PLANT BIOLOGY WITH A TWIST

A cloud of mint swirls in the air as I add ice to the shaker and continue,

“Yes, these chemicals–that mint smell, lemon peel, cinnamon–are all plant defenses, the result of plants protecting themselves against insects and other pests…”

How did I find myself in a biology PhD program, explaining my dissertation research to guests across the bar top at a Peruvian restaurant in Portland, OR? The short answer is that I had fallen in love with science as my way to make a difference.

The long answer?

I had always dreamed of going to the Amazon.

The rainforest was a dream that breathed new life into me the way it breathes oxygen into the planet. As indescribable as the awe that comes from being amongst such biodiversity may be, the rainforest enchanted me in the movement of a toucan, awkwardly wielding its beak, and in the flapping of wings on fire in the sunset as the faithful scarlet macaw streaks across the sky in its squeaky calling out to all below. Some moments brought forth vulnerabilities- the surprise of a snake’s delicate flicker of its tongue interrupting our gaze, and some moments brought forth grace, such as meeting the long-dreaded tarantula and experiencing not fear, but its majesty. Walls of rain sing in the rainforest upon giant sheets of leaves and dance on the surface of the turbid river. There is promise in the sunrise through the canopy mist, and in the sigh of achievement in the last orange glows on emergent branches, awaiting the stars and treefrog songs.

I believe in this feeling of awe, and in its power.

As my study abroad experience was coming to a close, the director of the research station, Dr. Kelly Swing, quoted an Amazonian tribe leader in an oil/deforestation presentation to visiting students, “We only know what we see; we only love what we know; we only care about what we love”. Suddenly, I understood I had work to do. Connecting over science was beginning to take shape as my medium for making a difference.

I had seen this transformation before. I a high school sophomore, huddled below a tarp to escape the pouring rain in a forest of moss-draped Bigleaf Maples, surrounded by a circle of inquisitive sixth graders. Testing the dissolved oxygen of the Salmon River, one of my students’ eyes lit up as she exclaimed,

“I never knew I could learn all of this!”

Poking out from underneath her two-sizes-too-big yellow poncho, a smile beamed and slowly grew brighter with confidence. Realizing she was capable of understanding the natural world, I watched the feeling dawn on her that she actually cared about this world she was discovering.

Some days I feel powerless. Numbers can be defeating—statistics on global carbon emissions, deforestation rates, biodiversity loss, increased poverty, inequality in human rights, and school shootings lead me to question whether I can have a positive impact. Science gives me hope; through science more people have a reason to care.

“You want a lemon twist with that, correct?”

And so here I am, bartending in grad school, on a journey to touch the heart of the world through my work as a scientist. And I almost missed an amazing opportunity to do so right in front of me. Literally.

Talking to guests at the bar top never feels like a radical, world-changing experience. I get responses like one time they saw a slug in their garden, or soliciting my advice for getting rid of ants on their kitchen counter, or even asking how my research makes human lives better by altering how plants work. What I failed to realize as I brushed off “irrelevant” anecdotes and human-centric perspectives was this:

Not connecting is actually my problem, not theirs. Their responses are a gift- a place for the conversation to begin.

My approach to these conversations–as well as to my scientific work–had lost sight of the power of curiosity, of the wonder in treefrog songs and dissolved oxygen discovery. That sense of awe is my medium for scientific discovery, for meaningful education, and for connecting with anyone, even in unlikely places, like over their martini.

So to practice, I started writing to discover what I have to say, to discover what I know, to uncover what I love.

I write to explain my research papers and describe my experiences doing field work.

I write about teaching in graduate school and my philosophy on the human experiences in science.

And I write about plants, because I love them.

I have even written a poem or two.

I write to practice discipline, to schedule and stretch myself.

I write to understand how being alive works.

© Adrienne Godschalx (adrg@pdx.edu) November 28, 2016

Advertisements