Our Art in Bio blog series includes artwork by either our authors, social media followers or SICB society members along with the artist’s thoughts on how their art influences biology and vice versa. Isabella Mandl who is part of our ICB social media community, shares her work and thoughts with us this month below:
“Being creative” is often understood as “being good at creating art”. While art itself is not the pinnacle of creativity, but an expression of it, science and art have gone hand in hand for a long period of time. Interestingly both disciplines require you to practice and often pose problems to solve while attempting to salvage whatever project you are working on!
Although many researchers I know do not consider themselves creative, I have seen those exact people come up with the most ingenious ways to fix broken field-gear, or find alternatives for materials that were unavailable, or use everyday objects for completely different purposes to aid in their research.
The scientific community is a gold mine when it comes to creative problem solving (and will talk about the many uses of duct tape to whomever is willing to listen) and we should be quicker at recognizing and celebrating creative skills across the community.
Despite creating art my entire life, I had never taken it very seriously and refused the opportunity for an artistic career when I was in my teens. Creating art was, and still is, something I do on the side, and I only picked up colored pencils for the first time in 2021 when I was inspired by another artist I found on social media. I had shunned colored pencils because frankly they made no sense to me at all. But once I set mind on using them, I realized the internet is a place full of free information (back in my teens youtube videos were not as… let’s say helpful)! In no time I had watched multiple tutorials on techniques and beginner mistakes which gave me to confidence to start.
Equipped with the knowledge that there is support available (read: videos on how to hold a pencil) and that I didn’t need to show anyone what I was producing if I didn’t like it, I set out to draw a whole series of bat portraits. I very quickly realized that I needed to use my scientific skills if I wanted a good outcome for my drawings: I needed to be willing to experiment (which colors go together), to adapt (papers have different textures which uniquely affect each pencil stroke), to be patient (colored pencils are a slow !!! medium), and to compromise (if something didn’t work out it was best to go with where the drawing was taking me rather than try and force my way through).
While most of these things were done unintentionally, I slowly started to realize that the past decade of scientific work has helped me when it comes to drawing – I had honed my observational and problem-solving skills to a point where they now helped my advance in my artistic skills!
I am lucky that I get to work with the subjects that interest me the most: animals. Wildlife art is my passion, and I could spend days trying to capture an expression or pose of an animal. I try to draw realistically but my personality tends to come through, and my pencil strokes become more spontaneous and less accurate. For drawing from living, moving bats that insist on having an argument with each other rather than staying still, the sort of quick sketching I love to do is ideal. But I also really appreciate working with great photos as a reference for a piece of art and am indebted to many wildlife photographers that donate their work as references for artists.
Through my art I am keen on continuing to show people animals that they may not have had the chance to see before. And maybe spark an interest in protecting these creatures for future generations.
Since our founding society of SICB has the same management team, Burk and Associates, as JMIH, we wanted to share one of our blogger’s, Kaitlynn Murphy’s, impressions of her first JMIH meeting.
The Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH) was this last week (July 27th – August 1st) in Spokane, Washington. Herp and fish-folk from all over the world were in attendance! This meeting is a collaboration between the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR), Herpetologists League (HL), the American Elasmobranch Society (AES), and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH). This joint meeting began in 2008 and occurs annually, with the meeting site changing from year to year. The goal of JMIH is to establish platforms for scientific sessions that include oral and poster presentations, as well as encourage opportunities for members to attend, socialize, and remain up-to-date with other’s work.
As a first-time attendee of JMIH, I had a fantastic time networking and learning from scientists with a diverse background of interests, expertise, and positions. Organizers of the conference paid special attention to early-career scientists by offering mentoring opportunities and workshops such as “ASIH Grad Student Workshop: Working in the field: A seminar.” One of my favorite symposia of the conference was the “Symposium: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in Ichthyology and Herpetology I-III.” These symposia highlighted a panel of amazing scientists sharing their personal stories and the need for discussions within our scientific communities on DEI. I felt my opinion was valued and that if I chose to share it, would be respected. A few of my other favorite sessions were the “Lightning Talks”, “Symposium: The Biology of Whiptail Lizards”, and “Symposium: Exemplary Practices in Herpetological Education.”
Overall, I learned and connected with many people- it was wonderful to see a few familiar faces and so many new ones! Many thanks to the organizers and planning committees for JMIH 2022! I look forward to attending JMIH next year in Norfolk, Virginia.
Perhaps even more impressive, though, is what she’s been able to accomplish in parallel to her work as a scientist. I wanted to use this post as an opportunity to highlight those accomplishments: the 2005 National Championship she won while playing for Millikin’s basketball team; her 2018 election to the Macon County Board; and her successful 2021 application for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF). I asked Zimmerman about all of that and more when I spoke with her over Zoom in June.
I’ve transcribed the interview and edited it lightly for length and clarity. Zimmerman’s responses are full of insights on a range of topics, from balancing athletics and academics to getting involved in local government. The second half of the interview provides a ton of useful information on the STPF for anyone who might be interested in applying. The application is now open, and it closes on November 1.
Are you from Illinois originally?
I am, yes. I’m from a little, tiny town in central Illinois. It’s a bustling metropolis of about 350 people, surrounded by cornfields and flat as can be. I did my undergrad at Millikin, which was about an hour away where I’m from. It was a terrible reason to pick a pick an undergrad, but I went there to play basketball. Then, it just worked out as an amazing place to be a biology major, too.
You were doing research and playing basketball simultaneously?
Yeah, so Millikin — one of the things we really pride ourselves on is we’re a primarily undergrad institution, but our students do actual research and publish and go to national conferences like SICB. I was working with a plant biologist at the time, Judy Parrish, and so I was doing research on an invasive plant called teasel. You may have seen that on the interstates and stuff like that. Our research was just basically, “How do we kill this dang thing?” And the answer is, “Well, you can’t.” But we were trying different ways to do that, so I was funded to spend a couple of summers doing research. I worked on it a little bit throughout the school year as well.
While you were playing basketball, you actually won a national championship. What was that like?
Oh, man. It was great! That would have been my junior year. Since that time, I’ve never had a problem with time management. I never feel too busy because I don’t think I could ever be as busy as I was then. But it was amazing. We had fantastic support at Millikin. We had community members showing up to all the games, packing the gym, students, faculty. I remember one game my freshman year there were a couple Millikin faculty sitting behind the bench, and they were just yelling and screaming at the refs. When we won the national championship, we played out in Virginia Beach. When we got back to campus, it was like three in the morning. It was spring break, so there weren’t a lot of people on campus. But somehow word got around to the community and the university, and there was a whole bunch of people waiting for us at three in the morning when we got back to the gym in Decatur. I got off the bus, and the first person I saw was Dr. Parrish. That was really meaningful, too.
There’s kind of this close-knit feel with everyone. The whole department was so supportive of us because they understood that that’s a really meaningful thing for us to play sports. It was a dream come true for me. I always loved basketball. I always wanted to play in college. It was kind of this mutual responsibility that we had as a student. I had to be on top of things. I had to let them know when I was going to miss class, miss tests. Missing labs was tough, but our coach really tried to minimize those disruptions. She had a policy: you don’t miss class, you miss practice. We’d miss practice if there was a conflict with class or lab. That sort of mutual respect between the coach and the faculty and the players where the faculty were willing to work with us allowed me to [play basketball and do research].
That’s very different from a [Division 1] school, I feel like.
Yeah, exactly. I think it’s a neat route for students who want to be in a science but still want to play their sport: go to a Division 3 school. We still won a national championship. We got these amazing experiences, but we were still able to focus on our major. Now that I have some space, I can see how it still influences [me]. You learn time management, working as part of a team, dealing with setbacks. A lot of it dovetails well with the scientific process. How many times have you had an experiment fail? You have to think through a problem, and work it out, and then get it to work. That’s exactly what sport is: you go to practice, you work through things. That process of just constantly getting better.
After you graduated from Millikin, were you immediately ready to go to science grad school?
Yes. At first, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do in terms of area. There was a molecular focus in my undergrad, but I did this plant bio research where I really like to be outside. So, I was like, “How do I combine lab work and field work and really fit that together?” There was somebody that had gone to Millikin and graduated previously who was at Illinois State, and they told me if I liked Millikin’s biology department, then I’d like Illinois State’s as well. I ended up applying there, doing a master’s first just to see if it was really what I wanted to do, and that’s when I started working with Rachel Bowden and Laura Vogel on turtle immunity. I loved it, so I stayed and did a PhD there as well.
Was it always the plan to go back to Millikin?
Well, I always wanted to teach at a school like Millikin. I never in a million years would have thought there would be an actual position at Millikin, so timing just worked out fantastic there. I knew from being a student at Millikin that that’s the kind of institution I wanted to be at. I wanted to teach. I love to teach. I wanted to do research with undergrads. I wanted that small classroom size. It just worked out perfect that it actually was Millikin.
Could briefly describe your research program?
My research has been focused on the immune system of turtles, but more specifically the adaptive immunity, like B cells and the production of antibodies. Since I started working on this — it’s been a long time, almost 15 years — we’re finally getting a really good picture of how reptiles and their adaptive immune systems work. Especially turtles, we see that they have some of the same pieces of the immune system that humans have (B cells, T cells, and antibodies), but they’re working a little bit differently. It’s so easy to say, “Oh, they all have B cells. They all act the same way.” That’s just not the case. Even within reptiles there are so many differences. You’re talking about a crocodile versus a snake versus a turtle. As the field of ecoimmunology gets bigger, we’re really starting to be able to pick up on those differences.
Have you always been interested in government?
Yeah, that’s definitely something that I really started getting interested in when I was in grad school. I mentioned I was from a little town in Illinois. My mom had been on the village board. She just stepped down after a little over 20 years of helping to run the town. She always said, “You can either complain about it, or you can do something about it.” So, when I was in grad school I did a couple of things. I joined the League of Women Voters, which was fantastic. They had a great group in Bloomington. That group’s really great because they’re nonpartisan, so they only focus on issues. They don’t endorse candidates. It’s just all about issues with them and especially getting people out to vote and educated about the issues that they’re voting on. Then, I also interned with a state senator for my last semester of grad school. There I was doing a couple of things. One, I was helping to staff the office. Constituents would call — they had a problem, they needed something taken care of — so I had to contact the right state agency and connect them and get that figured out for them. But then what I was also doing from more of a science perspective was, at the time, there was this idea to take PCBs [which are long-lived] pollutants out of the Great Lakes. But then they needed to dispose of them, and they wanted to put them in this landfill in central Illinois. Well, this landfill happens to be over the Mahomet Aquifer, which is a vital drinking source for hundreds of thousands of people in central Illinois. A lot of [the state senator’s] constituents draw their water from the aquifer, so he was really against that. He was leading the effort to say that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and I was helping research some of the scientific issues behind it. That effort was eventually successful. They were able to stop that process from happening.
Was that internship through a specific program?
No, when I was at the League of Women Voters, they had a conference, and there was a state senator there. She gave a talk and was like, “I can help people who are interested in getting involved in government.” I emailed her, and she ended up contacting my state senator for me. Especially at the local and state level, if you’re interested in interning or doing something, a lot of times they just need the help. They don’t always have a huge staff.
That internship was your last year of grad school?
Yes, I did that, and then I taught in South Carolina for a semester. Then, I ended up getting an adjunct position at Millikin for a year, and then I got the tenure-track position at Millikin. I was still interested in being involved locally. Decatur doesn’t have a League of Women Voters, so I just started going to the local Democratic party meetings. That’s how I ended up getting on the County Board and eventually and then the Board of Health as well.
Are those elected positions?
The county board is elected. In 2017, one of the [Macon] County Board members passed away, and I got appointed to fill the rest of his term. His term was over in 2018, and so I ran for election and won my own term in 2018.
You ran a campaign?
I did, yes.
You were a professor at the time?
I was, yes.
Wasn’t that a lot of time?
It was. So, remember when I talked about time management? Luckily, I like to be busy. Yeah, I ran my campaign. I had a lot of help. Working at Millikin was really great because I could use some connections there. I got hooked up with a student who was a graphic design major. They designed my yard signs for me and helped me with my Facebook page. I also had a couple poli sci students intern with me and helped me do some of the day-to-day of the campaigning. To be on the ballot, you have to get a bunch of signatures, and then you’ve got your campaign for the actual election. It was intimidating at first. I had to knock on a lot of doors. That’s really the key, especially in a local election. You just have to meet people to get your name recognition out there. At first, I dreaded knocking on doors, but then as soon as I was doing it, I was just talking to my neighbors. They were really excited to see me. I don’t know how many times they were like, “Oh, you’re young, you’re a woman, and you’re at my door. Yeah, I’ll vote for you.” I didn’t really have to like explain much more than that. They were just excited to see a younger person caring about the community and caring enough to go out and actually talk to people and see what they think about the issues. But yeah, it was a lot of time because you had events and fundraisers, working with other candidates.
What kind of stuff did you actually do when you were on the board?
I was on a bunch of different committees. For a while, I was on the Environment, Education, Health, and Welfare Committee. That committee oversees the Board of Health. I was actually also appointed to the Board of Health because there’s also a county board member on the Board of Health. It also oversees environmental management. In 2017, we were trying to start a compost facility for Macon County, but that didn’t work out. Then I was on the Finance Committee. We oversaw all of the budgets for all of the departments. There’s a lot of departments. The county clerk’s office oversees all the elections. Transportation does all the roads. The sheriff’s office. All of their budgets would have to come through the Finance Committee, and if they wanted to make any change, we would approve that. We also did a lot of things zoning-wise. If you wanted to put a solar farm out in your cornfield, you had to get a zoning permit for that. We would approve those permits. All kinds of different ordinances. Lots of different things like that.
You were also the first woman to be the head of the local Democratic party, right?
Yes, so it was a rough year in 2018, and I was one of only a couple of Democrats who actually won. Our sheriff won by one vote. Literally one vote. That got tied up in the courts, and then actually got reversed. So, then the Republican two years later was put into power. It had nothing to do with the actual votes. They threw out a bunch of votes because they noticed the election judge hadn’t initialed them. So, either the election judge forgot, or they just didn’t do it for whatever reason. They threw out enough votes that the Republican then won. No fault of the people who voted. Their vote just didn’t count because of that election judge error. That’s another thing. If people are interested in helping and being involved, you can be a poll watcher and make sure that the election judges are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
So anyway, we had a chair of our Democratic party who had been the chair for, I think, 13 years, but he ended up getting a position at the state after the 2018 election in Illinois. Pritzker became governor, and he got a good position with the state. He had to resign, and that’s when I became chair. Yeah, I was the first woman of either political party to hold a position of chair in Macon County. It all seemed good until — nobody told me I was going to have to run an election during a pandemic. It would have been the spring of 2019 when I started, and we had all these great plans.
How did that go?
It was tough. It was hard because we couldn’t have our monthly meetings in person. For a while we just didn’t have meetings, so we kind of lost touch with people. A lot of our members that are really active are a little bit older and not as tech savvy, so it was really hard to coordinate people. We couldn’t do our traditional “Get out the vote” things. We also had the sheriff recount hanging over our heads. As a party we lost a lot of momentum, but we did some good things.
You’re no longer um on the County Board or chairing the party, right?
Yeah, I resigned my position when I started the fellowship, since I moved out to DC.
Now you’re doing the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship. How did you decide to apply for that?
It had been on my radar. I actually applied for it out of grad school and didn’t get it. It’s been on my radar since then. Timing just didn’t feel right. Then, with the pandemic, it felt like a good time to take a step away from teaching for a little bit and pursue this thing that I always wanted to do. I felt like I finally had a really competitive application, too. So, all that together.
What goes into the STPF application?
The first application is a CV and a personal statement, and then an extracurricular statement. I’ve seen it both ways in terms of applications, where people know exactly what they want to do and what agency and what sort of job, and I was not that person. It’s okay if you’re a little broader with that, but I think the motivation just needs to come through, why you’re interested in this. Then, on the cv, the scoring criteria is all available, but they’re looking at the quality of your science, too. That’s the first and foremost thing. Are you a good scientist? Are you a good communicator? Then, those extracurricular activities, do they match with your motivation? Then, once you get through that first round, when you do an interview, you actually write a briefing memo. Be aware of what that kind of communication looks like, policy communication. Oh, and one thing I don’t think I mentioned: I created a course at Millikin for honor students called Global Science Policy. It talks a lot about what science policy is. We talk about budgets and how the federal government works and what these different agencies are. It’s fun. We look at a lot of graphs of spending, and then we talk about things like climate change and cancer and bioterrorism. Whatever I thought was interesting I just threw it in the class. So, if anybody’s interested in teaching a class like that, I can share my syllabus for that, too. It wasn’t necessarily biology majors. You could do it either way. You could use any science major, or you could teach non-majors, too. It’s really important that non-scientists know a lot about these things as well.
Did you pick the position you would go into when you applied?
Yeah, it’s like when you match to a residency. Once you get through this semi-finalist part of the AAAS fellowship, then there’s a week, and you get interviews. There are all these positions across all these federal agencies, and you can reach out for interviews. I had five interviews that week with different agencies and for different positions. Then, you rank them, and then you essentially match. So, I matched with this particular position.
You’re working with Veterans’ Health Services?
In the Veteran Affairs (VA), there’s the benefits side, and then there’s the health side. The health side is VHA, so that’s the first part. They have an Office of Research and Development (ORD). We fund research at all of our VA clinics and medical centers. We’re an integrated health system, so you have access to all these records, and you have this whole system that you can conduct research at and disseminate the findings. It’s really unique. There’s just nothing else like that in the US.
What’s your day-to-day like?
It’s really neat. The AAAS fellowship’s existed for like 30 years or more, but this office, we’re only the third year of fellows, so they don’t have this huge history of having fellows. Which is really good for us because we can make it what we want to make it. We have different projects, and we have different levels of responsibilities. We’ll each have a project that’s ours, and we run the whole thing. Then, we might have other projects where we coordinate certain things or have lower levels of involvement. My main project — and I think the reason why I ended up matching with HSR&D (Health Services Research and Development) — is on rural health. There are like 4.7 million rural veterans in the US, so it’s a very important population. Almost 3 million of them are enrolled in health care with the VA, and they have certain differences compared to urban veterans in terms of what they need, how they access their health care. Health Services is interested in how care is provided. How do people access care? What’s the quality of that care? What’s prescribed? When do we screen for certain things? The director of HSR&D really wanted to prioritize rural health research. We also saw rural areas were disproportionately affected by COVID, and people of color within those rural areas were even more disproportionately impacted. So, what kind of research can we do to help rural veterans? That’s my main project. I work with clinicians and researchers from across the country. We hosted a big, two-day, virtual meeting where we had breakout groups, and we discussed what are the most important research questions. I’m currently writing an RFA (Request for Applications) that will prioritize those questions so that we can fund more research specifically targeting these rural veterans.
How far into this are you?
I started last September. You have one year, and then you can renew for a second. I went ahead and renewed for a second year. The VA’s mission is to help veterans, and everybody is so focused on that. Everybody is super positive, works really collaboratively, is really motivated to to do that. I’ve just really enjoyed working in the VA.
Are you on sabbatical?
Yes, essentially. I’m on a leave of absence.
Is your plan to go back?
I’ve really enjoyed working with the federal government. I’ve always been in academia, so it’s very different for me to be outside of academia. It has certain things going for it. The work-life balance for me has been a lot better this past year. The pay is better, but I’m still doing meaningful work … The burnout is just so real, and getting an opportunity to do something different and having a little better work-life balance, I would recommend that to any academic who’s feeling that way … I do love to teach. I would hate to leave my research program. It’s weighing those up, and it all might be a moot point. I’m not technically a federal employee yet. I’m like a contractor since I’m just a fellow. Getting that first federal job — the timing has to be right.
At the SICB meeting in 2021, you held a workshop [on participating in local government] with an Illinois state senator. What was the goal of that workshop?
I wanted to encourage people to be involved locally. You really can make a difference. It doesn’t matter if it’s 300 people or 30,000 or a big city. All politics is local, they say. You really can find a way to contribute. I wanted to encourage people to do that and then to give a road map. When I first got interested, I was like, “Man, this seems so intimidating.” I don’t know if mine was the most direct route to being involved, but it was a way to do it. I think the most important part of it is showing up and being willing to do the work. People are looking for people who want to get the job done. It’s not necessarily political, like you’re playing games or something. You’re just trying to do what’s best for your community, and they see you out there at meetings, knowing what’s going on and helping. That’s the most important thing. The other thing: for women especially, we can think that we’re not qualified. They’ve shown that women have to be more encouraged to run. So, that’s another message I wanted with the workshop. If you’re at SICB, you’re more than qualified to run for these things. We need scientists. We need people who can think through problems. You don’t have to wait to be asked. You can do it.
Read Laura’s work:
Adaptive Immunity in Reptiles: Conventional Components but Unconventional Strategies
Trust me, I am a biologist (a fish and Wildlife Biologist for a federal agency to be exact). A statement that can be applied to so many areas in my life now, from research, to land management decisions, and yes, knowing what it takes to jump over and break through the systematic and societal obstacles and barriers Black and other People of color face in their journey to make it into the STEM field.
Two of those barriers, we face at an early age are a lack of representation and lack of exposure. You might be asking what representation is? and what does that have to do with someone being a Scientist.
Representation is when companies and organizations have employees/ members of different races, religions, genders, ethnicities, and ages. These differences allow someone to see themselves in certain positions. Exposure is showing ideas, concepts, Jobs, and cultures to individuals who otherwise may not have the opportunity.
Growing up I knew without a doubt that I wanted to work with animals, but I was limited to what capacity that I thought I could. I would see Steve Irwin, Jack Hannah, and Jeff Corwin and was immediately infatuated with them. Seeing and hearing their passion about the wildlife they discovered is what led me to want to work with animals. The only thing is these men were white, they did not look like me. So, I did not picture myself as a biologist or conservationist; it was seemingly unattainable for me. The only representation I had of people who were Black like me working with animals were as farmers or as vets. So that was the education path I pursued, until I was exposed to field biology courses and decided… successful or not I was going to be a wildlife biologist.
While many Black and other POCs are not exposed to the natural resource or conservation field, I was blessed to have a family that tried to supply me with those experiences I crave of seeing wildlife, visiting aquariums, and spending time outside in nature. I am also lucky that growing up my family owned a house on just over a quarter acre that has a creek running through it. So, I got a double dose of exposure to the outdoor world.
The exposure I received aided me in becoming a great biologist, I would say that it has been one of the building blocks to my success. I can’t Imagine how much faster I would have discovered my place in the world of wildlife biology if I had a mirror (someone one who looked like me) right in front of me growing up whether it was in magazines or TVs seeing a familiar skin tone on a wildlife biologist or conservationist would have beelined my venture into the conservation field.
Having been in the natural resource field for over 7 years as a biologist, I try to provide that exposure and be that representation that I missed growing up.
As a science communicator I engage people of all backgrounds using my social media and in person speaking opportunities. The group that I love engaging the most are the school age kids; I know that they are the future of conservation. I also have a connection to the Black and brown students. I grew up going through similar experiences as them and I also know the feeling of watching tv, flipping through magazines, and even now the internet and not seeing someone who looks like you in your dream job. All it takes is one time for them to see someone who looks like them to be inspired and know that your dream is achievable.
I also try to show that scientists are not a monolith or cookie cutter cutouts, and you can be an amazing scientist while still being true to your authentic self! I am proud to be a Black, ADHD having, and food loving Scientist from Austell Georgia.
by Andrew Saintsing, Graduate student at the Poly-PEDAL Lab ,Berkeley
Fins knifing through the water, toothy maws emerging from the depths — these are the images that come to us when someone says shark. We see sharks as the ocean’s apex predators that have endured atop the food chain for hundreds of millions of years. That image is fascinating, awe-inspiring, and fear-inducing, but it doesn’t really capture the whole picture.
“There’s a lot of variety — an enormous amount of diversity — among sharks in the ocean,” says Liza Merly, a lecturer in the University of Miami’s Department of Marine Biology and Ecology. “They’re not all top predators. Some of them feed at very low trophic levels on small things like crustaceans and small fish.” While the great whites and the makos headline for Spielberg and steal scenes from Samuel L. Jackson, massive filter feeders like the whale shark and bottom-dwelling ambush predators like the wobbegong quietly occupy their ecological niches.
Without sharks, marine ecosystems would not be the same. “Sharks play a big role in making sure that those systems work the way they have evolved to work over the last millions and millions of years,” says Merly. “Our earth is all very connected, and the health of our oceans is a big part of how our planet works.” Robust, healthy shark populations are an essential part of the world we’ve come to know and rely on, but many of our actions carry potentially negative consequences for these animals. Human activities can both directly reduce shark populations through overfishing and indirectly stress the remaining animals by raising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and releasing agricultural and industrial runoff into the oceans.
At least, it seems like rising temperatures, ocean acidification, and pollution would stress sharks. The problem with confidently making such a statement is that we don’t necessarily know what normal and healthy looks like for wild sharks, so it’s difficult to figure out when a shark is unhealthy and stressed. Merly is trying to change that. While primarily employed as a lecturer, she has maintained an active research career through her work as a teaching professor and through collaborations with other research groups. “The work that I’ve been doing is really establishing baselines in terms of what are the natural and normal physiological parameters that we see in healthy sharks of various species that we encounter, particularly here in south Florida,” she says. She looks at variables like blood protein levels, which are often used to assess immune activity and infection status in humans. Once reliable baselines have been established, further research can determine when sharks are doing fine and when they aren’t. Effectively distinguishing between the two scenarios can help maximize the efficacy of the limited resources available for conservation and management.
Merly presented her research at the SICB 2022 Annual Meeting symposium Ecoimmunology: what unconventional organisms tell us after two decadesand will soon publish an article about it in Integrative and Comparative Biology. Although she now happily occupies the role of an ecoimmunologist (a researcher who studies how an organism’s immune system functions and varies in a real-world, ecological context), her research career was not exactly a straight line to this point. After sitting down and speaking with Merly, I knew I wanted to use this article not only to highlight the work she’s doing now, but also the winding path that led her here. The history of immunological research involving sharks, and Merly’s experience with it, offers a fascinating glimpse into the twists and turns that can occur in the course of scientific research.
Why do immunologists (and Liza Merly in particular) care about sharks?
Liza Merly did not begin her scientific career expecting to investigate the immune systems of sharks. “Accident of life: I ended up in a grad program, and my mentor ended up leaving the program because they didn’t get tenure,” says Merly. “I was actually knee-deep in a bird project asking the same kinds of question I’m asking now, which is how the environment can potentially influence an animal’s immune competence and their ability to respond to diseases.” When her first mentor left, Merly had to find a new lab and a new project. Luckily, she was able to move into another immunology lab, which happened to focus on shark immunity.
Merly’s new lab was part of a wider community conducting immunology research in sharks. Immunologists have long been interested in sharks because of their evolutionary history and how it relates to our own. Sharks, along with rays, skates, and chimaeras, are cartilaginous fish. They are vertebrates, and they have jaws, but their skeletons are made of cartilage, the material found in our joints, ears, and noses. Their lineage diverged from ours (which subsequently branched out and gave rise to bony fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) over 400 million years ago. Before that divergence, though, a common ancestor of today’s jawed vertebrates acquired an adaptive immune system, which it passed down to all its descendants.
The adaptive immune system of jawed vertebrates consists of white blood cells called B and T cells, which can recognize viruses and other pathogens that have previously infected an animal. The system confers acquired immunity against diseases (like chickenpox in humans) and enables vaccination. The underlying mechanisms that allow it to work have remained remarkably conserved over time. Immunologists studying the dogfish shark first found evidence that cartilaginous fish have adaptive immune systems like our own in 1965. Ever since, scientists have been investigating the similarities that have persisted and the differences that have arisen over the hundreds of millions of years of evolution that separate humans from sharks.
Not only have shark immunological studies deepened our understanding of the evolutionary history of vertebrate immunity, but they’ve also yielded some exciting discoveries that have generated buzz as potential therapeutics for humans. In 1993, a team of scientists from the University of Pennsylvania took a dogfish liver and isolated the molecule squalamine, which, subsequent lab studies indicated, has antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, and anticarcinogenic properties. Interest in the molecule grew over the next two decades, and scientists at a now defunct pharmaceutical company even developed squalamine-based drugs to treat cancer and macular degeneration. Sometimes exciting basic research doesn’t translate into a successful application, though. After the company went out of business, Ohr Pharmaceuticals bought the rights to its drug assets but ultimately couldn’t bring squalamine to market either. In 2018, Ohr announced that Phase III clinical trials failed to indicate that squalamine-based drugs could effectively treat human patients with macular degeneration.
More recently, a multi-institutional team of scientists generated interest in VNARs, small, shark-derived proteins that, like more familiar antibodies, target specific molecules. Specifically, they characterized VNARs that effectively bound and neutralized SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. The fact that VNARs are so small enables them to target pieces of viruses or other pathogens that are physically inaccessible to typical antibodies, potentially opening up new strategies for neutralizing infections. Right now, VNARs look like the bases of promising new therapeutics, but a lot of research still needs to be done before they can be confidently deployed in human medicines.
On one level, explaining the histories of squalamine and VNARs is a total digression from the story of Merly’s research career. On another, though, these digressions — tales of exciting discoveries followed by years of careful research that may or may not produce the hoped-for results — provide the perfect juxtaposition for the subject of Merly’s research in graduate school: shark cartilage. As squalamine and VNARs demonstrate, painstaking research must be conducted on putative therapeutics before they can be brought to the public, and results that fail to match expectations cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, proponents of shark cartilage supplements, which are more or less snake oil by another name, sidestepped that process and forced scientists like Merly to do the research after the supplements had already appeared in stores.
Shark cartilage — it’s just cartilage
“Shark cartilage is not some sort of traditional medicine that’s been used or culturally significant for any number of years,” says Merly. Nonetheless, it began to be marketed as a cancer-fighting supplement on the back of some dubious claims towards the end of the twentieth century. In 1983, Anne Lee and Robert Langer published a study in which they found evidence that shark cartilage inhibited the growth of new blood vessels towards cancerous tumors. Cancerous tumors often hog resources, grow, and metastasize by surrounding themselves with new blood vessels, so inhibiting this process could improve the prognosis of patients with cancer. Previously, Lee and Langer had found that cartilage obtained from calves (i.e., young cattle) contained a substance that inhibited blood vessel growth. They switched to sharks when they realized that sharks have way more cartilage because their entire skeletons are made of it. Lee and Langer determined that shark cartilage strongly inhibited tumor growth — even more strongly than calf cartilage. Citing a paper that described a benign tumor in a shark, they suggested that factors present in the skeletons of cartilaginous fish could explain the low apparent incidences of cancer in these animals.
Then, William Lane and Linda Comac took a bit of a leap and landed on the title Sharks Don’t Get Cancer for their 1992 book. (Don’t believe the title. Sharks do get cancer.) By the time Merly had joined her second grad school lab in the early 2000s, the benefits of shark cartilage seemed to have multiplied. “Shark cartilage, which initially was promoted and sold as an anti-cancer miracle drug, had now transitioned to being sold to people as a daily supplement for … just about everything,” says Merly. Members of the lab realized “that might incentivize folks to continue overfishing sharks … So, because we were an immunology lab, we thought, ‘Well, we can tackle this question.’” Merly and her new lab mates wanted to show that shark cartilage didn’t have the miraculous qualities that had been ascribed to it, and Merly thought it would be a good, short project that would allow her to get her feet wet in a new lab. Little did she know she had just chosen her dissertation topic.
Merly isolated cells from human blood, grew them on a culture dish, and exposed them to shark cartilage from commercially available supplements. “I will say that it was a hypothesis of negativity, that we expected to see no response, and as often happens in science, your hypothesis is not supported by the data,” says Merly. She found that the cells did respond, and then proceeded to spend years characterizing that response. Ultimately, she found that the shark cartilage stimulated immune cells to produce an inflammatory response — not the type of response that would help your body get an immune disorder under control or fight cancer. Further, she found that the response was driven by the molecule collagen, which is a structural component in the cartilage of all animals that produce the material. At one of the talks where she presented her dissertation research, Merly showed a big picture of a chicken and said, “A chicken can do it. You don’t need sharks if this is the activity you want.” In other words, if someone really wanted to experience the (seemingly undesirable) effects of shark cartilage, then that person could just harvest collagen from poultry farms and leave sharks alone. (To be clear, that’s not an endorsement for chicken or cow-derived collagen supplements, which themselves have recently blown up in popularity despite scant independent research.)
Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the data on shark cartilage didn’t exactly settle the issue. People seeking to peddle shark cartilage not only ignored Merly’s arguments, but even cited her to legitimize their own claims. “One of the reasons I moved away from that work is that I discovered that there were websites in other countries that were actually referencing one of the papers I’d published as being supportive of the use of shark cartilage,” says Merly. “We had a narrative that we’d already said, and we’d already put together a story. I didn’t want them continuing to use our papers to support that work.” Merly realized that scientific research alone would not change people’s minds about the supplement. There was a need for consumer education and increased regulation, which would require outreach and advocacy. At the same time, though, she felt like she had gone as far as she wanted to with the project. She had started by asking what, if anything, would cause cells to react to shark cartilage. In the end, she identified a molecule that elicited a response and showed that that response was incompatible with the health benefits claimed by shark cartilage peddlers. The facts were there for conservationists, consumer protection advocates, and other activists to go out and educate the public, but Merly was ready for a change.
Let sharks be sharks
“The lab that I was working in [in graduate school] was working on shark immunology but very much from a human point of view,” says Merly. “We were looking at sharks as a model.” She saw the value in that work, but it didn’t excite her in the same way that her previous research looking at “the intersection between health and environment” in birds and bats had. She wanted to return to asking those ecoimmunological questions, but she couldn’t just set aside the years she had spent on her dissertation research. She says, “I was now really engaged with shark conservation and really engaged with the questions about … populations being overfished and populations suffering from habitat degradation.”
Since taking on her current role as a lecturer with the University of Miami in 2013, Merly has managed to find research opportunities that marry her interests in ecoimmunology and shark conservation. After spending years establishing baseline parameters for various shark species, she’s excited to start using those reference data to ask and answer questions. “We have a student, and she’s specifically asking … about heavy metals [like lead and mercury],” says Merly. “She’s using all of the baseline data that we’ve gathered over the last few years to see whether there is any relationship between heavy metals and these other physiological variables in a couple of different species of sharks.”
Merly’s also looking to expand her methodological repertoire. Blood samples provide lots of great information, but many toxins are stored in other tissues. “We’re currently trying to establish the use of a muscle probe to collect muscle from live sharks,” says Merly. Whereas dead sharks collected by the fishing industry are often sampled to determine what types and quantities of toxins sharks are being exposed to, Merly and her team want to know how these pollutants are “affecting the live shark.”
Merly sees her research on the health of wild sharks providing useful information about the health of the environment more broadly. She thinks a population of sharks can serve as “a canary in the coal mine” — deteriorating health in sharks could warn people to change course before a marine environment is irreparably damaged. At the same time, she hopes her research highlights the value of letting sharks just live their lives. She says, “These animals are going to serve us much better as research subjects than they are as medicine or food on a plate.” Besides, regardless of whether their blood and muscles can help us figure out how to build a more sustainable relationship with marine ecosystems, sharks have value just for being sharks. Merly says, “Especially when you get to see them up close: just beautiful, beautiful animals.”
Connect with Liz
Check out s4’s publication by Merly et al in advanced :
Serum Protein Electrophoresis Reference Intervals for Six Species of Wild-Sampled Sharks in South Florida
Interview written by Ryan Koch, PhD candidate, Oklahoma State University
Dr. Anna Savage is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Central Florida.
“My lab group studies emerging infectious diseases in amphibians and reptiles, focusing mostly on immune system genes and how they co-evolve with pathogens. The main study system we focus on is chytridiomycosis, an amphibian-specific fungal disease that has caused declines and extinctions of many frog species all over the world. Metabarcoding is a technique that leverages next-generation sequencing technologies to rapidly sequence a targeted region of the genome of any type of organism. A majority of metabarcoding studies use this method to sequence a diversity of organisms from a mixed sample such as soil or an animal’s gut tissue, but we use this method to sequence extremely variable immune genes from large numbers of individuals to relate their immune variation to disease susceptibility.”
What were some of your key findings in your recent paper “Invasive Bullfrogs Maintain MHC Polymorphism Including Alleles Associated with Chytrid Fungal Infection” in the Journal of Integrative and Comparative Biology?https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icac044
“This study is really exciting for me for two reasons: first, it represents all of the amazing work my student Jacob LaFond did for his Master’s thesis, and he did an incredible job leading this paper. Second, bullfrogs are an extremely common and widespread species known to vector chytridiomycosis all over the world, and yet there had never before been a study exploring the immune gene variation in this species, which we found to associate with differences in chytridiomycosis rates in both the native range in the eastern USA and the invasive range in the western USA.
Another interesting thing we found was that the invasive populations had just as much immune gene diversity as in the native range, even though we typically find that invasive populations have lower genetic variation because they originate from small numbers of animals. This finding suggests that having more immune gene variation helps invasive populations survive, especially when diseases are an ongoing challenge.”
What made you become interested in population genetics and diseases of reptiles and amphibians?
“I have loved frogs from the earliest I can remember, and I grew up in rural New Hampshire, so I had plenty of time to interact with them and hone my obsession! I went to a liberal arts college and wasn’t sure about pursuing a research career, but after I was introduced to the concept of genetics, I got really excited about DNA and how it was like a puzzle that explained a lot about life on earth. Then, I started reading about amphibian declines and how it was a huge global problem. So from my senior year of college on, I had a pretty clear plan that I wanted to use genetics to study frog diseases and try to help with conserving their biodiversity.”
What allowed you to become successful and establish yourself as a professor at UCF?
“I agree with the famous quote that genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration – in my career I’ve had a few good ideas, but I think I’ve been successful in research because I’ve been persistent in the tedious day-to-day of lab work, grant writing, and the ongoing failures and setbacks that are a constant part of the research process. I also think being really motivated about wanting to study something I care about has made it easier to stick with it through the tough times. I also have a really supportive partner and we have moved all over the place for our careers, which in academia is often necessary as you move from grad programs to postdocs to job opportunities.”
What skills do you hope your graduate students will take with them when graduating from your lab?
“The technical skills I want my students to become expert in during their time in my lab include the fundamentals of molecular biology: manipulating DNA so that you can efficiently sequence and analyze the parts of the genome that are important for the questions you want to answer. These days, it’s pretty easy to outsource a lot of this work to core facilities, but I think it’s important to learn those techniques so that you have a solid understanding of how to interpret your data and how to spot technical errors rather than think you’ve really found something unusual.
The other thing that has become hugely important in genetics research is bioinformatics – we generate such huge genomic datasets that we need to use computer science to be able to analyze it. My own training didn’t involve bioinformatics, so I’ve picked it up in bits here and there and most of my students are far more proficient than I am. One of the cool parts about research is that it moves so fast, no one can keep up forever, and it becomes a really collaborative enterprise where students bring as much to the table as professors, and if the mentoring relationship is good, every generation of scientists is better than the one that came before.
The final thing I want my students to take with them from working with me is that research and work is not everything. It’s easy to get sucked into the competitive nature of academia, but it’s a losing game because there will always be someone out there who is better than you at something, or works longer hours, or is more intelligent. Life is about more than being the best, and at the same time I think the science is better when you take a break from it and get an outside perspective.
So, while I encourage my students to go for their dream job, I don’t push them to be over-competitive and I support them working reasonable hours and having a life outside of the lab.”
Quite a few of your undergraduate students use genetics. How are they trained and taught to retain genetics skills? How do you assess if they understand these skills?
“One of the first things we do in the lab is train undergraduates to extract DNA from tissues, because this is the first step to almost all of our other procedures and it’s a straightforward procedure for a complete novice to learn. I think the bigger challenge beyond teaching the techniques is making sure the undergraduate researchers understand what is happening conceptually – it’s pretty easy to follow a molecular recipe without actually understand what’s happening, especially because DNA can’t be seen with the naked eye, so it seems like you are just moving small bits of liquid from one tube into another. Some of our undergraduates don’t fully get the conceptual side of things until near the end of their time with us, but those that end up writing a paper or thesis from their work definitely are forced to wrestle with the concepts and interpretation more deeply.
From a more practical perspective, we start new researchers out by doing things like pipetting colored water, running qPCR standards as a way to objectively test their precision, and we teach the fundamentals of data management and keeping a lab book, which if done properly means that once the student gets more experienced, they can go back to the early pages and make sense of what they were doing in those first weeks.”
What are some of your hobbies? How did you get interested in them?
“My three main hobbies are running, cooking, and reading. I started running on the track team in high school to condition for my real passion at the time, soccer, but then I kept it up for stress relief and physical activity as I got more focused on research. Most of my good scientific ideas have come to me during long runs, and that also motivated me to get into distance running. I ended up running the Boston Marathon five times and I ever did a 50-mile untramarathon during my postdoc. I also like to cook because I feel that it’s creative in a way that is really different from research. Following a lab protocol is like baking, where you have to be really careful and precise. With cooking, you can take a recipe but then improvise based on your taste preferences and what’s in your fridge, and it almost always comes out at least moderately successful. Finally, I have always loved to read, but I almost never read anything serious or non-fiction – I prefer a good story like a mystery novel that I can escape into and scratch a different part of my brain.”
Any other interesting things going on in your life right now?
“I had two babies in the last 3 years, so my life is pretty full with being a mom and scientist! My family is spending part of the summer in France for my husband’s work, then going to a conference in Tennessee for my work. We try to incorporate vacation and family time into work travel because we both have really busy careers.”
In January of 2022, s1 Best practices for bioinspired design education, research and product development organized by Marianne Alleyne, Aimy Wissa, Andrew Suarez and William Barely was presented in Phoenix, Arizona.
Andrew Schulz and Cassandra Shriver, two of the co authors of
A Guide for Successful Research Collaborations between Zoos and Universities
Alveus streams on twitch and is a new non-profit animal conservancy in Austin, TX run by an incredible team of people. For those that are interested in understanding the challenges and behind the scenes work in non-profit wildlife conservation while learning about amazing animals. Its awesome!
*science publication : (book, article, magazine)
An Immerse World – Ed Yong
Truly one of the best books I’ve ever read for any reader. Ed Yong is one of the most talented writers of our time and really helped me understand COVID from a lot of different lenses. This book is truly incredible.
The Big Conservation Lie – John Mbaria, Mordecai Ogada
An eye-opening perspective for those that aren’t familiar with history of colonization’s impact on conservation throughout the world. A must read for any scientist that is interested in conservation
Scientific documentary film or film overall
I don’t know if it counts, but Avatar the Last Airbender is one of my favorite TV shows that is based off many traditional martial arts.
Dr. Danielle Levesque (upcoming 2023 speaker for SICB) chuckles as she describes collecting Greater hedgehog tenrecs (Setifer setosus) in the forests of Madagascar. “We just kind of chased after them in the forest,” she recounts. “Their spines are their defense mechanism. One saw me coming and curled up into a ball so I just picked it up.”
If you’re as unfamiliar with tenrecs as I was just a few weeks ago, picture a hedgehog that’s not really a hedgehog, with beadier eyes and a longer, wetter snout. In reality, only a few of the 31 extant species could be confused for hedgehogs. The lowland streaked tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus), for example, is incredibly bizarre, with yellow and black spines that stick up in every direction and what could only be described as a permanently shell-shocked expression. However, it turns out that tenrecs are even more unusual than their appearance would suggest.
In reality, tenrecs are not particularly closely related to hedgehogs; they are members of the clade Afrotheria, which includes such charismatic African fauna as elephants and aardvarks. Tenrecs provide an excellent system with which to study evolution because the vast majority live on the island of Madagascar. It is hypothesized that a common ancestor of all extant tenrec species arrived on the island from mainland Africa millions of years ago. Since then, a massive adaptive radiation has allowed tenrec species to diversify and occupy a wide variety of niches on the island. But to Levesque, yet another unique characteristic of the tenrec is most intriguing: their highly variable body temperature.
One familiar characteristic of the mammals as a phylogenetic group is our ability to maintain a high and constant body temperature, called homeothermic endothermy. In humans, this temperature is approximately 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius. In the grand scheme of life on Earth, homeothermic endothermy is actually very rare and is shared only with birds. Therefore, all other organisms (with a few notable exceptions) must rely on heat from the environment to keep their body temperature within an appropriate range. For decades, homeothermic endothermy was considered to be a hallmark of the mammals to the same extent as having hair, giving birth to live young, or lactating.
That’s not to say that heterothermy—or a body temperature that is fluctuating rather than stable—is not present in mammals. The traditional example is a ground squirrel, which become torpid (a more precise term for “hibernation” in a colloquial sense) for months at a time in the winter. In fact, Levesque first became hooked on thermal physiology when introduced to her undergraduate mentor Murray Humphries’ work on North American hibernators. In this case, torpor is used as a tool to save energy as opposed to expending the energy required to stay warm in the coldest months. The squirrels’ circannual rhythms trigger torpor in the winter months and the winter months only; Levesque comments that “no matter what you do to a ground squirrel in July, it won’t use torpor at all…there are very few things you can do to stop it from using torpor in the winter.”
However, recent work has challenged our understanding of what it means to be a mammal by suggesting that mammalian heterothermy is far more common than it seems. In fact, Levesque remarks, the only clades that lack evidence of heterothermy entirely are the lagomorphs, or rabbits and hares, and the ungulates, the large hoofed mammals. Even more surprising? The finding that many mammals living in tropical habitats also utilize torpor. This may seem odd, given that the tropics are neither as cold nor as variable as the ground squirrels’ frigid Canadian home. In this case, torpor is not used to save the energy required to stay warm. So why is this behavior beneficial? Levesque wanted to learn more.
This line of inquiry took her to far-flung, exotic field sites: Australia, to study echidnas; Madagascar, to study tenrecs; and most recently, the Bornean jungle to research the large treeshrew (Tupaia tana) and the pygmy treeshrew (Tupaia minor), among other small mammals. Treeshrews are tough to describe to an audience with a North American frame of reference. Neither marsupials nor rodents, they belong to the order Scandentia, members of which are native only to south and southeast Asia. Picture a squirrel with a thinner tail, shiny gray and brown fur, and a face with wide, round eyes and strangely human-like ears. The treeshrew’s long, downturned snout creates an almost comically worried expression.
As different as these species may appear from one another, these creatures have one common feature: none are nearly as endothermic nor as heterothermic as they should be according to our traditional understanding of mammalian physiology. Echidnas and tenrecs have lower ambient body temperatures than most other mammals, which is probably an energy-saving strategy. Alternatively, large treeshrews have very high ambient body temperatures, which, although counterintuitive, appears to be a way to stay cool and retain water in the hot Bornean jungle.
Also important is the fact that some species of tenrecs and other small mammals are so-called daily heterotherms; rather than becoming torpid for an entire winter like the ground squirrel, these species instead become torpid whenever the temperature dips a little too low, which usually occurs on a nightly basis. Because so many groups of mammals are able to utilize torpor, including species that are evolutionarily similar to the ancestral mammal (like the tenrecs), the researchers who work on the evolution of heterothermic endothermy, like Levesque, have come to a major conclusion: we are the anomaly. More precisely, maintaining a high and constant body temperature like we do is objectively a huge waste of energy. Despite the fact that we often view homeothermy as an inherent feature of being a mammal, the common ancestor of the mammals was probably a heterotherm. By studying these tropical mammals, we can learn more about our common ancestor.
Levesque still has lots of questions. Usually, thermal physiology as a field tends to focus more on everyone but mammals and birds. As a result, there is a lot left to learn. She is wondering which species must spend weeks or months preparing to enter torpor and which ones can become torpid at the drop of a hat. She wants to continue cataloging the thermal physiology of the unique and understudied mammalian fauna in Borneo. Most of all, she wants to continue to untangle the evolutionary processes that made mammals mammals.
Dr. Beronda Montgomery’s debut book Lessons from Plants is a thought-provoking read about the life lessons we can learn from the fascinating intuition of plants. Not only does the book explore interesting scientific facts about numerous plant species and their behaviors, but Montgomery also includes personal anecdotes from her own life experiences and showcases her enthusiasm for the natural world.
“Reducing plant bias and increasing plant awareness are important not only for plants, but for humans – for our physical, mental, and intellectual health.”
p4 of the book
In a recent book interview she gave for the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Dr. Montgomery expressed she was motivated to write the book, “out of a frustration to have difficult conversations about [her] place as a Black woman in science, about racisms, sexism, and other isms that we encounter in the academy and in the world”. She further stated that “…Lessons from Plants really evolved into [her] unique perspective as a Black woman plant biologist”.
The main theme interwoven throughout the book, as the title suggests, is how we should take our knowledge of plant biochemistry (i.e., resiliency, risk assessment, etc.) and integrate this understanding into our daily lives. Montgomery wants the readers to be “fascinated with the complexity and intuitive nature of plants…not in the ways it confirms who we are as humans, but really for us to sit and ask what we can learn about being more plant-like”.
An example of this is presented in the book as the Three Sister system. This system, long practiced by indigenous Native American peoples, is an example of intercropping: a technique that involves planting two or more crops (e.g., corn, beans, and squash) together, which ends up dividing resources amongst the plants instead of competing for them.
In Chapter 5 of Lessons from Plants, Montgomery writes, “Corn provides vertical support for beans. The beans provide nitrogen in an accessible form that serves as fertilizer for all the crops. The squash, which is low to the ground, inhibits weed growth and maintains soil moisture for the other two partners (pg. 99)”. Montgomery argues that scientists can implement the Three Sisters approach in their daily life with research, teaching, and service, as they are often considered to compete for time and attention.
“As a professor, I often feel torn between my responsibilities to teach, mentor, conduct research…. As I began to see the overlap in these commitments and to cultivate activities that are synergistic, such as using new discoveries from my research as core materials in my lectures, I gained personal appreciation for the importance of cultivating reciprocity (pg. 107)”. By doing this, Montgomery says scientists can synergize and enrich their time and work, just as plants do, to be more productive and resilient in the academic community.
“We have much to learn from how plants care for each other. The way that nurse plants provide benefits to young plants they are “mentoring,” and the reciprocal benefits to the nurse in terms of improved growth and reproduction, show us how to prioritize collaboration over competition”.
Another important lesson we can learn from plants, is that of intentional self-reflection. Montgomery stresses, “The importance of prioritized reflection time to sense conditions, stay in tune with my environment and the available resources and support, and then proceed in responding accordingly is what I’ve come to understand as a need to “process and proceed”. Such functioning is similar to plants’ environmental responsiveness (pg. 30)”. This becomes particularly important when mentoring students and other individuals. To draw from a plant example, as anyone who has cared for a houseplant that is not thriving, we as caretakers problem solve by focusing on what might be lacking in the plant’s environment (i.e., too much/too little sunlight, too much/too little water, nutrients, etc.). Rarely does a plant’s caretaker think that the plant is incapable of growth or success. However, when mentoring an individual, the mentor is most likely to take a different approach. “We are often quick to highlight presumed weakness and deficits in the individual rather than seeking to identify environmental factors that might be hindering them (pg. 125)”. By shifting our mindset as mentors, Montgomery suggests we can more effectively cultivate a “growth-focused” mentoring initiative. Montgomery has published many papers about mentoring students based on lessons from plants (see “From Deficits to Possibilities: Mentoring Lessons from Plants on Cultivating Individual Growth through Environmental Assessment and Optimization”).
Montgomery presents many other fascinating examples in the book about lessons we can learn from plants, like how plants and trees reestablished themselves in a toxic environment following the Chernobyl disasters in Ukraine and the resilience of plant growth on barren lands following the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. If you want to learn more about Dr. Beronda Montgomery and her “Lessons from Plants”, check out her website or follow her on Twitter (@BerondaM).
Models we learn about in the classroom, such as evolution, are very useful in helping us organize how things behave in this complicated world. They help us notice patterns and make predictions and organize and guide us in the direction of the truths we are looking for. But, in the real world, they work in much more complex and often less clear cut or straightforward ways.
When I watched Anthony Lapsansky’s talk on lesser-known transitions in diving birds, I was reminded of this. Anyone who’s ever read any sort of biology textbook ever will know about the idea of form and function. The physical and chemical make-up of an organism is always paired with completing a specific task which (theoretically) increases fitness. And so, as we look out into the real world, this is a useful idea to consider when trying to understand why the natural world exists as it does. But, yet again, it gets even more complicated than that.
As Mr. Lapsansky states in the introduction to his talk, very rarely is there ever simply one function for every form. More often, multiple functions are paired with a single form.
“Multifunctionality is almost certainly the norm rather than the exception to the rule.” he states.
This is also the case in Lapsansky’s choice of case organism: diving birds. Diving birds are a good choice in studying multifunctionality for many reasons, but perhaps the most significant is that the big multifunctionality that they exhibit is completely physical. They have to effectively navigate through two different types of fluids, air and water, with the same body plan. “The laws of physics don’t change with the individual or the age or the relative abundance of resources or mates”, and therefore it’s much easier to understand the sort of tradeoffs that comes with this multifunctionality. Water is also a very harsh environment for a creature that relies on lungs.
“In exploiting an environment in which an animal cannot continually survive – the ramifications of being inefficient are perhaps more tangible than in any other behavior”. Lapsansky tells us.
Combine this with the diversity of species that exist and the different strategies that exist among diving birds for locomotion, and we have a good avenue for exploring what sort of evolutionary trade-offs may exist. The surprising thing is exactly what sort of morphological differences there are.
In this study, Lapsansky specifically studies the wings of diving birds. And the difference is wing size, but not because they are being used differently in water as both wing divers and foot divers have smaller wings, or because they’re used differently in air in the wide-open environment that they inhabit, but because it reduces the amount of air trapped inside the wings that slows them down burns extra energy as they try to dive.
“…buoyancy constitutes one of the major costs if not THE major cost to diving in a bird”. he says.
Now this is not for sure, nothing is, but it is interesting for several reasons. First, it is a unifying difference across many different iterations of evolved avian diving, and secondly it has nothing to do with how they’re being used necessarily. Rather it is simply a product of the wings being present. But as is always the case, it’s important to note that this is only one suggested hypothesis for an observed pattern that is consistent with this data and that we cannot know why it actually is the case.
And this is one reason why science is so amazing. Because the answer could have nothing to do with the ways that we think it is, but it also is exactly the reasons that make the most sense. A complex, demanding system, and maybe the answer is just so simple. So, even though the world is a complicated place, there can still be very simple solutions to it.
Lapsansky was awarded the DCB Oral Presentation—Mimi A. R. Koehl award- Anthony Lapsansky for 2021 ,he has work in progress with ICB on his talk for SICB, & he had a co authored paper of Lapsansky’s was also cited in 2019’s Multifunctional Structures and Multistructural Functions: Integration in the Evolution of Biomechanical Systems by Farina et al https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icz095
“Re-invasion of the aquatic environment by terrestrial vertebrates resulted in the evolution of species expressing a suite of adaptations for high-performance swimming. Examination of swimming by secondarily aquatic vertebrates provides opportunities to understand potential selection pressures and mechanical constraints, which may have directed the evolution of these aquatic species…”