they’d both encourage you to use art for outreach, they’d place a higher emphasis on cultivating hobbies you enjoy. Here are some of my takeaways from speaking to the two of them.

Rene Martin posts art of all kinds of fish to #SundayFishSketch, but as a scientist, her research focuses on lanternfish, which form the family Myctophidae. Occasionally, her art and research overlap. Above, see watercolors of a lanternfish from the genus Diaphus on the right and of the prickly lanternfish, Myctophum asperum, on the left. Check out Martin’s website for more information about her research on these abundant, but elusive bioluminescent fish.

Pursue your passion, practice your craft, and other people will follow

Martin had always enjoyed sketching and painting, but by the time she started her master’s degree at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, she’d been out of practice for about a decade. In 2016, she created #SundayFishSketch on Twitter as “a personal motivator to practice every week and to put [her] art out on social media, mainly under the assumption that someone out there might or might not be like, ‘Hey, I’m looking forward to that art she posts every week.’” She knew that art could be a useful tool for scientific outreach, but she didn’t start #SundayFishSketch as a scientist hoping to engage the public. She started it as an artist looking for motivation and a platform.

            “It ended up snowballing into this community of people that started posting their own art,” recalls Martin. “At some point, someone suggested we do weekly themes … It’s at the point now where thousands of people see it every week and upwards of 50 to 80 people make posts every week.” That community includes both scientists and artists, and it overlaps with other Twitter communities as well. Norte Dame postdoc Katie O’Reilly, who started #25DaysofFishmas in 2018, has collaborated with Martin on holiday themes. During December, “every Sunday, the theme [for #SundayFishSketch] is the fish that [O’Reilly’s] going to post. She gives you clues as to what fish might end up being. People draw what fish they think it is, and it’s really great because the people then post those drawings,” says Martin.

            Because it provides a space where scientists can interact with people outside of the scientific community, #SundayFishSketch can provide a platform for outreach. “A lot of the time, someone will message me,” says Martin, “Recently, we had a shark biologist who just published a book on why sharks matter and was like, ‘Hey, can we have a theme associated with this book?’” Martin is open to those requests and recognizes how beneficial it can be to use social media to draw people’s attention to conservation and other important issues. At the same time, though, she never loses sight of her initial mission to create a space where people can share their art with a supportive community. Martin says, “It’s about the practice, and it’s about the art, and occasionally, it’s about the facts and the conservation.”

            Martin uses #SundayFishSketch primarily as a motivator to practice her art, but that practice is ultimately beneficial to her as a scientist. She saves money and time when she can make her own illustrations for her manuscripts or for infographics that she uses in outreach efforts. Still, she doesn’t think every biologist needs to start posting sketches to social media. “If you want to practice and you really like art, this is where you can do that. But also, no pressure. There are other ways you can spend your free time,” says Martin. She started #SundayFishSketch because she genuinely wanted to practice sketching and painting, but there are plenty of other artistic media to explore for scientists who don’t like to draw.

Noah Bressman learned to clear and stain fish with Adam Summers in the summer of 2016. In the years since, he’s explored the possibilities of this process as an artistic medium. He creates distinctive imagery by physically arranging specimens, taking photographs, and manipulating the photographs in Photoshop.

Have some fun, and go with the flow

“I can’t really draw anything,” says Bressman. “But I took the [University of Washington’s] Friday Harbor fish course with Adam Summers in the summer of 2016. One of the things we learned was clearing and staining.” Clearing and staining is a method for visualizing the skeletal system of a vertebrate. It involves treating a specimen with a series of chemicals that digest muscles and some organs, and it leaves behind a highlighted skeleton.

            The next fall, when Bressman moved to start his PhD at Wake Forest University, he realized that decorating his new residence with art from a gallery was a little outside of his price range. But he knew that Summers had made art out of images of cleared and stained fish specimens, and he decided to try it himself. The only problem was that he didn’t have the nice camera and lighting equipment that Summers had, so he turned to Photoshop. “I did something wrong and just kind of shifted the color wheel,” recalls Bressman. He liked the changes, though, and he decided to print the image out.

            He went to FedEx Kinkos to print it on a big canvas, but then he got hungry on his way home. It was the summer in North Carolina, and he didn’t want to risk leaving his new wall decoration in the hot car, so he brought it into the restaurant. Inside, they were taking down some artwork, and on a whim, Bressman offered his. To his shock, the restauranteurs liked it and accepted his offer. Before long, word spread, and he was furnishing local breweries. He charged some money, but he didn’t demand much. He was even open to trades. When he went into one farm store, he saw a dead fish in their aquarium, asked for it, and brought back a print of it. In exchange, the owners gave him some honey.

            As word of mouth grew, Bressman decided to use his art as an opportunity for science outreach. He would say, “Let me explain this to you and how this research technique [works]. Now the species that you’re looking at … this is an invasive species, and these are native species.” He started offering his art to local school classrooms, and he teamed up with other artists and even poets for public art installations. He experimented with more abstract arrangements, and people started finding deeper meaning in his works. They also began to offer him as much as $300 for a print. “It gave me a real confidence boost,” says Bressman, “But I like to have them low-cost, to have them out on display, getting people thinking.” Bressman didn’t start making prints to gain recognition as an artist. He just wanted to spruce up his living space. But when he saw the opportunity for outreach he had been given, he didn’t hesitate to seize it.

            The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down some of Bressman’s outreach efforts, but he still uses art to engage with the public. After joining Salisbury University as an assistant professor, Bressman sponsored the Nanticoke River Invasive Fishing Tournament, in which anglers competed to catch blue catfish (Icatalurus furcatus) and northern snakehead (Channa argus). The winners received prints of the two species, both of which are invasive to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Do what you enjoy, and be a community member who’s also a scientist

While Bressman happened upon his artistic side as an adult, he’s been an angler since childhood. “I’m genuinely a fisherman,” he says. “I won a kayak fishing snakehead tournament.” Those bona fides are important because he wants fishermen to know that he’s one of them; as a scientist, he wants to conserve fish populations so that he can continue to fish them in the future. Art is an amazing tool for communicating science, but as Martin says, “There are other ways to spend your free time.” In other words, art isn’t the only way to engage the public. Pursuing any passion can create opportunities for science outreach.

            Bressman’s invasive fishing tournament is the perfect example. He’s recently begun researching the impact of northern snakeheads and blue catfish on the aquatic ecosystems surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. Both are invasive to the area. Northern snakeheads are native to Asia, and their presence in the United States since 2002 has generated a significant amount of trepidation. In fact, there have been at least five different Syfy original movies about killer snakeheads in the past 20 years. Fishermen are generally advised to kill them on sight. In contrast, blue catfish are native to the Mississippi River, and they’re generally not viewed with the same degree of negativity. However, blue catfish may pose a greater risk to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. “If you were to take all the life out of [a given tributary] with a net, including the plankton and the plants, and weigh it all, up to 70% [of that weight would be] blue catfish,” says Bressman. “They’re so abundant, they must be having effects.” Bressman and his research team need more data, though, to know for sure. And that means collecting specimens.

            While blue catfish are relatively easy to catch with electrofishing, northern snakeheads are more elusive. Earlier this year, Bressman was thinking about how challenging it would be to collect all the specimens his team needed, but then he realized that they could “have perhaps hundreds of people collecting their fish from all parts of the river.” He secured funding from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and drew on his experience as a competitive fisherman to organize the Nanticoke River Invasive Fishing Tournament, which occurred on July 30.

Not only did the tournament bring him samples, but it also provided him the opportunity to educate the public about the role that every single person can play in checking the growth of blue catfish and northern snakehead populations. After all, humans are amazing predators. Bressman recalls a “big promotion event with radio shows and TV shows, news interviews, things like that. To encourage people to eat these fish. To have effects beyond the fishing tournament.” Politicians on both sides of the aisle even reached out to Bressman and his team to discuss potential policies. The team hopes to build on their success with another event.

The Nanticoke River Invasive Fishing Tournament was a great opportunity for science outreach, but that’s not why Bressman fishes. He fishes for the same reason that both Martin and he make art. He fishes because it’s fun.

Connect with Rene P. Martin on Twitter via @Lampichthys and participate in #SundayFishSketch

and read Rene’s work with co authors via our sibling journal, IOB

Bone density variation in rattails (Macrouridae, Gadiformes): Buoyancy, depth, body size, and feeding

Rene P Martin, Abbey Dias, Adam P Summers, Mackenzie E Gerringer

Integrative Organismal Biology, obac044,

Connect with Noah Bressman via Twitter @NoahwithFish

& Support SICB’s student scholarship fund by purchasing merchandise with Noah Bressman’s Bonez design

and read Noah’s ICB paper

Terrestrial Capabilities of Invasive Fishes and Their Management Implications 

Noah R Bressman

Integrative and Comparative Biology, icac023,

and listen to both Noah and Rene discuss their research on The Fisheries Podcast

Exploring Amphibious Invasive Fish

Deep Sea Lanternfishes and #SundayFishSketch

Connect with science blogger Andrew Saintsing

Connect with Blogger Andrew Saintsing via Twitter @AndrewSaintsing

Cat Tales—Woo-oo! A Review of Craig Pittman’s Book, Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther

art by Brent Foster

By Brent Foster

Any book that begins with scientists giving mouth-to-mouth to a tranquilized panther promises to be weird and severely entertaining. If you ask me, Craig Pittman’s book—Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther—delivers on that promise.

Pittman’s writing voice is such that I can picture him grilling gator tails in the back lanai, telling Florida panther stories while I sit in my lawn chair with a cold root beer and laugh when he waves his spatula and splatters grease everywhere. This story is filled with characters so quirky they are almost uncomfortably real, with no stuffy verbiage to distract the reader. Instead, I often found myself giggling so hard that my wife would ask me if everything was alright. When I’d share the quip, we’d belly-laugh together. Other times, I would groan and shake my head at the wit and humor (and dismay) that are always so entwined in Florida man stories.

While I enjoyed Pittman’s personal touch, some moments felt like stand-up comedy routines—funny, but just a tad forced for the sake of a cheap laugh and to remind the reader how clever the author is. Pittman admits as much, saying he “can seldom resist the urge to play smart aleck.” Still, the price of admission is worth the final punch line—his voice was engaging enough to keep me turning the pages, so job well-done.

And if a story needs conflict to be compelling, Pittman again succeeds. Between hunters killing for sport, ranchers protecting their livelihoods, drivers running over panthers on the highways, lawyers rigging juries, and politicians/scientists handing out “drive-by” developing permits to pave panther habitats, the odds were stacked against this apex predator. When Pittman draws the battle lines, he divides the good guys (panther lovers) from the bad guys (pretty much everyone else, especially land developers), crafting the story of saving the Florida panther into a classic tale of good versus the not-so-good. Sometimes these people felt more caricature than character, which was narratively effective but probably oversimplified at times.

Some of these conflicts are especially timely, and Pittman does not shy away from exposing the nitty-gritty skeletons in the closets. With recent concerns over data manipulation and intellectual dishonesty in the sciences, Pittman’s telling of the Florida panther story serves as yet another cautionary tale. Between the pages is a scientist who throws out data because they don’t fit his hypothesis, who digs in his heels when anyone contradicts his claims because he, after all, is “the Panther Man.” One veterinarian’s observations of panther inbreeding and genetic bottlenecking were shunted aside apparently because of her boss’s ego, delaying interventions that proved crucial for saving the Florida cats. These chapters could serve as an extended case study in academic hubris boosted by publications and the skewed power dynamics of work environment sexism. Pittman paints a picture of the one-sidedness of special interests, of under-the-table deals, of how even the “good guys” are susceptible to the corrupting influence of lots and lots of money.

There’s no shortage of tales to make readers grow hot under the collar—near the end, I almost made a hand-written sign and marched up to the Florida state capitol to convince the politicians to get their acts together.


But in this wild and weird story, there are some inspiring takeaways.

Despite the political treadmilling that is the nightmare of many citizens and scientists alike, Pittman demonstrates the power of rallying public support in conservation efforts. Readers learn how elementary school students petitioned the Florida state legislature to change the state mammal from the polar bear to the endangered panther, highlighting some more Floridian shenanigans and exposing just how little anyone knew about the elusive big cats disappearing from the forests and swamps. This simple engagement initiated public curiosity and helped spark early efforts for panther conservation that eventually led to their underdog comeback. Later, readers also learn how nature photography illustrates the beauty of Florida panther conservation efforts, softening the hearts and minds of the public, replacing their fear and distrust with awe and calls for action.

All in all, Pittman manages to capture the absurd and shape it into a compelling narrative as only a Florida man can. After reading Cat Tale, you might clench your fists and shake them at all the political advertisements dotting the highways these upcoming elections, keeping an eye out for migratory panthers sporting their radio collars. You might have a story or two to share over Thanksgiving or Christmas, and when you do there’s sure to be at least a few guffaws. But I imagine Pittman would hope that, after wiping the tears from your eyes—either from frustration or laughter—you might put his book down and do something to preserve the wild and weird wilderness we all call home.

Sci comm blogger Brent Foster is interested in the evolutionary origins of nervous systems. Connect with him on Twitter at @_brentmfoster.

Free ICB read on a parasite that affects big cats:

What Makes a Feline Fatal in Toxoplasma gondii’s Fatal Feline Attraction? Infected Rats Choose Wild Cats 

M. KaushikS. C. L. KnowlesJ. P. Webster

Discovering Snakes in Wild Places– a book talk with Dr. Harvey B. Lillywhite

by  Gabrielle Risko, Florida Southern College

For many people, the thought of encountering a wild snake evokes a negative response. Even just the word “snake” can make people uneasy, as it is often associated with evil or malicious intent. Media and urban legends also perpetuate unfortunate stereotypes about these creatures, leading to tragic outcomes; many snakes lose their lives daily due to the misconception that they are dangerous and aggressive. It is a rare privilege to come across someone who looks at these oft-feared animals with a sense of wonder befitting their status as extremely specialized, essential members of ecological communities.

As an avid snake lover, I was delighted when I was offered the opportunity to obtain a copy of Dr. Harvey B. Lillywhite’s Discovering Snakes in Wild Places: Stories of Passion, Adventure, and Science in exchange for a review. I am pleased to share that this book exceeded my expectations on several fronts. Not only do readers get to experience thrilling adventures alongside the author, but each chapter of the book is filled with personal anecdotes, photographs, and information about various species from the United States and abroad. I was especially impressed by the author’s attention to detail, as well the inclusion of sources for further research at the end of each chapter.

For this book talk, I corresponded with Dr. Lillywhite over email. Below, I have included both the questions that I posed and Lillywhite’s thoughtful responses.

In your book, Discovering Snakes in Wild Places: Stories of Passion, Adventure, and Science, you describe many instances during which you have observed and/or captured snakes in the field. Do any of these specific encounters stand out as the absolute most memorable/exciting? Why?

This is difficult to answer because each snake is different; species vary a lot in behavior; and nearly every encounter is exciting in some way.  The very first rattlesnake I captured, which is described in Chapter 1, was super exciting and memorable because of my young age, the size of the snake (a large Red Diamondback, Crotalus ruber), and the circumstance of its discovery.  My friend and I extracted the snake from where it sheltered between rocks, and because it was winter and the snake was cold, it coiled where we deposited it in the open, inhaled greatly (to appear larger), then emitted a loud hiss as it exhaled, and this was repeated over and over.  The snake was too cold to rattle effectively, so we just watched it for some time as it inhaled, hissed, inhaled, hissed, time after time.  It was spectacular and relatively “safe” to watch.

A representative photograph of a Red Diamondback, the “first rattlesnake”, provided by Dr. Lillywhite. The book contains many such images showcasing snakes displaying natural or defensive behaviors.

Another very memorable occasion was when I walked in the shallow waters of a high mountain lake in the Sierra Nevada and numerous garter snakes swam away before me when I got close enough to disturb them.  There were many snakes basking in the warm shallow waters of the lake’s edge, and I was impressed by the number of these gentle snakes as well as the beauty of the setting (described in Chapter 6).

The most startling occasion involving a surprise encounter with a snake was when I was walking slowly through riparian habitat and an Australian tiger snake shot itself straight upward in tall grasses just in front of me and briefly spread its neck into a hood, much like a cobra, then returned to the ground and moved off in the direction I was walking.  I had never seen a tiger snake “hood” in this manner before, although I had captured many of these venomous snakes.  This is described in Chapter 15.

Many researchers struggle to relay their excitement for their specific brand of science to the general public. In my opinion, this book sits right in the sweet spot between entertaining and informative. I’m interested to hear more about how you settled on this style. What were your overall goals for this writing project? Who is your target audience, and what do you hope they get out of reading this work?

The collection of stories in this book were born out of a lifelong passion for finding and studying snakes.  A principal aim of the book is to convey a sense of wonder and excitement associated with snakes, and to evoke appreciation for the elements of awe and exhilaration they can inspire.  One of the important goals that I prioritize is to interest people in nature and natural history, especially younger persons.  Hence, I hope to inspire students with awareness of the adventure and romance that can be such an enjoyable aspect of field work and a driving force to motivate interest in science.  People who seek encounters with wild creatures in nature will add both inspiration and meaning to their lives.

Dr. Lillywhite holds a brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) during a trip to Australia.

There are a lot of differences between writing a scientific article or book chapter and writing a series of memoirs. Did you face any challenges when trying to write about your experiences?

The book is a collection of stories, each involving different snakes and circumstances, with varied opportunities to convey the awe and excitement of discovery as well as to impart some amount of knowledge concerning the setting and natural history of the events and the biology of each species.  The challenge was to recount numerous experiences, each with meaningful facets and inspiration, but without creating repetition. 

The book contains many stunning images of snakes in their natural habitats. I noticed as I read that many of these pictures were taken by you, the author. Have your experiences with capturing snakes in the field caused you to develop an interest in “capturing” them in a different sense (through photography)?

Yes.  I learned over time there was value in simply watching a snake before just grabbing it, which often presented opportunities to learn more about its natural behaviors and avoided undue trauma that might be involved in its capture.  I also realized the value in capturing the beauty of a snake by means of a photograph that can be shown to others.  Many of the photos of snakes involved posing the animal, usually with a natural background, and taking numerous photographs in order to capture the ideal position or posture I was wanting to show.  I have photographed many snakes, including close-up aspects of their anatomy, for illustrations in papers or books that I publish.

A lot of people struggle with an innate fear of anything creepy or crawly (or slithery). Therefore, people may not understand what draws biologists to work with these organisms. Why is it important to study snakes?

To quote my graduate mentor and supervisor,

“there is nothing more practical than learning about the world around you.” 

George Bartholomew

Snakes are an important and meaningful part of this world.  My studies of snakes are born out of innate fascination to understand what they are, how they function, and how important they are in the natural world.

The book’s author poses with a cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) from Florida’s Seahorse Key. The particularly large snakes from this area are a continued area of interest for herpetologists studying snake physiology.

Your work with rare and/or venomous species has taken you to many far-off places. You shared in several chapters that local people provided knowledge about snakes’ habits and preferred habitats. How else have your research projects allowed you to collaborate with local people in these snakes’ native ranges?

One of the greatest pleasures of being a field biologist is the opportunity to travel and experience new places, landscapes, people and cultures.  I have had the opportunity to work with foreign scientists and share discovery with them, many of whom have become cherished lifelong friends, and also to meet many people with differing mindsets and share knowledge, thoughts and feelings.  Traveling among other cultures is the best way to convince one of the importance of peace and global harmony.

[If you are interested in reading this book, you can obtain a copy for yourself from ECO Publishing here:

Previous ICB work from Lillywhite, free to read


  • connect with book reviewer

 Gabrielle Risko

School: Florida Southern College

Major/Career Stage: Recent graduate, majored in biology with a minor in English 

Social media: Twitter- @GabiGrabsHerps 

Art in Bio – Spotlight on artist Dr. Kinsey Brock

 by Kaitlyn M. Murphy, Ph.D. Candidate, @AuburnU | Janzen Lab Alum | Warner & Mendonca Labs

Our Art in Bio blog series includes artwork by either our ICB authors, social media followers or SICB society members along with the artist’s thoughts on how their art influences biology and vice versa. Dr. Kinsey Brock, a National Geographic Explorer and NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of California – Berkeley, shares her work and thoughts with us this month below:

Dr. Kinsey Brock, National Geographic Explorer and NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of California – Berkeley.

During her Ph.D. program at the University of California – Merced, Dr. Kinsey Brock began a podcast called “RadioBio” with fellow graduate students. For each episode, students designed a cover image that illustrated the scientific concepts discussed in the episode. It was creating these illustrations that began Dr. Brock’s interest in utilizing art as a way to visualize her research. “While making some of the episode artwork, I felt so in flow – listening to the podcast, reading scientific papers, and creating an image that would communicate both science and feelings to a listener,” says Dr. Brock. She continues, “…when I started publishing papers during my PhD, I thought a great way to communicate my science would be through imagery.”

Dr. Kinsey Brock’s inspiration for her artwork stems from Greek mythology and where she conducts her research along the Greek islands.

Dr. Brock studies color polymorphism and trait evolution in Aegean wall lizards (Podarcis erhardii) along the Greek islands. “The art I make about my science is heavily inspired by the Greek landscape, mythology, and ancient art of the region. I let my humor and scientific knowledge play with those muses, and out pops ‘weird lizard people art’ as some have called it. Now I have a whole lizard people world in my mind that I enjoy sharing through my art,” says Dr. Brock.

Dr. Kinsey Brock’s study organism, the Aegean wall lizards (Podarcis erhardii), that her artwork is inspired from.

Aside from her amazing contributions to science, Dr. Brock utilizes many types of art in her work. “I mostly do black and white ink drawings of cartoon lizard people. Ha! The types of art I have trained in, am inspired by, and incorporate into my work include ancient Cycladic marble figures, Mycenaean pottery, Asian woodblock prints, drawing, single-panel comics, cartoons, pointillism, and sumi-e,” she says.

“It aint easy being orange” by Dr. Kinsey Brock.

Creativity and science work hand-in-hand. “Science and art both rely on observation, imagination, and ideation. Doing science and art feels similar. Both are all about process. I could talk about process all day. To encourage creativity, a person needs time and space to think, make connections, and take risks,” says Dr. Brock.

To follow more of Dr. Kinsey Brock’s work, check out her website and Twitter page @kb_kinsey!

See for more of Dr. Kinsey Brock’s artwork! All images are for sale as originals and prints where 100% of proceeds go to the Herpetologists’ League for purchasing gift student memberships. To connect more with Dr. Brock, email her at

Read Brock et al’s

Feed or fight: testing the impact of food availability and intraspecific aggression on the functional ecology of an island lizard

& Free ICB read by one of Brock’s co authors Anthony Herrel

Functional and ecological correlates of ecologically-based dimorphisms in squamate reptiles 

Shawn E. VincentAnthony Herrel


Connect with blogger Kaitlyn Murphy, @KMurphyau

Gender Inclusive Biology’s – part 2 – Science As Compassion – In the Classroom

by River X. Suh , science teacher w/ background in bioarchaeology, law, & publishing , co founder of Gender Inclusive Biology

If you missed part 1 from last Friday, go back and check it out before reading this portion

Not everyone gets the same sex ed teacher, and by acknowledging (mis)conceptions, students stay open to learning together. Because students learn best as part of a learning community that values them just the way they are, we first share all the words we associated with male/masc and female/femme, then erase those that could apply to any gender.

I frame our curiosity: “We have so many different ways of talking about male and female! How will we know what we mean, and what else is there out there? ”

I want everyone to get used to using accurate language for body parts and functions. So let’s practice using very specific language for specific functions. It’s important to be able to communicate about our bodies in accurate ways.

River X. Suh

Even scientists confuse sex and gender, though we continue to learn more through studying  the evolution of sexes and the mechanics of gamete size. (Some teachers with different chromosomes in autosomal cells use themselves as examples of chimeras to illustrate the intricacies of human genetics. Non-genetic cell duplication is also a key feature of meiosis and skin healing.)

So what can be our overall approach? A lot of models can help facilitate conversation. A few Gender Visualization Tools connect culture to details about chromosomes (such as differences in sexual development for XX, XY, XO, XXX, etc. and their statistical frequency). Flowcharts (Beyond XX and XY) detail how chromosomes and hormones interact to generate sex characteristics, and how differences in sex determination create a human spectrum. Gender-Sexuality Alliance groups use Gender Unicorn and create Gender & Sexuality Galaxies. Beginning with this familiar context builds student confidence towards critiquing the gendered roles we ascribe to behavioral categories like foraging or grooming.

For specific morphological examples of sex, consider three possible approaches to making instruction more scientifically precise and inclusive. We can: (1) amend and clarify using new evidence, (2) pre-establish inclusive, respectful language,  and/or (3) decenter humans and use non-human examples to open discussion and allow students to drive the conversation.

Screenshot: Talking to Kids about Gender in Science (WeAreTeachers)

Option 1: Amend and Refine. As long as students use scientific evidence to actively critique and refine their meaning, we can keep the familiar “mom/dad” language of existing materials. New discoveries continue to fuel scientific arguments that reframe our worldview. “We now know that some people don’t share chromosomes with the people they call mom or dad. For example, some children are adopted or conceived with a sperm donor or egg donor.”

 In HHMI’s Sex Verification Interactive, after seeing a graph of blood testosterone levels in professional athletes, many students decide “male” and “female” in sports are based on the regulators’ arbitrary interpretation of scientific data. Students argue large overlap in range makes testosterone a poor measure of sex and gender, so we should “just respect the athlete’s identity first” until we know more.

Option 2: Pre-Establish Inclusive Language. What if language is all we can adapt for now? Familiar categories might be tempting, but when we know better, we do better, even awkwardly. One example: “Our assigned sex of female or male usually indicates the type of gamete we make: egg or sperm. Our sex is separate from our gender identity.”

Our team created bite-size, brief, and longer language guides, including for non-English languages. We continue to revise these terms in consultation with educators, doctors, and researchers. We do this to ensure these aren’t shortcuts, but labels focused on function. Some teachers even ask students to choose new terms to best describe different size gametes or genetic contributors.

Screenshot: Gender Showcase on GIB

Option 3: Go Broad, Decenter Humans. Using nonhuman examples of sex and gender can make it easier for students to start thinking about their own bodies and selves. Alien life may also use more than a small and large gamete, and environmental effects on genetic expression also keep students curious about ways life exists. When asked to sort reproductive strategies, students quickly remark their social ways of thinking about gender and sex do not suffice for these examples. A growing and accessible collection also explains temperature-dependent sex determination (crocodile) (turtles), unisexual salamanders, touch-based sex determination  (slipper limpets), and epigenetic phenomena (Early life nurturing & later life stress response in rats connecting to intergenerational trauma). Interactive games also help complicate sex determination and nondisjunction.  All these examples both broaden and deepen the idea of an evolutionary trait.

The plethora of resources out there is almost overwhelming, from classrooms to ambulances to nursing programs, and any step towards openness can uncover a wealth of local support and equally curious people trying to figure out the path forward that honors our children. Parents and guardians often ask questions and many schools have policies, newsletters, and healthy inclusive practices that build on community strengths. Growing a more inclusive learning space and world is a community effort that is constantly in development, for the only constant is change.

See also

Guest blogger River X. Suh , co founder of Gender Inclusive Biology

Connect @GenderInBiology

The Coolest Office in the World  

By: Maya Thomas – BIMS Member

This year, the ICB blog and BIMS, Black in Marine Science, has been collaborating to highlight scientists from the BIMS organization. We hope this collaboration will further foster connecting a phenomenal network of colleagues in marine bio and inform our readers about BIMS research as well as their continued work to not only create a network but also a safe space for their members.

This month Maya Thomas of BIMS shares with us about the coolest office in the world.

Maya Thomas

“Most people would just be bragging when they say they have the coolest office in the world, but for me, it just might be true. My office just happens to be in Antarctica—the coldest continent on Earth!

I am currently a graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, William & Mary, and even as I enter the third year of my PhD program it still surprises me how far I have come.

I grew up in a land-locked state but was always completely fascinated with the ocean and its animals, dolphins and penguins were always my favorite, but never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined how exciting and fulfilling marine science could be as a career path.

Out of all the topics I could study I have chosen to focus on Antarctic zooplankton (small aquatic animals that cannot swim against a current and my new favorite animals), and I was lucky enough to finally visit the frozen continent in November 2021.

We boarded the research vessel that would become our home over the next two months and set sail from Punta Arenas, Chile. We left from the western coast of the South American continent and sailed for about a day, surrounded by Chilean peaks and accompanied by birds and the occasional seal. After months of preparation and days of “hurry up and wait” before we departed, it felt surreal and almost overwhelming to know that we were finally on our way! Spirits were high and all of us—scientists and crew—were more than happy to be on the water.

…Until we hit the Drake Passage, best known for being some of the roughest seas on the planet. I don’t know if any of the first-timers knew how to properly prepare for the intensity of the waves, especially compared to the nearly flat straits we had just come out of. Personally, I made it through with a lot of sleep and seasickness medicine. By the end of the week, we all developed our own special methods of making sure our mattress wouldn’t move in our bed frame or how to exactly time when (and more importantly when NOT) to take that last step when walking up the stairs.

After what felt like forever, we were there. I remember waking up after four days of rocking back and forth and knowing something was off, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Then it hit me—we weren’t moving! Since we were still on the ship we also weren’t completely still, and there was still the constant rocking that I had gotten quite used to over the past week, but we weren’t actively going anywhere. We had made it to Antarctica! It seemed like it should have been obvious since we had been counting down the days since we left when we would finally make it, but now it had happened! Just like when we left, it felt almost too good to be true.

I hurriedly woke up my roommate and we both rushed outside to get our first real look at the continent. It was different than I had imagined, better. I realized I could have never prepared myself for actually being there, breathing in the crisp, cold air and seeing a place so few people have ever been before.

And it only got better! The ship was buzzing, all of us had gotten up early to eat a quick breakfast and help unload materials and set up camp for the on-shore party. The hum of anticipation was in the air as we were all eager to step onto the continent, a first for the majority of the science party. We took a Zodiac inflatable boat from the ship and after a pretty inelegant landing on my part, we were off and that was the moment it finally hit me that I was in Antarctica—I was freezing! The chilly combination of wind and waves was somehow hitting just right to reach every part of my body that I thought was perfectly covered.

Young Maya

Once we stopped, just like that, I was on the Antarctic continent, wet and cold but as happy as can be. Most importantly, it wasn’t just me, the 22-year-old graduate student that made it to Antarctica—the little black girl who grew up loving dolphins and the oceans made it too. I could’ve never known where that fascination and child-like wonder would’ve taken me and now I am here, and both of us were ecstatic to be there.

If you want to follow my adventures when I go back to Antarctica this winter, follow me on Twitter @GotMayattention.”

Connect with BIMS via

Twitter: @BlackinMarSci and Instagram via blackinmarinescience


LGTBQ history month- guest blog- Science as Compassion

by River X. Suh , science teacher w/ background in bioarchaeology, law, & publishing , co founder of Gender Inclusive Biology

Part 1- Science as Compassion

Every year, students surprise me with questions about who they are. They ask me whether they are transgender, Chicane/x, or Blaysian. Students with Klinefelter’s or Turner’s ask about puberty and sex ed. Others question why there are hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills and more anti-trans athlete bills than trans athletes. They ask what the biological reality is for their transgender loved ones so they can support them without burdening them. My students ask me to teach them about hope and belonging, but I entered science teaching to improve critical thinking and science literacy. What could I do? What nuances can science class uncover beneath the veneer of culture?

I start by reminding students that they alone are the experts on who they are and how they share that identity. When they hear accounts about heteroflexibility in your fifties, about transgender medics who don’t alter pronouns until twenty years after coming out, they relax and grin. Anyone can determine at any time what their identity means to them. Science is one of many ways we express, interpret, and connect with the world. So how would my students like to translate these human cultural experiences into scientific language?

Comparing existing cultural models challenges students to use evidence of chromosomal interaction, hormones, morphology, and behavior to synthesize their own models of gender and sex.  The Next Generation Science Standards supports teaching “supporting arguments using evidence” through science and engineering practices, such as “evaluating and interpreting data” to explain phenomena. Yet every year, biology teachers create resources wholesale to compensate for the textbook absence of the biological phenomena of their readers: students who are mixed-race, intersex, conceived through IVF, have transgender parents and/or blended families. Welcoming more diverse phenomena gives students the language to talk about real people in their lives previously dismissed as “abnormal” or “minority”.

Directly examining evidence also empowers students to critique prior conceptions and apply lessons to their own immediate experience. For example, they quickly discover many traits supposedly inherited through two-allele dominance inheritance are surprisingly polygenic, such as tongue-rolling and PTC tasting (a spectrum influenced by environment and other genes). So many human traits are nonbinary or polygenic. Students can apply different models to scientific data of the evolution of gametes and of sex, of sex determination, reproductive strategies, and of human sex development, to deepen their understanding and enrich their questions.

Many teachers argue that these are “statistically irrelevant in science”, that only LGBT+ students would benefit. Yet students without LGBT+ people in their lives continue to ask, because US adults share no consensus on gender and sex, only that society discriminates against transgender people. Overall, about 40% of people in the US personally know someone transgender, and 25% of people in the US know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. About half of transgender people in the US are over the age of 25 years old. Far from being a new trend, nonbinary forms of identity persist throughout human history, from muxes to māhū to hijra to Two-Spirit and more. Students want to “educate themselves and better support LGBT+ people,” and they ask even awkward questions, hoping science gives them a new way to measure their choices.

So am I more a teacher of science or a teacher of students? I think often about one intersex student who confessed a middle school teacher would loudly announce every day that biology said intersex didn’t exist and you were either girl or boy. Another science teacher promoted using “disorder” instead of “sex difference” because it would “prepare intersex students for reality”. Many research studies indicate that an inclusive curriculum strongly correlates with an improvement in mental health and school culture. Few grownups received an LGBT-friendly education, and even nowadays, only 19.8% of LGBT+ students are taught positive representations about LGBT+ people in school.

Presenting an expanded biological worldview gives students the power to decide what the evidence means, how it compares to what we’ve discovered, and whether we are leaning into inclusion versus upholding the status quo.

River X. Suh

Many professional organizations assert gender-diversity as key to future progress, including science teacher’s associations (NABT, NSTA) in more than twenty-six states (NRC/NGSS).  Medical professionals continue to promulgate new developing standards using ongoing clinical work. The American Bar Association in 2021 argued that anti-LGBTQ practices “undermine” public health by fostering a hostile culture that leads to poorer outcomes in fostering acceptance, reducing bullying and violence, and improving mental health.

Using Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden’s book, Evolution’s Rainbow, I quickly drafted and shared for comment a queer biology database, an organized spreadsheet of over 200 species from the “queer biology” spectrum, including behavior, neurobiology, and genetics. Teachers and students asked for more, realizing that what is “natural” is far more queer than anyone can imagine. Through a national educator’s network, I connected with Sam Long, author of a five-point reflection framework for developing a gender-expansive curriculum. It may not be feasible to talk openly about gender diversity, so the reflection questions can really help figure out what’s appropriate for your space.

Many programs already show educators how to create safe spaces for learning, and global biodiversity offers even more anchoring phenomena for enriching interdisciplinary reflection. Sam, Lewis Steller, and I, soon created, a free website to cultivate and centralize a growing curriculum from educators across the country. Full-time teachers, we write ready-to-use lesson materials and lead training workshops for educators, school departments, and pre-service teachers. Medical professionals, educators, and scientists continue to send us incredible resources that are culturally responsive to students and the realities they bring to class.

Studying the comparative biology of the living world connects students to the huge variation of ways to survive, appear, and behave on this planet. Through looking at the full biological spectrum, they can investigate questions that they may not be able to elsewhere, especially about their developing bodies and identities.  By using more precise scientific language that leans towards inclusion and diversity, we may help our students see themselves as part of all biological experiences.

See Part 2 – Science As Compassion – In the Classroom Friday 10-21-22

Connect with GenderInclusiveBio via Twitter @GenderInBiology

Indigenous People’s Day -spotlight on author Jessica Hernandez & Sterling Martin of Project Enable

by Lauren Kunselman, University of Florida

October 11th we celebrate a very important holiday: Indigenous People’s Day (1).  Indigenous people have faced countless hardships and persecution throughout history, and many non-Indigenous people are ignorant of the trials they have undergone and continue to battle today.  But some are striving to bring those issues to light, such as Indigenous scientist Jessica Hernandez, PhD, in her book, Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science.

Fresh Banana Leaves, by Jessica Hernandez, PhD.

Hernandez’s father is a Maya Ch’orti’ man from El Salvador, and her mother is a Zapotec woman from Mexico.  One of the reasons Hernandez decided to become an environmental scientist is because of the relationship her family has with the land.  Her father told her when you care for nature, it will care for you.  Hernandez was taught that plants and animals are our relatives that should be respected, not taken advantage of.  But the capitalistic and data-driven nature of ecocolonialism clashes with those teachings, so Hernandez is often dismissed when she brings her Indigenous values to her research.   

Indigenous people have profound knowledge of nature, but it is not often published in scientific papers.  Instead, lessons are taught and passed on orally from generation to generation. 

To appreciate the wisdom Indigenous people can bring to scientific fields, non-Indigenous people should be open to new ideas, even if they conflict with what is considered appropriate or “standard.”

Resistance to change makes scientific fields hostile and unwelcoming to Indigenous people, where they are underrepresented.  Indigenous people also grapple with many other biologically relevant challenges.  For example, they are among those most negatively impacted by climate change, and they suffer disproportionally from pandemics such as Covid-19 (2).  One factor that exacerbates these issues is language barriers.

The Diné (Navajo) people are the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States, and approximately half of them speak the Navajo language, Diné Bizaad (2, 3).  However, there are no words for modern biology in the language, which makes explaining and understanding scientific topics challenging. 

Project ENABLE: logo designed by Duhon (Diné artist) – instagram @yiiyah_man and digitized by Gil Martinez (

Sterling Martin, PhD, grew up speaking Diné Bizaad, but when he was in graduate school studying biophysics, he was frustrated that he could not communicate his research to his family in their native tongue.  This led him to team up with other scientists and linguists to start Project ENABLE (Enriching Navajo as a Biology Language for Education), with the goal of creating a Diné-English dictionary of biology terms. 

Focusing on middle school-level words to start, the team consulted textbooks and teachers on the Diné (Navajo) reservation to generate an English word list of high priority science vocabulary.  Next, co-founders Joanna Bundus, PhD and Susana Wadgymar, PhD wrote definitions and sentences for each word in English.  Then, Diné linguist, Frank Morgan, translated everything into Diné, thereby creating words for concepts that did not previously exist.  For example, there was no word for ‘DNA’ in Diné.  So, Morgan took two Diné words: ‘iiná’ and ‘bitł’óól’ which mean ‘life’ and ‘strand’ respectively, to make the word ‘DNA’ (iiná bitł’óól), which means ‘strands of life’ to a Diné bizaad speaker. 

Creating new words in Diné is not to be taken lightly.  According to Frank Morgan, “…the Navajo people believe that the sound of a word has the power of creating a real and actual situation.  Words are sacred and they are to be used carefully and purposefully.” 

Once the words were developed, they needed to be disseminated so they could be put into practice.  Therefore, ENABLE team member Ira Fich created a website containing the English and Diné words, their definitions, illustrations, and auditory pronunciations recorded by Martin and his family.  The audio pronunciations are particularly important because Diné is a spoken language, and not all people can read it.  In addition, since the Navajo Nation has limited internet, the website is designed to be “light,” small enough to store in the cache of most phones and old computers. 

A hoghan, a traditional Diné (Navajo) dwelling. Photo by Sterling Martin.

Project ENABLE hopes that their continued efforts to enhance the website and provide educational resources to schools will help revitalize the Diné language. The percentage of native Navajo speakers has been steadily declining, dropping from 93% in 1980 to 51% in 2010 (3).  Some estimates predict the number of native speakers will fall to 10% by 2030 (3).  Project ENABLE intends to show the world that “We’re still here, and we’re thriving.”  And they couldn’t be working at a better time, since the United Nations declared 2022-2023 the Decade of Indigenous Languages (4). 

Shiprock, NM is located in Dinétah (the traditional homeland of the Navajo people), and it is also the hometown of Sterling Martin.  The rock is the remains of a volcano, and the wall to the left is the former lava tube that fed the volcano. Photo by Sterling Martin.

If you would like to make a difference and contribute to Project ENABLE, you can do so here:

All who donate will receive a Project ENABLE sticker!

Check out the website for yourself and learn some Diné at:  Or follow them on Twitter and learn a word a week: @ENABLE_Biology

And finally, I recommend reading Jessica Hernandez’s book, Fresh Banana Leaves, to educate yourself on the plight of Indigenous scientists today and to learn how to be a good relative.  You can purchase the book here:

Follow Jessica Hernandez on Twitter at: @doctora_nature. 

Happy Indigenous People’s Day!!!


Listen to  the Getting Curious episode with Dr. Jessica Hernandez (Maya Ch’orti’ & Binnizá)

connect with ICB blogger, Lauren Kunselman: