Category: I Am Science

Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

Update #3 [Up at the top, so that hopefully people read it.] Does the title of this post make you angry? Well, you’re not alone. I continue to hear from many people who think I am downright stupid for daring to ask this question. Seeing all the backlash, I’ll be first to admit that I wish I had titled it something less provocative (even though it didn’t feel all that provocative at the time.) All I want to suggest is that we hold up some other examples of good science communicators, I don’t want to, or think that we can, erase the past. Sagan has a deity-like position for some people, and I didn’t do a very good job of explaining why that makes me feel so bad sometimes. I wanted to offer a different point of view. As was said to me on twitter, we should recognize Sagan the way we recognize Da Vinci, Einstein, Galileo – as greats. That doesn’t mean we should let that stall our ability to move forward and try to make new great things, with new great people.

Update #4 You know, the moment I had to ask my Mom (because my computer was giving me trouble and I couldn’t log into my own site – go figure) to log in to this site to respond to a comment to say that I don’t think Sagan hated women kind of made me want to give up completely. But I’ve read two thoughtful responses to my post, and I realized that the main thing I’m not saying is why I felt the need to write this in the first place. When we hold up Sagan again and again as the greatest there ever was, when we take his quotes and put them on pretty pictures that go viral, when the TV special continues to live online, when we talk again and again about how this one person inspired humanity and made people see that science is human – and all of it makes me feel nothing, I can’t help but think that perhaps I’m less than human. I joked with a friend yesterday that perhaps I’m just dead inside, but it isn’t really a joke to me. If Sagan represents all that is good, and I don’t understand it, then I can’t be good. So, if you want to know where this post was written, it was written from a place of fear and self doubt.

I am hopelessly optimistic about life to the point of near desperation to find the good in everything. So I thought, well, if I feel this way, other people must too. I warped that thinking into the blanket statements that caused so much of the trouble in this post. I know better than to publish without letting something sit so I can rethink it, and I broke my own rule, and made a mistake here. Some people have reached out to me to say they shared my feelings. So, to those people, I hope knowing you aren’t alone in not feeling so inspired makes you feel better.

My problem isn’t really with Sagan himself, and I didn’t do a good job of explaining that I take issue with the culture surrounding Sagan, with the way he is idolized as a one-and-only, with the vehemence of some of his fans. People have told me he would also promote women and diversity, which is a good thing. I do still think that other examples are needed not just to show a different approach to science communication, but to show different people to encourage other people that they can do this, even if they don’t see themselves in Sagan.

To everyone who challenged me to refine my thinking and more clearly state my point of view, you are everything I love about the Internet and I thank you for keeping your calm demeanor and engaging with me in a productive way. To everyone who called me stupid, self-absorbed, uneducated, and told me to learn my place, to learn some “respect, baby” well, I don’t particularly know what to say to you, but I hope you feel better too. To those who accused me of having no appreciation for the past, disrespecting my parents (what? – I felt so bad about that I even asked them, and they laughed at me) and wanting a world of nothing but listicles and Honey-Boo-Boo and instant gratification – that wasn’t the point I tried to make, which I admit to failing to make the first time, and I hope you’ll think again about what I’m actually asking us to do.

If what the world really needs are more and more Sagans, I guess I may be out of a job. But, I continue to think that I don’t really want to try to be anybody else, that’s the whole problem with idol worship, and I just want to try to make my own good things. Quite frankly, I don’t think we even CAN have another Sagan – it’s a very different world. I hope that in holding up other people as examples we can drive home the idea that there is more than one way to do something, more than one way to reach people, more than one way to do something good.

I also want to say that to those that called me out on categorizing Sagan based on his appearance, you’re right that I hate when it gets done to me, and as frustrating as I can get about it, it is still not right to categorize someone else that way. It wasn’t a productive way to have this conversation. If I offended you, but you kept quiet about it, you have my sincere apology too. The body of this post is largely intact, all of my flaws and all, so you can read the original below along with the other updates. I would also encourage you to read the response posts here and here.

It feels like I’m committing an act of science communication sacrilege here, but I have a confession to make: Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to me. No more than any other person from my parents 1970’s yearbooks that could rock the turtle neck/blazer combo with the best of them. There, my secret is out.

Credit: NASA JPL via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: NASA JPL via Wikimedia Commons.

[This paragraph is edited] I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do. To me, Sagan is a stereotypical scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago. That show – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage -was on air nearly a decade before I was even born. The reason I bring up my own age is because I’m as old, if not older, than the prime audience for science communication. I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

So then why, WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience, let alone that of people younger than me – was the greatest science communicator of all time? We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid cares about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. [Please see Updates #1 and #2 at the bottom of this post, to address the flaw in this blanket statement.] We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t  relevant anymore. The topics of space, the natural world, and how to communicate wonder are totally relevant to the public and to the science writing community. But, this one guy? Nope.

[This paragraph is edited] It isn’t just the age thing. I recently read Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers by Apoorva Mandavilli about the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting, and how there was a distinct lack of minorities, let alone minority women. She said:

“You can never overestimate how empowering it is to see someone who looks like you—only older and more successful. That, much more than well-meaning advice and encouragement, tells you that you can make it.”

That idea stuck with me. Role models are a great thing, and I get that Sagan inspired people to become scientists themselves. But, if we want to seriously address issues of diversity in science and science communication holding up the stereotypical scientist over and over again isn’t doing anyone any favors. I’m not trying to belittle anyone’s inspiration for pursuing science, let alone belittle Sagan himself. I respect the work Sagan did as a scientist and communicator. I respect that at the time he brought science into the mainstream in a way that hadn’t been done before. But, we need new things.

We need things that fit a modern era, things that will supplement the nerdy white dude stereotype (I mean, I generally like nerdy white dudes, you don’t have to leave, we just need other people too.) I believe that we can do better than lamenting some guy in a turtleneck as if nothing good will ever happen again. We can focus on diversity – showing men and women, of different ethnicities and backgrounds that science isn’t only for nerds.

The answer isn’t as simple as rebooting Cosmos, as FOX is doing, and sticking Neil deGrasse Tyson in front of the camera. While Tyson is far more relevant, and yes is a minority, we still need to get women, other minorities, and young people doing all kinds of science out in public view. If we want diversity we need to show people that people just like them can, and do, like science. We need everybody.

Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I realize that instinctively we want to defend our childhood heroes. You may be sitting at your computer thinking, “but, but, you just don’t GET it, you don’t understand what a big impact Sagan had.” You are right, and that is 100% my point. I’m an admittedly nerdy, white, science communicator. If I don’t care about Sagan, do you honestly think the general public does? Science, particularly space, yes. Sagan, nope.

I sincerely hope the reboot of Cosmos starring Tyson does well, because science programming on a major television network in primetime is a good thing. I have  faith that the science will be sound, and we are in dire need of an upgrade from Mermaids and Megalodons so I think it’s great. That said, I still think it is a complete waste of our efforts to keep going on and on about WHO will be the next Sagan when we should really be talking about HOW we’re going to engage with a diverse audience about science and WHAT platforms and tools will we use to be effective. To me, those are far more productive conversations to have.

The science isn’t going to stop being interesting, it isn’t going to stop being relevant – but if we can’t push our professional conversations and aspirations past Sagan, we will stop being relevant.

Bonus: I didn’t know where to include this link, but here is Hope Jahren’s Ode to Carl Sagan. You should probably read it.

Update: Well, this is easily the most talked about post I’ve ever written. Lots of feedback here and on twitter. Most prominent are the voices saying but I love Sagan, he did such good things. Rock on, I’m not saying that he didn’t. Keep your fondness for him. There are young people who find Sagan inspiring. Blanket statements like the ones I made here don’t do justice to the fact that really, what inspires you is deeply personal. To each, their own. I took a hard line stance because it feels important to me for people to feel comfortable admitting that Sagan doesn’t inspire them if he doesn’t. Again, to each their own.  So, I nod to those young people who are inspired by Sagan, you’re right that I don’t speak for you, nor do I have a right to do so. But I also nod to everyone who said this made them feel better because other role models for science and science communication are something that many of us (if not all) would benefit from. Some people feel othered by not being into Sagan – if that makes any sense. But, I’m not trying to other anyone here either. I shouldn’t dismiss the significance of what Cosmos achieved, and should have included that we can still learn from what has been successful – even if I am seriously cautious about merely trying to replicate the past without pushing further, to do better.

Update #2: I wish I could change the title of this post to “Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan All of the Time” but it is what it is. I’m still getting comments about how wrong I am, because Sagan means so much to so many people, so to clarify: I took a very line in the sand approach in this post. I’ve talked to a lot of people since advocating for a middle of the road approach, the “we need everybody” that I mentioned. Keep Sagan, but find a way to promote others too. His popularity speaks to the fact that his work gets through to a lot of people. My blanket statements contradict that in a way that is confusing. I should have been more careful, and written about how he doesn’t get through to some people and we do need new things to get through to the people his work doesn’t reach. I don’t want us to throw away the good work that Sagan did and never talk about it ever again as if we can’t still get value from it. Keep what worked, appreciate the value added, but I still think shifting our focus to new things is beneficial.

Scientist of the Month November 2013: Elisabeth Newton

Hello first graders! I’m excited to introduce you to our new scientist of the month Elisabeth Newton. When I was a kid, the first book I read that made me fall in love with science was all about astronomy, I even still have it! I loved space, and looking up at the stars at night. While my work has nothing to do with space, it is still one of my favorite topics – so lucky for us, Elisabeth studies space!

Courtesy of Elisabeth Newton

Courtesy of Elisabeth Newton

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Elisabeth: I’m an astronomer, and I use telescopes to learn about small nearby stars, which are called red dwarfs. Astronomers study all kinds of things in space, from the explosion of stars, to asteroids in our solar system, to the formation of galaxies. Some astronomers are like me, and use telescopes to make observations. Other astronomers use computers to try to model what we see.

Erin: It takes a long time (or at least a lot of school) to become a scientist. What is one of your favorite memories from school or things that you learned in school?

Elisabeth: It does take a long time, and I’m still in school! (Thankfully, as a graduate student in astronomy, I actually get paid to go to school, which I think is a pretty good deal.) My favorite memory so far is using a telescope for the first time, which was during my first year of graduate school. I had never used a telescope before, and the first one I used was in Chile. It was so beautiful! The best part was at dawn, when I got to watch the telescope being shut down for the day while the sun rose over the mountains.

Erin: Where do you work, and what do you do on a typical day at work?

Elisabeth: A typical day for me is spent in my office. I analyze my data, I make plots, and I read about the science other people are doing. I also spend time talking to my fellow scientists and discussing ideas for new research, or a new result that’s just come out. But sometimes I get to go on very exciting trips! I’ve been to Chile and Hawaii to use telescopes located on the tops of mountains, and to Germany and Maui to attend conferences. In the past couple of years, I also have helped to teach classes and taken classes myself.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Elisabeth: This is a hard one! I loved physics in high school, and I thought it was really cool how equations could help us understand how the world works. In college, I did research on galaxies and learned that I liked the day to day parts of research in astronomy: trying to understand data, writing computer programs, and writing about my results. I also enjoy teaching and mentoring students, and that’s also a big part of being a good scientist.

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Sunset from the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, courtesy of Elisabeth Newton.

Sunset from the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, courtesy of Elisabeth Newton.

Elisabeth: I’m a graduate student right now and my main job right now is to do research and learn to be a good scientist, which is pretty cool. For me, the best part about being a scientist is getting to learn about the Universe, and just being in a place where new discoveries are made every day. My friends find planets orbiting other stars, model the sun, and work to understand how galaxies form.

Erin: What is something you’ve found about either being a scientist or the subject you study that most people don’t know?

Elisabeth: The closest star to the sun is called Proxima Centauri and it’s a red dwarf star, one of the type of stars that I study. In fact, red dwarfs are the most common type of star in our entire galaxy. But they are also really, really faint: not a single one is visible by eye in the night sky!

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

Elisabeth: The main things I do for fun are rock climbing and playing board games. Recently, I’ve been learning how to make bread, applesauce and ice cream, so I’ve had a lot of fun in the kitchen over the past few months. I also like to do arts and crafts; my favorite thing is making earrings, but right now I am trying to learn how to sew.

What do you think first graders? I hope you enjoyed reading my interview with Elisabeth, and don’t forget if you have any questions you’d like to ask her, be sure to leave them in the comments. Grown ups – if you would like to learn more about Elisabeth, you can find her on twitter @EllieInSpace. I’m always taking volunteers for scientist of the month, so let me know if you’d like to participate!

The scientist of the month segment was inspired by the stories shared on twitter and tumblr from I Am Science.

Scientist of the Month October 2013: Terry McGlynn

Hello first graders! I know you’ve been learning about what a scientist is, and I’m thrilled to be able to introduce you to different scientists throughout this school year. Our first scientist is named Terry McGlynn. I hope you will enjoy reading my interview with him, and if you have any questions be sure to leave him a comment!

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Terry with his son Bruce McGlynn (a fifth grader) in the field this summer.

Terry with his son Bruce McGlynn (a fifth grader) in the field this summer.

Terry: I’m an ecologist, and I work mostly on ants in tropical rainforests. That means that I am trying to figure out how differences in the environment might affect ants, and also how the ants can cause differences in the environment. Depending on the situation, I might say that I’m a tropical biologist, an entomologist, or a myrmecologist which is a special term for someone who studies ants.

Erin: It takes a long time (or at least a lot of school) to become a scientist. What is one of your favorite memories from school, or things that you learned in school?

Terry: When I was in elementary school, an education team from NASA visited. This was in the early days of the space shuttle program. They brought a ceramic heat tile like the ones used on the shuttle. A volunteer was brought up on stage to hold the tile from one side, while the educators used a blowtorch to warm the other side of the tile.

Terry: Another amazing thing I remember from when I was a kid was the La Brea Tar Pits, which have fossils from the Pleistocene when people coexisted with creatures like giant ground sloths, mastodons, dire wolves and giant jaguars. There is a great exhibit at the tar pits, which is still there, with a whole wall filled with the skulls of dire wolves retrieved from tar pit excavations. They appear all so similar but like all organisms have slight variations. This display in a single glance tells the story of evolution, the history of life, the events that brought wolves to the tar pits, and the importance of museum collections and the people who put them together.

Terry: One more memory – when I was in college what I loved most about studying science were the field trips, up to the mountains, out into the desert, and on a research ship in the ocean. I got to learn all about plants, animals and the natural world from people who were so excited about life and were a great inspiration to me.

Erin: Where do you work and what do you do on a typical day at work?

Terry with students in Costa Rica.

Terry with students in Costa Rica.

Terry: I am a professor at California State University Dominquez Hills, which is in Los Angeles. Every day I spend some time on the computer writing, communicating with students and searching for information. Some days I teach, and some days I also work with elementary and secondary science teachers so that we can all become better scientists and better teachers. I often meet with my students who are doing research to keep up with their progress and advise them, and when I’m really lucky I get to go into the lab and sort through our research samples of ants. It is a little hard to describe a “typical” day!

Terry: For about one month per year, I also work in a Costa Rican rainforest with my students from my lab, where we are working long days to run our experiments and collect data and samples to analyze when we get back home.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Terry: I became a scientist because I was excited about all of the questions that don’t have any answer. I saw that the whole world is an unsolved puzzle, but with no picture on the top of the box. When I was in college, I thought I was going to become a doctor. In my last year of college, I realized that I wanted to be a field biologist instead of a doctor, right in the middle of a medical school interview. Looking back, I have no idea why I even went down that path, especially when I was most excited about classes in evolutionary biology, biogeography, insect biology and conservation biology.

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Terry: The people! I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to work with so many wonderful students over the years, many who have become good friends of mine. I have been able to bring a lot of students to conduct research in the rainforest, at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. It’s wonderful to see how the experience in a diverse rainforest, combined with immersion in a community of field biologists, can be a transformative experience. The other scientists I work with – both at my university and my collaborators from around the world – are really fun and interesting. I also really enjoy being able to travel to many kinds of places, for research and attending conferences. But I have to admit that some of the most exciting moments have happened when I’ve been working at the computer analyzing data. Once in a long while, suddenly while looking at the computer screen I learn a new and surprising fact in need of further explanation. Those thrilling moments often propel my research into new directions and provide me fuel for working long hours on new experiments.

Erin: What is something you’ve found about either being a scientist or the subject you study that most people don’t know?

Terry: Most people don’t know that all worker ants are females!

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

Terry: Science is fun! While studying ants is my job, I also do it for fun. I enjoy  other things too, of course. I love hanging out with my family, spending time outdoors, camping, reading fiction, and I spend plenty of time in museums, including some volunteering.

What do you think first graders? Do you have any questions for Terry about ants, the rainforest, or being a scientist?

For my adult readers – you can catch Terry on twitter @hormiga. This post, and all others in my Scientist of the Month series were inspired by the tumblr and twitter thread I Am Science.

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Sarah Boon

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. I cannot believe that is it June already! This school year I’ve loved introducing you to our scientists of the month, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, BeckyMichael, Jenny and David. We have one more scientist to meet before school’s out for the year – I’m happy to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Boon, a hydroecologist. I asked her questions about her job as a scientist to learn more about what she does. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you’d like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Sarah: I’m a hydroecologist, which means I study where water comes from, where it goes, and how it interacts with living things. I’m particularly interested in how snow interacts with trees, and what happens to streams – and the fish in them – when snow melts. I study how healthy trees catch snow compared to trees killed by mountain pine beetle or wildfire. I also look at how melting snow changes the temperature of mountain streams, and what affect that has on at-risk salmonids like bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
Sarah: I did an undergraduate degree in Physical Geography with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, on Canada’s Vancouver Island. I took a lot of courses about landscapes and how to measure and observe them. I wish I’d taken some biology courses – but I didn’t realize at the time that I’d get into that kind of work. I did the co-operative education program, which means you work for 4 or 8 months and then go to school for 4 months. This was really helpful in getting great job experience, meeting new people, and paying for my tuition. After five years in Victoria I moved to Edmonton, Alberta to do my PhD in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. I finished in 2003 and now live in Lethbridge, Alberta (after 2 years in Prince George, British Columbia as a ‘substitute’ professor).

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?
 
Sarah: I work as a university professor, so I do research, teach classes, and supervise grad students. This means I spend part of my time in the office and part in the field.
 
When I’m in the office, I stare at the computer screen a lot more than I’d like. I write research grant applications, send emails, write lectures for each of my classes, and much more. When I’m not at my computer, I’m either in a meeting or in front of a class, teaching. Most of my office days zip by really quickly, and I wonder where the day went and why I didn’t get more done.
 
I’m in the field once every two weeks during between late fall, just before the snow comes, to late spring when the last of the snow has melted. These are the days I enjoy the most about my job. I stay in a cabin near the field site with my research assistants and/or grad students, and am up early making plans for the day, including what kind of work needs to be done, what kind of gear is required, and how to access the site with all that gear. Once that’s all worked out (and breakfast has been eaten and a good lunch packed up), we either hike, ATV and/or snowmobile to the field site.
 
Once we get to the site, we take a lot of different measurements. We download the our automated stations, which are recording temperature, rainfall, stream water level, and more. We also collect snow cores, measure tree height and diameter, take photographs of the forest canopy, dig snow pits, and measure how fast the stream is moving. The best part is that you get to spend the days outside in the woods, enjoying the outdoors.
 
At the end of the day, back in the cabin, we go over our notes and the files we downloaded. We talk about what seems to be going on based on our measurements, and about what we need to do the next day. Then we play cards or go to the pub.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?
 
Sarah: I became a scientist because, at the time, I thought it was the one thing that I needed someone else to teach me. We can all read history books, novels, poetry, and political theory, then discuss these books with friends and colleagues to figure out what they mean to us and how they’re important to our lives. But the scientific mindset is something you have to train your brain in. I also felt science was more credible than humanities.
 
Having spent 18 years in science, I now realize that humanities and science can be equally credible. Also – while you do need to train your brain to think scientifically – it needs to be trained to work in the humanities, as well. And finally, you likely won’t get far in understanding certain books and theories if you don’t have someone to work with who can guide your inquiry. So the main reasons I became a scientist – which made sense at the time – actually aren’t entirely true. 
 
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?
 
Sarah: Being outdoors, observing the landscape and trying to understand how it works.

Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?
 
Sarah: I actually don’t get summers off. A lot of people think that professors only work from September to May, and have holidays from June to August. Since I’m so busy with office work and field work during the school term, the summer is my time to catch up on writing research papers, spend time with my grad students in the field, and prepare some of my classes for the fall.

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?
 
Sarah: I like most things outdoors as long as they’re not extreme – for example, I prefer cross-country skiing over downhill skiing, and hiking over trail running. I enjoy nature photography, and am a science writer in my spare time. As a writer, I also love to read: novels, mysteries, memoirs, non-fiction – if it’s good, I’ll read it. I do a lot of gardening, and get a kick out of eating food that I’ve grown myself. I also have hunting dogs (flat-coated retrievers) that I enjoy training and working with.
 
What do you think first graders? Do you have any questions for Sarah about her work as a scientist? Like always, be sure to leave them in the comments!
 
Now that we’ve come to the end of the school year, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who volunteered to participate in the Scientist of the Month segment. Everyone who participated did so with their own personal time, and was incredibly thoughtful and dedicated to answering the kids’ questions and finding ways to explain their work. I enjoyed working with everyone and learning about all of your research myself! Doing these interviews was so much fun that I’ve decided to make the Scientist of the Month a regular segment next school year too, so it will be back in the fall with a new batch of students and scientists!

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month David Tarpey

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. Happy May, I’m excited for spring and warm weather, aren’t you? This month I’m pleased to introduce you to David Tarpey, PhD. David is an entomologist (he studies bugs!) at North Carolina State University. Like I did with our other scientists, Penny, Philipp, Anne-Marike, Pete, Becky, Michael, and Jenny I asked him questions about his job as a scientist to learn more about what he really does. I hope you enjoy learning about his work! Below you can read our interview, and if you’d like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

David: I’m an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects. There are lots of types of bugs though, so most entomologists specialize in different areas. My speciality is honey bees, so my area of expertise is named apiculture.

Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

Courtesy of David Tarpey

Courtesy of David Tarpey

David: I got my undergraduate degree at Hobart College, my Master of Science at Bucknell University and my PhD at the University of California, Davis. While an undergrad I actually got my first experience in research while on my junior year abroad at Oxford University in England studying the learning behavior of birds (starlings to be precise). I took that experience back to Hobart and did a different project for my senior thesis on the mating behaviors of Hawaiian drosophila, the picture-winged fruit flies, which was my first introduction to insect science. I then started my masters project on honey bees, and ever since then I’ve been hooked! My MS project investigated the fascinating process by which a new queen takes over the colony from the old mother queen, which involves rival sister queens fighting each other to the death until only one remains. My PhD project also involved research on queens, studying why they mate with an unusually high number of males, or drones. I’ve continued research on that same question ever since.

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?

David: I’m in the Entomology Department at North Carolina State University, one of the largest and arguably the best entomology department in the country. My typical work day is anything but typical, as I do many things in my position. Some days I teach a large class of non-science majors about how cool bees are, using them to learn about biology in order to appreciate the process of science. Other days I work with beekeepers, teaching them how to best manage their beehives to keep their colonies healthy and productive so the bees can pollinate all the crops that we eat every day. Still other days, I work with other members of our lab to do research on why honey bees do what they do, and how they go about doing it. We use lots of different ways to address these questions, including genetics and glass-walled observation hives so we can watch what’s going on inside.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

David: I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be a scientist. It may be in part because my father was a research psychologist so I’ve always been in academia, or it may be because I’ve loved exploring and tinkering in the outdoors since as early as I can remember. But what really got me excited about science was the first time I opened up a beehive containing ~50,000 bees and a single queen. Realizing how surprisingly peaceful they were and how they worked together for the greater good was so fascinating to me, I just had to understand more!

Courtesy of David Tarpey

Courtesy of David Tarpey

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

David: I really enjoy all the different aspects of my job. Teaching students the fascinating biology of bees constantly renews my love and admiration for them, as does my working with beekeepers to help perfect their management of their beehives. Researching how colonies function is also very rewarding, as I feel like a detective trying to figure out an infinitely complex and interesting puzzle.

Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?

David: Being the honey bee expert in North Carolina, one of the more surprising things that I do every year is help the NC State Fair judge all of the entries for honey, wax, and hive products. Beekeepers have many rewards, and they love to compete with each other to see who can bottle the best honey and make the best candles. We therefore help decide who wins the blue ribbon every year!

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

David: I love sports, so I play a lot of racquetball and basketball, and I also help coach my son’s soccer team. I’m also an avid hiker and enjoy camping in the outdoors. I also wish I could be as hands-on with beekeeping as I used to be, since I enjoy playing with the bees as much as I can.
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What do you think first graders? Do any of you ever see bees in your backyard or at the park? What are some of the things you know about bees? Do you have any questions for Dr. David? Be sure to leave him a comment! I think he has a pretty cool job, don’t you?

Thank you, David for being our May Scientist of the Month!