My interests

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Thankfully, there are still salamanders in Baederwood Park. I found this one in 2015. It’s a Northern dusky salamander, I believe.

When asked what interests me, I’d have to say, “just about everything!” Science, language, world cultures, history, geography, mathematics, education, and literature are all fascinating, in my opinion. As a child, I did (unfortunately) spend a lot of time in front of the television, much of it watching mindless sitcoms, but I also repeatedly saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and a whole host of nature documentaries featuring David Attenborough. At other times, I passed many hours in the woods, catching salamanders and turtles, and read quite a few books.

 

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I still wish they would’ve put feathers on at least some of the dinosaurs in the newer movies. They wouldn’t need to be compared to giant chickens–eagles and hawks are fearsome birds of prey!

The natural world has always been my source of inspiration, and reptiles have always been among the closest to my heart. I guess that it must have started from an early exposure to dinosaurs, even though we now know that dinosaurs are closer to birds (and I’m allergic to them). Still, the novel Jurassic Park came out when I was starting high school, and it inspired a longstanding interest in DNA and genetic engineering. The work I am currently doing with turtles is a far cry from resurrecting prehistoric beasts, although I remain very enthusiastic about the possibility of restoring ancient ecosystems through the process of rewilding. For more information on the concept, just click on the image below.

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Now that costs for genetic sequencing have dropped sharply, I am hoping to develop a DNA database for turtle species, and if possible, engage my students in the process of sequencing entire turtle

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A three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis). His name is Albert.

genomes! I’d also like to do similar work with amphibians, since so many species of our wet-skinned cousins are disappearing at alarming rates. The only challenge is that many amphibians have ridiculously large genomes, on the order of 32 billion letters, or ten times the size of the human genome, so I remain very committed to amphibian conservation, since it is far easier to save a species through protection that resurrect it with DNA. A wonderful documentary about the effort to preserve frogs appears in the video below, although it is almost an hour long.

If you skip ahead to the 21:40 mark, you will see Heidi Ross and Edgardo Griffith, a husband and wife team working to save frogs in Panama, the country where I served in the United States Peace Corps from 1999-2001. Heidi didn’t work too far away from me in Coclé Province, and she liked it so much that she stayed!

Always intrigued by other cultures, I learned Spanish and studied abroad in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, when I was in college. I lived with a Mexican family and traveled extensively, visiting both colonial cities like Guanajuato and Morelia, as well as pre-Columbian sites like Teotihuacán and Mitla.

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Brightly colored and covering hills, Guanajuato is supposed to mean “hilly place of the frogs” in Purépacha, a local native language.

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Mitla was a stronghold of the Zapotec people, who resisted Aztec conquest until the arrival of the Spanish, and who maintain a distinctive culture in Oaxaca even today.

In 1998, I returned to Mexico and made it as far south as Chiapas, almost on the Guatemalan border, and visited the Mayan site of Palenque. For a few nights, I stayed in San Cristóbal de las Casas, where a low-intensity war was going on between the Mexican government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Back then, I had no idea that I would be returning to Mayan lands to conduct research on vegetarian spiders, starting in 2013, although that was focused on the Yucatán Peninsula, not far from Cancún.

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Something about the Mayan sites really called to me, and I’ve been fascinated by the Maya ever since.

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That’s me in Chichén Itzá, 2013.

Upon entering a graduate program in biology at Villanova University in 2010, and watching a subsequent presentation by Dr. Robert Curry and his research on Bagheera kiplingi in 2012, I decided that this little spider would become the subject of my master’s thesis. Studying Bagheera meant that I would also have to become familiar with the symbiotic relationship between ants and the acacia plants where Bagheera kiplingi lives. For a brief introduction, click on the video below:

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A female Bagheera kiplingi faces off against a Pseudomyrmex ant. Image credit: Robert Curry

I’d never been a fan of spiders in my younger years, but a tarantula named Rosey eventually brought me around. While serving in the Peace Corps in Panama, I’d often find tarantulas under my bookshelf and tailless whipscorpions on my walls at night, and eventually I realized that my fear was primarily driven by the fact that I didn’t know them well and knew nothing of their habits.

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At least once a week, I’d see one of these tailless whipscorpions on my walls during my service in Las Huacas de Quije, Coclé, Panama. Despite their fearsome appearance, I eventually learned that they’re completely harmless.

Such reflection led me to buy a Chilean rose-haired tarantula in 2o10, name her “Rosey,” and she’s been a great pet ever since. I even allow my students to handle her frequently, and she has never made the slightest indication that she’d ever bite.

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Rosey proudly displayed by a third grader!

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A young Frigga crocuta keeps watch for ant patrols on an acacia plant.

In 2014, I returned to Panama in search of Bagheera kiplingi (thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), but could not find it anywhere. What I confirmed was a major gap in acacia ant plants through central and southern Costa Rica, first described by Dan Janzen, and it appears that little Bagheera hasn’t made it that far south. Much to my surprise, another spider appears to be living on acacia plants in Panama, which is named Frigga crocuta. As far as I can tell, it isn’t actually eating plant material, but is using the plant for protection from other predators–especially wasps.

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I really like crocodiles as well, like this one that I saw in Panama during my spider research in 2014.

So if you ask me to be more specific, I’d say that my main interests are currently centered on animals that give many people the “creeps,” especially spiders, snakes, and sharks–as well as other top predators. Part of the reason I’ve chosen to be a science teacher at the elementary levels is because I want to introduce these animals to young children before societies fill their minds with phobias about the natural world and teach them to fear such creatures or deny them their rightful place in the ecosystems of planet Earth.

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Here’s Cuddles, a boa constrictor that I adopted in 2015.

 

 

I also like to travel, and learn about new places. I’ve visited several countries in North America (Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama), South America (Bolivia and Argentina), and Europe (United Kingdom). Those are the places where I’ve drawn inspiration for the (mainly unpublished) novels I’ve written so far, especially from their geography, mythologies, and folklore. I also hope to visit Africa, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica someday, and if I do, I’ll definitely write about it here!

Beyond-Earth travel is also a subject that fascinates me, and I’m hoping that humanity might explore the wider universe someday. The video below, which features the words of Carl Sagan, always gives me goosebumps, because it’s so inspiring. If there was one video that I could ask everyone in the world to view, this would be it:

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I took a trip to the NASA facility on Wallops Island in June, 2016 to watch a rocket launch with my dad and daughter, who aspires to be an astronaut. The wind blew my hat that way!