(I wrote this for one of my Communicating Science classes through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook and really liked the assignment (and really love the center!). My professor told us, "Take some time to really think about what it is that you love about science. It doesn’t have to be what you’re doing right now. What is the driving force that got you here? Find an image that depicts or speaks to your relationship with science." Then we were to write one of the following to accompany this image: 1) a college graduation speech, 2) a letter to your great, great, great grandchild, to be written after you're gone, or 3) a final message to humanity to be printed in a publication of your choosing upon your death.
No pressure, right? I think it'd be fun for you to think of your own example, science-related or not! Here's mine below. I know loving Jane Goodall can be a bit of a cliché among primatologists, but I am proud to have received inspiration from her and what she stands for. Now, asking my 'great-great-great-grandchildren' to learn from her as well:
My dearest great-great-great-grandchildren,
I was the kind of child who absolutely always needed a book in my hand (back when books were physical printed objects!). Our house growing up was from the 1940s if you can imagine back then, so old that the shower took ages to warm up. I had to have something to read during those long ten-minute waits and remember, on several occasions, bringing a cereal box with me into the bathroom so I could read through it when I’d gone through everything else, even down to the lists of indecipherable chemical compounds included in Trix, Kix, or Reese’s Puffs. I loved reading that much. (I like imagining that’s something we share.) But I want to tell you about one book—or rather, the woman who wrote it, the pictures I saw in it—that truly changed my life forever.
Through a Window, the second book written by the estimable Dr. Jane Goodall and the first of hers I read all the way back when I was 12 years old, was that book. The picture above, of Jane and a young chimpanzee reaching out to connect, was the most impactful picture. I’d always loved animals too, so this book wasn’t introducing me to that passion. When I wasn’t reading, I was likely toad hunting outside, bringing in temporary new—and unenthusiastic—family members to stay in my ‘critter keeper’ for a few days and a few cricket dinners before I let them out into my backyard. I loved reading fact sheets about my favorite animals too, cheetahs and wolves, and an endless list of others: octopus, parrots, meerkats, camels...I hope you are still familiar with these incredible animals. I loved learning all I could about them and watching what they did at the zoo or on tv. What Through a Window articulated to me though was how complex and substantial chimpanzees’ (and, by extension, all animals’) lives were, how beautiful, and familiar, their minds. Jane wrote about the celebrated mother Flo and all her F-named children, each of whom she shared a mother-child relationship with as comforting and lasting as my own. She talked about Flo’s life with her grandchildren. She talked about wars between neighboring groups and told a story of a captive chimpanzee she’d met that knew ASL, who signed casually about the color of a woman’s dress (‘blue’) in an ad as she flipped through a magazine. What Jane Goodall is perhaps most known for, or at least what skyrocketed her career, was discovering that chimpanzees can make and use tools. She watched as they stuck long, skinny branches, their fabricated ‘fishing sticks,’ into termite mounds and waited until they could pull them out covered with a swarm of tasty treats. Sharing her observations, she was shut down and belittled by the scientific community, who ridiculed her for naming her ‘subjects’ and for endowing them with the ability to feel and express emotion. Her mentor, Dr. Louis Leakey, however, dashed off the following, now-celebrated telegram as soon as he’d received her missive from the field about what she’d seen: “now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” Before Jane dared think that animals could be compared to us, most scientists saw them almost as robots, ironically, and not living, thinking beings. “Tools” were exclusively used by humans (by man) and couldn’t possibly be used by other creatures. Now we know that octopus, sea otters, elephants, perhaps even crocodiles, among many other skilled species, make and use tools. Jane Goodall showed us that we did need to redefine man, as well as our place in the world we shared with others.
My hope for you is that you are both humbled and energized by the idea of what it means to ‘be a human.’ For me, humans are not ‘the most supreme beings of the universe;’ we are just good at being human. Mosquitoes, annoying as they are, are the best at being mosquitoes; we’d be terrible filling in for their job. We do ourselves a disservice to think we are ‘better than’ when we could be connecting with all those around us. In pursuing my career, I’ve tried, I’m trying, to see for myself life ‘through the window’ of animals’ eyes. I hope, by valuing animals and by learning about how their lives impact and are impacted by humans, I can inch the walls of the chasm between Man and Beast just a little bit closer together. Jane Goodall became a relentless advocate for animal rights and youth empowerment by letting young people know that they are powerful and that animals are not something to subjugate but to honor, to learn from, and to help. I hope you think about all the non-humans around you when you define yourself as ‘man.’ And I hope most of all that as you grow, you think of your own ways to ‘redefine human,’ for your own sense of self and perhaps even for us all.
To you, my future, fondly from your past,
[I had fun writing this essay for the William S. Pollitzer Student Travel Award with AAPA. Both undergraduate and graduate students are welcome to apply and respond to the year's prompt if they are attending the AAPA conference!]
Say you have a bag full of marbles. (Those in proverbial situations commonly do.) Now say you drop that proverbial bag of marbles, spilling its innumerable contents irretrievably across the kitchen floor. And say, too, that before dropping your own bag of marbles you’d met with your sister and mother and nephews and given ones to each of them, who’d then carried their new prizes to rooms all over the house before spilling their own, illustrative marbles. A mess, right? And one not too easy to contain.
Now imagine instead that the marbles are Aedes aegypti individuals, mosquitoes known to carry Zika and Chikungyuna viruses, and Dengue and yellow fevers, among other diseases, that the bags you and your loved ones, now millions of travelers across the globe, held close are loose but historically-restrictive climactic envelopes, that the rooms in your home are Central and South America, Polynesia, Texas and Florida. Is this metaphor wearing off? Is it clear first that this latter ‘mess’ is more severe and assuredly less-cartoonish than a houseful of marbles? Cross any resilient and rapidly-reproducing species with an unprecedented opportunity for geographic expansion and the result is simple: an unprecedented expansion of that species.
With climate change and increasing globalization, A. aegypti can be expected to do just that: to expand and to carry with it globally increased risks of contracting mosquito-borne diseases. Take Zika as one example of A. aegypti’s globetrotting prowess as a disease vector, the virus infamous for its potential to cause birth defects, such as microcephaly, in the babies of infected mothers. First diagnosed in 1954 in Nigeria, Zika virus rested in relative obscurity until 2007 when an outbreak infected over seventy-percent of the Pacific Ocean’s Yap Island residents. From there it took to Gabon, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Vanautu, and the Cook, Solomon, and Easter Islands before making a jump to the western hemisphere, to Brazil, in 2015. By late 2015, Zika was already discovered to have been locally-transmitted by A. aegypti in North America, where estimated rates of Zika-carrying adult mosquitos in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico numbered 5-17% . By August 2016, local cases were reported from 45 Central and South American and Caribbean countries and territories. The United States numbered among these: the CDC confirms 227 locally-transmitted and 5,335 cases from U.S. travelers to-date . These locations, while worldly, are perhaps not surprising for a tropical-subtropical insect to call home—all local cases in the United States after all have been restricted to the sunny climes of Texas and Florida. But what if formerly hostile locations become both more accessible and less hostile? Should we be adding Capitol Hill to our new travel advisory list?
Discovery of A. aegypti individuals in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. raises concern that climate change truly has had and will continue to have a hand in A. aegypti’s spread . A. aegypti’s range in the United States was formerly thought to be restricted to the 10°C winter isotherm that left South Carolina as A. aegptyi’s northernmost limit: A. aegypti were also not thought to be able to survive cold, wintering months. Yet there, decidedly north of South Carolina, they were—and year-round, presumably ringing in the warmer months following cold, dormant periods as larvae underground. A map estimating the current risk of Zika-carrying A. aegypti using meteorological variables and human traffic into the United States reads like a paper towel that has only just been dipped into a tray of ink: southeastern states are most at risk and at-risk year-round while A. aegypti leaks as far north as New York in warmer months . This range will push more northward, more westward and will extend farther into winter months as rising temperatures, growing populations, and increasing global connectivity allow it to. And reliably with it, we can assume, mosquito-borne diseases will follow.
Remember that Zika virus is not the only pathogen carried by A. aegypti. Remember, too, that mosquitoes are not the only invasive species being given ecological openings by climate change. And, finally, remember most of all that the United States is not the only country of concern, that poverty and urbanization exacerbate the problem of mosquito-borne diseases , that we will not be among those most impacted. This isn’t a problem bug spray is going to fix.
 Guerbois, M., Fernandez-Salas, I., Azar, S. R., Danis-Lozano, R., Alpuche-Aranda, C. M., Leal, G., ... & Del Río-Galván, S. L. (2016). Outbreak of Zika virus infection, Chiapas State, Mexico, 2015, and first confirmed transmission by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Americas. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 214(9), 1349-1356.
 Zika Virus. (2017, December 21). Retrieved December 31, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/zika/reporting/case-counts.html
 Lima, A., Lovin, D. D., Hickner, P. V., & Severson, D. W. (2016). Evidence for an overwintering population of Aedes aegypti in Capitol Hill neighborhood, Washington, DC. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 94(1), 231-235.
 Monaghan, A. J., Morin, C. W., Steinhoff, D. F., Wilhelmi, O., Hayden, M., Quattrochi, D. A., ... & Scalf, P. E. (2016). On the seasonal occurrence and abundance of the Zika virus vector mosquito Aedes aegypti in the contiguous United States. PLoS Currents, 8.
 Imperato, P. J. (2016). The convergence of a virus, mosquitoes, and human travel in globalizing the Zika epidemic. Journal of Community Health, 41(3), 674-679.
Image Credit: Center for Disease Control
A Conservation Memory
I think I remember my first direct involvement with animal conservation. I can recall my height more than my age as I strained to look up at the swirling, solitary focus of the room. It was dark and disorienting, the light in the room bouncing and rolling as much as the echoes off the carpeted walls did. I stared up at a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, a rescue off the shores of Galveston not too far from my Houston home. Next to her, or more securely on land next to me, was a simple donation barrel topped with a vortex funnel and a colorfully painted sign that I must have been told promised protected rainforest land for each coin dropped into the bin. I held up my mom for coins like the lunchroom bully and set to work watching as our donation spiraled, slowly spiraled and then quickly fell down the funnel and into the bin below.
To me, it was as if a protective fence popped up around a tract of land filled with jaguars and squawking birds the instant one of my pennies hit the bottom of the barrel. I was old enough by then to have images of burning rainforests burned themselves into my head, images I think we’ve all seen so much and so often that I don’t even remember seeing them firsthand anymore. This penny was going to douse those fires and stop that burning land. It was as simple as that. I could imagine myself dusting off my hands and smiling in a self-congratulatory way, a day’s work done, as I set off afterwards to make my usual rounds of the zoo. (My mom and I were biweekly regulars so we had lots of animals to visit.)
Now how simple is that solution? And is it really that simple?
I believed in the power of those pennies. All throughout elementary school when I caught toads every night and read book after illustrated book about animals and watched every Jack Hanna episode the VCR could handle. All throughout middle school when I first read Jane Goodall’s books and decided I was going to be a primate lady and a scientist myself when I grew up. Even throughout high school, throughout college, even sometimes when I first went to the field myself, first Madagascar and then Indonesia, and saw those rainforests and wild animals firsthand.
I didn’t see truckloads of pennies being offloaded into the parks though. I saw degraded habitats instead, places where even the luckiest ‘untouched’ animal communities wouldn’t be untouched for long. It’s an unpleasant process for anyone to realize, however slowly, that life and what you love aren’t simple, that problems exist which are outside of your or anyone’s control. It has been an overwhelming and overwhelmingly testing process to realize, however slowly, that conservation, a process I believed for years was the pure and simple process of ensuring that animals had a place to live, is one such issue. Conservation is an exciting field to delve into, with methods reaching from habitats to oval offices, packed lecture halls to small classrooms, and I plan to devote my career and my life to conservation. But to anticipate dangling myself over that same pit the money fell into twenty years before, the places where money goes in and conservation comes out, is a daunting one.
I can’t speak with much authority although I would like to someday. With my start of graduate school, I am ready to analyze and measure my beloved primates and their habitats until they have no choice but to be saved—I hope. I hope, but I know I won’t reach my goals. I know that I can’t “save” even one of the animal species I’ve wanted my whole life to protect. But I’m waiting for that new penny-filled barrel, an idea, a solution that will excite me and keep me as secure in my efforts as I felt as a child. Conserving that feeling of excitement and hope for animals and their future that I felt then is what conservation means to me now.
Image Credit: Green sea turtle release by Houston Zoo
Written while in Indonesia and following the trips to the animal markets we took with the Little Fireface Project
I fell in love with Indonesia the instant jetlag permitted me to see through my haze to enjoy my first misty morning. My fondness for this country has deepened with every ojek ride, with every ‘Hello,’ with each and every delicious bite of tahu semarang. Here I was met with a country that was warm, welcoming, and unlike anything I had ever seen before.
People, like myself, come to Indonesia hoping to catch a glimpse of an orangutan, civet or slow loris, animals so different from the ubiquitous squirrels and pigeons I am used to at home. Within days of my arrival I had seen hundreds of Indonesian animals, from mammals and reptiles to a near-limitless array of birds. On paper, this was a tourist’s dream. However, I had found my Indonesian wildlife in the animal markets of Jakarta and Bandung.
Instead of gibbons swinging from treetop to treetop or monitors basking in the sun, I saw days’-old baby birds sitting in what was obviously a nest taken from the wild, yellow-mouthed and gaping, calling for parents who would never find them again—unless they were in a cage nearby themselves. Adult birds were packed in cages to an astonishing degree, scores filling the space ideally not even one should occupy, cramped to such an extent that they could hardly open their wings let alone spread them. Fruit bats hung blinking in the harsh daylight as vendors and animals alike endured the beating sun. I saw geckos, lizards, and piles of snakes slithering over motionless companions, unsure whether they were alive, dead, or so near death that it didn’t make a difference. I was perhaps struck most by an owl I saw tethered to its cage on a dusty Bandung street, its talons squeezing apart a small bird that I could see had been its former neighbor in the cage next door. It was clear: those animals were not safe there.
Market animals, as ambassadors for Indonesia, are certainly sending a message for all foreign visitors who visit them: an SOS. After seeing the animal markets firsthand, I am compelled to share this message. I can’t go home to my family and friends when I return and not tell them what I saw. If I am speaking honestly, the pictures I will show them from the markets will make a more lasting impression than any of my others, and as a picture is worth a thousand words, those will have stronger words to say. The memory of every pair of listless eyes that followed me, lethargically, as I walked down the markets’ halls will follow me for life, just as every day I have spent in Indonesia has brought me memories that will give me joy.
I am not expecting that these markets will ever go away, but I do hope for just one thing: that they aren’t helped to grow. If you are a tourist or a visitor yourself reading this, I ask you not to go to these markets. Or do, please, and see for yourself what is there. If you are looking for a pet, do not choose one who will never find your home as comforting as the wild, the home it lost forever. Visiting these markets uninformed sparks demand; buying animals, even to ‘save’ them, fuels the trade even further. Many of these animals are protected by international law: it is not worth the risk of bringing something illegal into your home, and it is far from worthwhile for the living contraband involved.
There is a beauty to the markets, beauty that I have come to expect on every Javan street that I have walked thus far. As much as I was repelled by the animals’ lives I witnessed, wasted, on the markets’ streets, I was drawn to the spectral of color that could be pieced together as I passed every row of birds, to the remarkable craftsmanship of painted cages, to the extraordinary kindness and enthusiasm of the vendors that made it all too hard to condemn their way of life. There is more beauty, however, in allowing these animals to live natural and free lives, the lives that were meant for Indonesia, for their home. These animals may have been given no choice but to give up, but I don’t think we should let them. While the vast majority of animals in markets have been consigned to a life of limitless cages from which they will never escape, we are the ones holding the keys. All it takes is opening the door.
Image Credit: A fortunately empty row of cages in Yogyakarta, Me