'Science Helps Us Build a Better World:' Meet Our Scientist Phil Levin

By Phil Levin, lead scientist

After a storm subsided, we went for a walk along the West Seattle waterfront. It was a perfect Seattle moment — an ever-changing gray sky, giggling kids on the beach, dogs chasing unseen treasures at the water’s edge and a free-spirited fellow bench-pressing driftwood. 

Sitting quietly on a bench staring at the horizon, my mind drifted to an Edward Hopper painting — Rooms by the Sea. I love the way the light spreads across both room and sea revealing the intimate connection of the two. 

Phil Levin. (Photo courtesy of Phil Levin)

I turned to my wife and asked, “Do you think people ever asked Hopper why he was an artist?” “No,” she said. We sat in silence for a while, and my mind again wandered, this time settling on the calling of a mutual friend: “Do you think people ask Eileen why she’s a doctor?”  “No,” she repeated. 

“Why, then, do people ask me why I am a conservation scientist,” I mused. “Isn’t it obvious”? 

But why would it be obvious? A recent survey revealed that 70 percent of Americans could not name a living scientist. Most people are disconnected from scientists and science. So, of course, most people don’t understand what motivates me and what I live and work for. This gap has even spawned the trending twitter thread #actuallivingscientist where thousands of scientists have introduced themselves and their work to the world (in 140 characters).

In this era of rapid environmental change, it is more important than ever to re-establish and strengthen our connection with scientists. In this spirit, I’d like to share a little about why I am a conservation scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

To me, science is a basic, primordial element of the human condition. Expanding what we know and how we apply it has been elemental to advancing our species and understanding our place on the planet. Science inspires us. It is a way that humanity can achieve greatness. And at its best, science helps us build a better world. Science, like art, brings us together and compels us to confront truth. Without science — probing, questioning, pushing us ever forward — we wouldn’t be ourselves. I couldn’t be myself.

Phil Levin, pictured at left, on a boat on the Hood Canal for an emergency drill. This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research effort was evaluating the effects of septic systems on health of the marine ecosystem.. Photo courtesy of Phil Levin.

Guujaaw, a leader of the Haida Nation in Canada, was once asked what would happen if the forests and fish were destroyed. Guujaaw said simply, "Without trees or fish, he wouldn’t be Haida— he would be just like everyone else." Being Haida means being connected to nature in a way very different from the dominant Western society. It means seeing a world without boundaries separating people and nature, realizing their intimate connection — and that one cannot exist without the other. 

Doctors have a passion and drive to help their patients. One simply cannot exist without the other. Guujaaw forced me to reconsider my perception of exactly who the patient is. Artists, just as fundamentally, heed an inner call to create. Gazing out at the beach that day, I realized that I am a scientist because it is just who I am. And, as the salt air filled my soul, I sat in awe of the richness of our world and understood that I am drawn to repair its magnificence. 

My name is Phil, and I am an actual living conservation scientist. 

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