She Inspired Me With Science!

By Phil Levin, lead scientist

Some things just stick with you. It was 1972, and our assignment was to create a poster that highlighted the life of a seminal scientist. After revealing the task, Ms. Shephard prowled the classroom aisles, stopping in front of students to assign each of us our subject. She peered into me and blurted “Louis Pasteur.” 

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory. Painting by A. Edelfeldt, 1885

Two weeks later, I struggled to squeeze my magnum opus from the back seat of our family's Toyota Corolla, scurried under the gnarly live oaks that lined the front of Doss Elementary School and, after racing through crowded hallways, I proudly secured my “Louis” to the classroom bulletin board. I took my seat, and after a deep, cathartic sigh, I gazed at my work. 

Even now, 45 years later, I am struck by my memories of that poster’s content.

Louis Pasteur discovered that the growth of microbes was responsible for spoiling milk
he invented a process of heating milk to kill the microbes and prevent it from spoiling.
Louis Pasteur discovered that a disease caused by microbes was killing silkworms
he developed a process to eliminate the microbes, protect the silkworms and ultimately save the French silk business.
Louis Pasteur discovered that he could artificially weaken disease-causing microbes
he created some of the earliest vaccines, exposing people to the weakened microbe to foster immunity to the stronger form. 

It was the “ands” that stuck with me.

Some of Pasteur’s peers were solely on a quest for fundamental understanding. Others, were less interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake — but rather sought to practically apply existing knowledge.

Pasteur was different. He pushed the frontiers of knowledge, but did so because he saw a real-world need. Pasteur sought to uncover nature’s secrets — and use this wisdom to improve the human condition. 

As we confront the complex and daunting conservation challenges of our time, we have much to learn from Pasteur’s perspective. The problems of climate change, urbanization, unsustainable fisheries and poor agricultural practices cannot be solved with only existing knowledge.  Innovative solutions for nature and people require us to push beyond the known.

We conservation scientists must follow in Pasteur’s footsteps — steadfast in our learning and resolute in its application. By conducting such use-inspired research, our scientists have the best hope of developing novel, practical, applicable and scalable solutions to the wicked problems our ecosystems face.

Robert Paine with a pile of Pisaster ochraceus, a common starfish. Photo credit: University of Washington

Clearly, the search for new knowledge for knowledge’s sake will always be necessary. Indeed, today’s conservation actions are built upon the shoulders of those who sought only to understand how ecosystems worked. Ecologist Bob Paine, for example, showed us how a single species could be a keystone for an entire ecosystem, that its absence disrupts the entire order. 

And many conservation successes are also the direct results of those who only sought to solve a problem. For instance, Noah Saunders invented a device for shrimp nets that allows inadvertently captured turtles to escape before they drown. This engineering solution has prevented the needless killing of sea turtles, while still allowing for lucrative fisheries. 

Ultimately, it will take these curious innovators and practical problem-solvers to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity. 

Many may remember 1972 for Watergate, Bobby Fischer’s chess matches or amazingly large butterfly collars. But I will always remember 1972 as the year that sparked my passion for science and shaped my approach to conservation. Thank you, Ms. Shepard.

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