Education Research Travel

“If you got a tattoo of an insect…

… what would it be?” one of my friends recently asked me (who, has a tattoo of a green lacewing). In the few days prior to that, I had spent some time working with an ant taxonomist at the University of Guadalajara (Dr. Miguel Vasquez Bolaños), and had commented that he was so dedicated to his work that he got an entire back tattoo of his favorite ant genera, Eciton. After hesitating, my response was “I guess I would get a Carabid, since that’s the group I technically work with…” then quickly changed my mind to a Membracid, since I love them and think this would involve some fantastic teaching moments. But, regardless, I am entirely too fickle and indecisive to get any tattoo, and forget trying to choose between the million identified arthropods (peacock spider, anyone?). Unfortunately, decision-making in all aspects of my life is not my strong suit, and this is why I needed to work with an ant specialist to begin with. The differences in our personalities (his dedication and patience, my interest in dynamic processes) are what suit us for our career choices. Spending a week with Miguel, however, was so insightful in so many ways, not just to learn about ants, but in learning how to, basically, be a better person.

Randomly, the Thursday after I spent time with Miguel was #TaxonomistAppreciationDay. To non-scientists, I imagine this means absolutely nothing, but it is important to acknowledge the people that work with describing species. So many of my friends ask me regularly (even the taxi driver on the way to the airport in Guadalajara) if I find new species in my work or what I will name the first new species I find (I most likely have not found anything new since I work in fairly disturbed agricultural habitats with relatively low species numbers compared to, say, tropical rainforests). But, if I were to find something new, I have no interest in describing specimens! That involves a level of patience I do not have, and never mind trying to choose a name. So this is why I can acknowledge that Taxonomist Appreciation Day is a very, very necessary thing. If it were not for taxonomists the world over, especially those as thoughtful as Miguel, there is no way I would be able to do the work I do.

Gotelli wrote a paper in 2004 describing the value taxonomists can provide to ecologists, and vice versa. Beyond providing me with obvious knowledge drops (e.g., names of insect body parts I have never even heard of), the taxonomists in my life are some of the most interesting, dynamic, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, patient, and committed people I know. There is no way I could do the work I do without them. Gotelli (2004) summarizes this well in his paper, and one of the main takeaway points is that ecologists and taxonomists need to collaborate. All science is currently in a suppressed state because of an increasingly limited availability of funding, but even in 2004 Gotelli stated that there are fewer taxonomists than those necessary to describe all the species that need describing. By working with taxonomists, we ecologists might be able to more rapidly and efficiently conduct science than if we were going it alone, and I’d like to hope the same is true for the taxonomists as well.

I collected thousands of ants in Mexico, and I would have no idea what they are without Miguel; it would have taken me weeks to do the work he did with my species in a matter of days. In my interactions with Miguel, I was always left feeling a need to work smarter, to stop hesitating and overthinking things, to listen to and learn from silence. When I had first contacted him to ask if he would work with me on my ant specimens from Mexico, he congratulated me for having conducted my project at CIMMYT. Miguel didn’t even hesitate to offer help, even in spite of me contacting him 2 weeks before I wanted to work with him. His civility is so refreshing compared to many American scientists, who half the time don’t return emails. This trait of his may be unique to Miguel, and not all taxonomists, but still, it made me respect him all the more. Since this was a collaboration to benefit my work, obviously I didn’t really offer Miguel much in way of science in return. However, I did collect some species that I think will be new to the scientific record for central Mexico and I will curate these with the University of Guadalajara entomology collection. Too, when I was lucky enough to meet Miguel’s mother, she was surprised that someone could love ants as much as her son, and especially a woman. So, if nothing else, maybe I motivated her to think about a future in science for her granddaughters (hey, anything is possible). Even if there were an entirely one sided scientific collaboration, I gained so much from my brief time with Miguel, and feel so fortunate to get an opportunity to work with such amazing scientists everywhere. I am definitely going to acknowledge #loveyourtaxonomist next year.

 

 

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