When I entered U of I, I knew that biology fascinated me and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it. As a junior in high school, readingBiology by Campbell and Reese changed the way I viewed the world. Our cells have dozens of mechanisms in place to ensure the successful copying of our DNA from one generation to the next, for infinite generations, yet mistakes in copying allow for evolution, for morphological diversification and adaptation to whatever an environment can throw at us. Yet it is also mistakes in copying that can cause cancer, where the stop signs in cells have been cut down and they can't stop dividing. Somewhere in the three trillion cells in our body, one or two have just now mutated into cancer, but thanks to our immune systems the cells quickly get killed. Orders of magnitude away, on the other spectrum of biology, I learned that an organism dying in the forest dissolves back into the component atoms, into life-giving nitrogen and phosphorus that trees readily suck up, into the carbon components that a detritovore then invests into its babies, who are later born as a pseudo-reincarnate of what just died. Animals have elaborate mechanisms to ensure they don't mate with the wrong species; in a world where a predator can snatch your life away at any moment, you can't waste time reproducing with someone who won't let you pass on your genes. The species that weren't careful enough didn't make enough babies and are now extinct. Maybe we can find their fossils and learn about them that way. Yet, for every fossilized species, one million other species were never fossilized because the conditions weren't perfectly aligned to preserve them.
I was hooked. I felt anything that I ever wanted to know about the world, I could find with biology. Yet, I didn't know how to translate this passion into something productive. Sure, I could take biology classes, study, and do well on exams... but I wanted something more, something that extended beyond just me. I wanted to learn as much as I could but then spread it as far as I could. Being a professor sounded perfect: I would wake up every day, eat breakfast, bike past old buildings where famous discoveries had been made, enter my laboratory, and begin working on the questions that teased us today but would be in the textbooks tomorrow (figuratively. It usually takes a decade or two for that to happen!). I would have a super-team of passionate post-docs, graduate students, and undergrads who I'd hand-selected for the motivation to answer the most difficult questions, the keystones to the future, the ones whose answers spawned more questions in the effort to understand how life on Earth works.
And so, I tried getting into research. I made the mistake of e-mailing labs based on the animals they worked with. Mammals sound cool, so neuroscience is great, right? Evo-devo? It took a few tries to realize that it's the questions researchers ask that matter. The organism they study is their means of answering the question. People study evolution in fruit flies instead of primates because it's WAY easier (picture the costs of housing a hundred chimpanzees for the 400 years it would take to do a 10-generation experiment). For me, I realized animal behavior was what really got me. When a fish is born, it has an awful lot to learn in a short amount of time. What can I eat? What can eat me? Where is safe? Who do I mate with and when? Who should I surround myself with? If I can't find food, do I look somewhere else or wait it out? At the risk of anthropomorphizing (attributing human characteristics to a non-human), I liked putting myself in the head of an animal living its normal life, interacting with other animals, learning what plants to eat or to avoid, learning what to do if it gets sick. How does the other 99.9999999% of life on Earth work if you take humans out of the picture? It's beautiful when you think about it.
Finally at the point where I'm applying for graduate schools, I've had to think a lot about what I want to do with my life. Similar to my freshman year, I want to do something more. A lot of people become professors, do their research, and call it a day. I applaud them. But, for me, I feel that I need to spread biology both within and beyond the academic world. Sometimes it amazes me the misconceptions non-biology majors may have about the natural world. And these are college students! Only 1% of the world's population has a college education. There is a lot of knowledge we need to spread. I want to write books for non-scientists one day, telling them exactly why biology is so interesting. They don't need to become researchers hunched over microscopes by the time they reach the back cover, but I want them to think. As the human population continues growing, it becomes increasingly important that we make the correct decisions regarding resource use and coexistence with wildlife. We can start by at least making sure everyone's on the same page.
When I was in Costa Rica last semester, Jordan Karubian, a professor from Tulane, gave a few guest lectures. While his research was very interesting, what really stuck with me was his efforts for outreach in the Chocó, a hyper-diverse tropical ecosystem in Ecuador. Aside from doing research, he fights deforestation by promoting sustainable practices among the local people. Some links to his work:
I want to do something like Dr. Karubian once I'm doing research. Right now, I'm idealistic. I think I can change the world. It sometimes seems so obvious how we can make things better. Yet so many people enter the real world and get bogged down. They get a bad boss, or their roommates never do the dishes, or they encounter a lot of administrative red tape when they want to do something more. They deflate. Someday they look back on college and chuckle at how idealistic they were, when in reality they just didn't know what the real world was like because they didn't have to pay taxes or work forty hours a week yet. Now, sure, some of this may be true. But it's at this point, bogged down and already working hard, that you can change the world. Yes, you can. Anyone can. The people who do are just the ones who believe it.
So, with that in mind... come to the IB Honors reading group on Fridays at the Union! Bring an article and friends, or just come to listen to some cool research. And then go change the world. :-)
IBH students travel the world, publish research papers, and do all sorts of amazing things