Invisible names

Maybe it has something to do with the excessive amounts of matching and memory games I played as a tot. Or why flash cards have always been a go-to study aid (even for remembering the names of students in lab sections I taught in grad school).

I like knowing names. I like using names. Whether it’s a wildflower I spot on a nature walk or a person I bump into at a Science Café. And it kills me when I know a name, but can’t recall it. Or worse yet, when I use the wrong name.

It could also just be a peculiarity associated with my training as a biologist, particularly as an entomologist. I spent hours in class, in the field, at the microscope learning and committing so many insect names to memory.

I suspect I’m not the only biologist to be obsessed with names. Ok, I KNOW this to be the case. Our fearless leader Rob Dunn wrote a book about humanity’s quest to discover, classify and name every living thing in our natural world. And then there are the taxonomists who REALLY get a kick out of naming things, particularly assigning a ‘celebronym’ or two – just check out news stories about the Gaga fern or the bootylicious Beyonce horse fly?

With Your Wild Life’s focus on citizen microbiology (Belly Button Biodiversity, Wild Life of Our Homes), this name-obsessed entomologist has had to get comfortable with a whole new suite of names, those of the microbes living on us, in us, and around us.

Perhaps if I had the time to knit all of the common microbes, I'd know their names better.

With insects, I had the good fortune of being able to see the critters in question; we often identify species or groups of insects using observable physical characteristics. Hence, I tend to “see” a species in my mind’s eye when I say or read a name. But for microbes we’ve collected on a Q-tip that you twirled in your belly button and we later identified by its DNA sequence, this is kind of tough.

How exactly do I go about keeping the Corynebacterium straight from Bacteroides and separate from Clostridium? And why should we care?

This, my friends, is precisely why we’ve launched the Invisible Life project. With the help of some über-talented science writers, we’re bringing you a Who’s Who of the most common and interesting microbial characters that live in our homes and on our bodies. We’re sharing the stories of these microbes in the hopes that you’ll better know, appreciate, and see the invisible species (and genera) with whom you share your daily lives.

Invisible Life is a work in progress. We’ll continue to update the Table of Contents with new stories. If you are a science writer interested in contributing a story, drop us a line.

By |2016-11-22T13:47:30-05:00January 9th, 2013|

About the Author:

Holly Menninger
As Director of Public Science, Holly coordinates our empire of citizen science projects and manages the online science communication here at Your Wild Life. An entomologist by training, she’s a science communicator by passion and practice.

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