Shrew poo and worm goo are science too
Last week I had the pleasure of being a speaker at Buck Lodge Middle School’s Career Day. Several public schools in Maryland, where Buck Lodge is located, and other states organize important events like these to get students thinking about future opportunities. Do you remember what it was like to be in middle school? To the middle school me, a career seemed distant, vague and, frankly, too overwhelming to really think about. But the big question was always on my mind: What do I want to be?
As I told the students at Buck Lodge, at the time, I knew I enjoyed writing and painting and found science fascinating, but that was the scope of my “career path.” I chose a high school and college known for their science programs—seemingly small decisions that actually said quite a bit about my true interests. But it wasn’t until a couple years into college that my advisor told me about a career in science writing; the more I learned about it, the more I knew it was the right fit.
I was able to learn about the latest research and share it in creative ways. As I tried to express to the students, this is why I chose science: It can be fun, weird and important all at once, and it can show you a side to the world you never knew existed.
So when I explained my career to the students at Buck Lodge, I wanted to show my excitement about the two main components of my job: science and writing. The science part was, naturally, what the students found most entertaining. At the beginning of each class, I asked the students how many of them liked “science, any kind of science.” Usually a sprinkling of hands rose. Then when I asked how many students liked animals or bugs, the hands shot up. “That is what I do,” I said, “I write about animals, bugs, plants, bacteria and how they all interact with each other and their environment. This science is called ecology.”
The students inevitably wanted to know about the “coolest” or “weirdest” thing a (ecological) scientist has studied. I asked them if they had heard of the water bear. In one class, the students logically guessed a water bear is a bear that is particularly good at swimming. But the room erupted in “Ew!”s and “Gross!”s when I explained that the water bear is a microscopic animal living in mosses and wet environments all over the world—that they may have actually touched a water bear and not even known it. The students continued to comment on its translucent cuticle during a video (below) showing the microbe’s bear-like gait.
Then they learned about the water bear’s ability to go into an inactive state, basically drying up to survive extreme conditions like drought and freezing temperatures. Because of this, the water bear is the first known animal to have survived the harsh conditions of space.
The same class also was curious about the velvet worm—a large, ancient worm-like organism with several sets of legs. The velvet worm’s feature of interest was its feeding behavior—that is, it coats its prey, such as crickets, in a slime that aids in digestion. The students quietly watched a video (below) about the velvet worm—at least until the part with slow-motion goo-spraying, when a new series of “Ew!”s started up.
In the last class, I showed the students a recent EcoTone post on strange plants. Some of the students were familiar with the Venus flytrap, but they were unaware it originated in nutrient-poor areas of North and South Carolina. Pitcher plants, I continued, derive nutrients in extraordinary ways as well, not relying only on photosynthesis: A species of pitcher plant in Borneo, for example, is shaped like a toilet and comes complete with a lid. Tree shrews, attracted to the nectar on the lid, sit on the plant for feeding and defecate while positioned over the opening. Basically, I shared causing laughter, the pitcher plant is the shrew’s toilet, and the plant uses the poo for nutrients. The photo of a tree shrew caught in the act said it all.
A teacher asked me in the last class, what is it that I do with this sort of scientific information? This was probably the most difficult part of my career to explain since—after sharing cool stories about space-traveling water bears and poo-eating pitcher plants—the science seemed to speak for itself. At the time, I mentioned something along the lines of making science accessible to everyone and about a passion for writing. However, I think there is more to the communication aspect of science writing than I explored on Career Day, and it has taken me these last few days to really formulate the main point: Science should be fun. Not as in too fun to be taken seriously but as in entertaining, exciting and interesting.
When asked about what activities they enjoy, the students listed music, video games, Facebook and watching football games. So what makes those things “fun”? A study in the journal Psychological Science suggested that people perceive an activity to be enjoyable if they believe time has passed quickly; this is opposite of the adage, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” That is, we believe we had fun if time seemed to fly by. So listening to music, playing video games and chatting on Facebook might be engaging enough to pass the time; reading something—science-related or not—that is difficult to understand is probably not engaging enough to pass time.
But I think there is more to it than that. Science is a piece of every one of those enjoyable activities the students listed; it is just a matter of pointing out the relationship in a relatable way (whether that means using writing, videos, photos or a combination). While it is not accurate to say that everything is scientific, science is a part of everything. In other words, science should get credit, not only for its applicability to society, but for its role in the fun, funny, weird and gross too. So when asked, what I should have said on why I like writing about science: I find stories about shrew poo and worm goo just as fun as the next person, and I want to share them.
Thanks to the school and to Teresa Kline—the nurse at Buck Lodge and my mom—for inviting me to speak at Career Day. Photo Credit: Tom Woodward.
Sackett, A., Meyvis, T., Nelson, L., Converse, B., & Sackett, A. (2009). You’re Having Fun When Time Flies: The Hedonic Consequences of Subjective Time Progression Psychological Science, 21 (1), 111-117 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609354832