I started out studying animal science and biology in college with the intention of going to vet school. A few years in, I realized that, as much as I enjoyed taking care of the horses on the farm that had become my second home in my university years, the bond between horses and people was just as fascinating to me as the animals themselves.
That insight led me to search for similar relationships in how we humans relate to each other and to the other creatures that call this planet home. After studying a bit of (mostly ancient) philosophy and running wild over half a dozen islands and the water in between on Lake Erie during a spectacular summer at F.T. Stone Laboratory, I finished college.
I soon went in search of bigger waters and landed an internship on a whale watch talking to passengers about the whales we were seeing and the environment, as well as collecting data for a nonprofit organization called the Ocean Alliance. In more than a hundred trips out to Stellwagen Bank in the Atlantic Ocean (northeast of Boston), I never got tired of seeing these bizarre creatures, the biggest animals that have ever lived. It was eye-opening to watch as they struggle to come back from the challenges posed by an increasingly loud, polluted and fishless ocean and several centuries of intense hunting. For having survived for so long, they now desperately need help from the very force – us – that had put them in that predicament.
After I left Massachusetts, a two-month trip to the Maldives to help out with Ocean Alliance’s sperm whale research took me beyond the shores of North America for the first time in my life. The pinkie-sized blubber samples we collected read like a history of the impacts of industrialization on the environment; each piece of skin and fat was a storehouse of the chemicals we’ve released into the ocean that have found their way up the food chain. When I returned to the States, I spent several months slicing, mounting and staining these samples at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to decipher just what they could tell us about how we’ve been treating the ocean and what we need to do in the future to clean up our act.
Then, I took another turn, realizing a dream I’d had since an early age – to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Perhaps not surprisingly, living for two years among the Hausa of Niger as a volunteer convinced me of how important and tenuous is our connection to the places where we make our homes. Most of the country’s 14 million people live in the quasi-desert Sahel, the band of acacia-filled dry savanna that girds the widest part of Africa. Rains during one short season a year make subsistence farming possible, but the Sahara’s southward creep, combined with one of the fastest growing populations on earth, thwart even the best efforts to provide food security, healthcare and access to water.
To solve these types of problems, we’ll have to use every tool at our disposal, going beyond aid-centered strategies. For example, most folks working in development these days understand that just handing out food only makes the problem worse. But what does science have to say about all this?
From what I’ve seen, a lot. Smart people are working to understand markets and the impacts of a global economy, predict the challenges that those living hand-to-mouth will face in a changing climate, and deliver food and other resources to where they’re needed most. I went to the UC Santa Cruz science writing program to launch my journalism career, and I still find myself drawn to these stories.
A beautiful aspect of science is its focus on teasing apart the mysteries of how the world works. Indeed, you could argue that’s its very reason for being. The sort of nuanced understanding that scientific study provides is just as relevant to determining drought patterns in the Sahel as it is at figuring out how whales sleep or how ribosomes string together building-block proteins from the codes found in RNA molecules.
So that’s a lot of what you’ll find me writing about – the ways scientists leverage knowledge to solve problems and generally make the world a better place. I cover the environment and wildlife, in part because I just find that sort of stuff cool, but also because, in all my travels and deviations along my path to becoming a science writer, I found it’s all connected in some way, just as we all are.