01. Biodiversity is My World
When I was a child we owned a copy of Animal Families Memory, published by Milton Bradley. It was a fairly standard game, in which you would match the parent tiles with the corresponding babies: Puppy with Dog, Kitten with Cat, Foal with Horse, etc. I suspect I played this game more times than any other board game I have ever played, or will ever play, which considering that playing board games is one of my biggest non-work related hobbies, is impressive.
My earliest distinct memories around this game was a simple one. I was a sensitive kid, and am now a sensitive adult, and I loved, and resultingly, still love, Elephants (to the extent that I unnecessarily capitalize the word). As such, if one of my parents, or my sibling managed to match the baby elephant with its parent, I would break into tears IMMEDIATELY. Getting the elephant tiles for me was one of the most rewarding experiences of the game, followed closely, in all likelihood, by the Rhinos. I am lucky enough to still have my original copy of the game, which I plan to assemble in a shadowbox to hang in my apartment.
From childhood, I have loved animals. I've loved Elephants, Rhinos, all those animals you are exposed to as a child, the various vertebrates that belong in that mental grouping we as a society have formed, that excludes all the so-called creepy-crawlies, the critters and creepers. Although I did grow up with the Creepy Crawlers activity toy from Mattel, essentially a repainted Easy-Bake oven designed to heat-cast rubbery molds of all sorts of insects and worms and spiders, the sort of pseudo toys that would be in the trash by the day's end, but would keep me and my sibling entertained for enough time to give my parents some time to relax.
I wasn't particularly athletic, and while I did spend my summers outside running about the fields and woods of the condominium complex I lived in, I didn't dig through mud, or catch frogs, or collect insects, or anything like that. I recall as a child occasionally visiting a small stable within walking distance that housed a single horse, and we would feed carrots to it, but it was not something so pervasive in my childhood that I had any strong feelings for the animal. Besides the occasional goldfish and a single hamster, and tropical fish in my teen years, I never had pets, but I had a subscription to Zoobooks, and the one part of each issue I would look over, again and again, were the pages showing illustrations of the whole animals, the animals' musculature, and their skeletons. All those shapes and forms, all those different lives, just an endless menagerie of Life!
Our neighbor Dave had a cat, who in my memory was essentially Garfield (overweight and probably orange), but beyond seeing it passingly when we'd interact with him at his door, I thought nothing of it. Meanwhile, as I grew older, I latched onto tropical fish as this amazing world of diversity, the different colors and shapes and toxins and fins, it was all just so.. different than the everyday! You'd see a squirrel, or a dog, or a bird, and there wasn't that much variation. Or at least not the kind of variation that a child latches onto as being interesting. In Junior High I was absolutely fascinated with fish, and was confident I was going to be a Marine Biologist. I didn't really know what a Marine Biologist was, and I certainly don't think I understood what science was really about, but I loved learning about different things, building a catalog in my mind of all the various forms and features that existed. To this day, I collect information into the filing cabinet of my mind: Knowing is itself the reward.
It was in high school that I expanded further, and began to truly appreciate the diversity of animal life; Fish were all just variations on a common body plan, the same one found in cats, dogs, birds, even Elephants (edit 2017-June-15: I neglected to capitalize the word, for shame!). And I was suddenly appreciative, in the full expanse of the idea, that vertebrates, chordata, those things that we as humans are best able to recognize as being similar to ourselves, were only a tiny piece of a greater whole. All the creepy-crawlies, the critters that we cognitively group together as the "other" are all their own unique divergent paths of form and function. I naturally transitioned from my marine fish to marine molluscs, and began to appreciate that just as there are these discrete relationships, shared ancestries, common forms among the vertebrates, such groupings existed elsewhere! Gastropods, Cephalopods, Bivalves, all these strange and unfamiliar animals had common ancestry with each other! A cursory study would show how the arms of the octopus and the foot of the snail were homologous structures! The squid's internal shell, the bivalve shell, the snail's, all related! Octopuses were my new favorite animal, they were complex, and intelligent, and still so foreign, so alien, so Other! But Other was interesting, it was exciting (it was everywhere), it was NEW.
When I went off to college, I knew I was a zoologist. I knew that animals were this endless ocean of shapes and forms, of possibilities, of interconnectedness! By the end of my first semester, I was working in a laboratory, studying spiders with Professor Emeritus Ed Tillinghast. They weren't octopuses, but they were NEW. I knew about spiders, of course, everyone does, and I had an uncle who was famously terrified of them, much to his siblings' delight, but now suddenly my ability to LEARN was valuable, was essential. My coursework wound and wove through various tangential subjects, as I made my way through the core life science curriculum, and I supplemented it with courses in developmental biology, electron microscopy, and even biochemistry. My research on spiders, examining silk gland physiology, suddenly made it clear to me that many of the various things that made things interesting were not simply morphological, they were cellular, they were physiological, they were biochemical. The whole world suddenly became more complex as I truly began to understand that the forms I was familiar with were built of smaller forms, and smaller forms within still.
I eventually shifted my academic focuses to biochemistry, to supplement my work on spiders, but all the while I kept on expanding my knowledge of biodiversity. To this day my focus has been primarily animals, but understanding all the niches and crevices and vertices of life continues to be fascinating. It is this core piece, the learning, the knowing, the having in my head this fantastic web of interrelationships, of structures lost and found, is an endless treasure I can draw from again and again. Something is there that I find mesmerizing.
And so I want to share this wonderful world, the one that in fact surrounds every one of us, with anyone who wishes to see it.
I spent a few years doing a master's degree in biotechnology, a false lead professionally, but rewarding, and then spent several more years trying to take my obsession with learning and turn it into new research with spiders, before finally finding my way to where I am now.
Biodiversity, in all its forms, is the result of evolution. The structure of the process by which evolution has produced biodiversity, can be understood, depicted, and explained using phylogenetics. Understanding biodiversity, what makes it, what crafts it, how to visualize it, is something I want to be able to share. I want to be able to talk to people about how one organism is related to another, and have that word, 'related', MEAN what it means with all its nuance and complexity. Formal classrooms, both K-12 and higher ed (edit 2017-June-15: or as I've discovered they're called, K-16), have strict guidelines, standards, desired goals, and certainly some of the things I care so passionately for can fall to the wayside. But outside of school, there is endless room to expand and explore. With informal education, with board games, and museums, and books and video, you can show people things they'd never see on their own.
The sister to this, The Deep, is where I continue to explore such wonders, but it is here, where you can begin to see what I'm trying to do to help others explore it too.