On Joining the Lab (Boat)

Some people go from early life to death focused on one mystery. This approach, I am told, can be very satisfying. One of my mentors, Carl Rettenmeyer, spent fifty years studying the animals that live with army ants. In this endeavor Carl found enough rewards and mystery to sustain another dozen lives.

Yet while I appreciate (at least in an abstract sense) the fruits of such an approach, it is not for me. My greatest scientific joys come instead from making connections across fields, connections that require me to read about and engage scientists who do work very different from that which I do. These connections inevitably lead me in new directions much in the way that a pinball, having hit a clown or a dancing cowboy, ricochets and changes course.

But in my life, in addition to the modest changes of course when presented with a clown (or, in my case, a clever idea from a geneticist), I have also embarked upon bigger shifts, shifts that require a little more planning. The most recent of these shifts for me was the shift from research that focused on ecology and evolution in remote realms, to research that considers ecology and evolution where people live, with those people. It was the shift from standard science to public science, the shift that led to the launch of yourwildlife.org, studentsdiscover.org and our many public science projects be they on belly button biodiversity, the roaming of cats, the global ecology of houses or backyard ants. Now I am ready for a new shift. Like the others this one is in response to feedback from the public, the democratic influence of raised hands.

Like most ecologists and evolutionary biologists, when asked to justify my work I offer a suite of answers. The work of ecologists and evolutionary biologists informs how we manage the world. It is key to medicine. It is key to drug discovery and saving ourselves from pathogens. We need to understand the natural history and evolution of, say, tropical ants, in order to apply lessons from their lives to our own. I believe this to be true. In a world in which there might well be two hundred million species and fewer than two million have been named (and even fewer studied) we are wallowing in shimmering life. It is life we breathe in with each breath and touch with each footstep and yet about which we are mostly ignorant. Some species you are breathing in right now can kill you; some might save you. Seems worth figuring out which are which.

When we study the species where you live, in your bedroom, backyard or body, we are doing so in order to understand them, in order that we can figure out what they do and then, ultimately, make use of such knowledge, be it tomorrow or in a hundred years. But there is a problem.

While most ecologists and evolutionary biologists are aware of the sort of applied value their work might one day have, they do not have the right sort of training and connections to facilitate that use on their own. By the same token, the folks who are working to find new drugs, new enzymes or new useful species do not, in general, have much training in ecology and evolution. As a result, while ecologists and evolutionary biologists are creating knowledge that has great value in application, no one is applying it. A divide exists between these fields, a divide that compromises our ability to use the deep and rich insights from the millions of hours of work done by my tribe of biologists out in the wilds.

So what to do? The answer for someone like me who finds joy in crossing fields seems to be to cross these two, or at least to be among those folks trying to do so. Here I am inspired by the army ants that Carl Rettenmeyer studied for so long. When these ants arrive at a barrier, they make a bridge out of their bodies and allow the other ants (along with their guests as well, such as silverfish, mites and the like) to run across. I would like to try to be such a bridge, or better put, I intend to try to turn part of my lab into such a bridge.

I recently found my inspiration for how I would like to do this in the same place I have found much of my scientific inspiration recently, Copenhagen, Denmark. In Copenhagen one can find a restaurant that is consistently ranked as the best in the world and, in those rare years when not the best, one of the best, Noma. Noma serves innovative food that relies on the expertise and products available at hand. It is a restaurant inspired by its geography and the species available given that geography. Or as Noma puts it, “In an effort to shape our way of cooking, we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.”

But my inspiration does not come as much from the Noma restaurant as it does from a small boat not far from Noma,  boat on which the chefs of Noma go to innovate. On this boat, called The Nordic Food Lab chefs make things that might or might not be food. They put an old fish in a bottle with ants and the let the combination ferment. They mix seaweed and lichen. They grow and tweak and, out of raw and boundless innovation, an innovation basically unhindered by the norms of what happens in a restaurant, try things out. This testing, their intellectual fermentation, is not madness. It is built upon an understanding of the system (food, life, tastes) and it depends upon the folks on the ships being very, very, good at what they do.

We don’t really have a place to put a lab boat, much less one with space for massive fermentation and so what we do will have to be more conceptual. In my lab we will have a restaurant of sorts where we make the food were are already good at making. That for us is a dinner of public science, science that engages the public. But we will also have a separate realm, the place where innovation happens. In that place my intent over the next five years is to bring together people who are great at understanding basic ecology and evolution-natural history really and those who are experts at the applied side of things. Dung beetle biologists, for example, and folks who make cheese. Wasp experts and wine fermenters. Mosquito lovers and folks making perfumes. Mammal researchers and textile engineers.The goal will be to combine insights from natural history about what the wild life around us, in our landscape whether that be a backyard, home or belly button, with insights from application about just what is needed and might be useful.

Of course, none of this really matters unless I can make it all work, unless the jars of slurried endeavors yield delicious food, be that food figurative sustenance or literal. Well, OK, it matters in one way, it matters in terms of what you be thinking about if you want to join the lab.  If you want to come work with us in doing the work we love (and that we hope you love too), come with the know how necessary to help in our restaurant of public science , but also with some ideas for the boat. Come with wild plans for linking basic biology and the rest of the world. Come with a jar full of schemes.

This is what I am thinking, anyway, right now. I don’t know really if it is good idea. Last week someone told me it was all ridiculousness which, I’ll be honest, made me more sure than ever that it is what I want to spend the next years doing.  Meanwhile, if you would like some things cooked up in the ordinary restaurant, well, we are still serving. We hope you enjoy.

If you need me, I’ll be on the boat.

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:44+00:00 April 26th, 2015|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

Leave A Comment