A Zoology Student’s Love Letter to Planet Earth

Girls in STEM Mentor jan Choudhury

by | 2 May, 2024 | STEM Untapped

Ideas can change the world. Everything, from the wind turbines spinning in the distance on the hills to the recipe for your favourite brownies, came from the seed of an idea in someone’s head. It was the idea of ideas being so powerful which led me to study zoology at Salford University. More specifically, the idea that everyone has the ability to learn how to help our beautiful planet and keep it safe, whilst experiencing life to the fullest. That’s what I’m going to talk about with you today, a little bit of my experience, how I got here and the idea seeds I hope to sow to make a sunflower field of difference in my lifetime.

There is a famous scientist, his name being E. O. Wilson. In some fields his name is everywhere, but to me, his was a very new voice when I first read ‘Letters to a Young Scientist’. The name of the book stems (pun not intended) from a play on Rainer Maria Rilke’s household name ‘Letters to a young poet’. The former is a collection of essays, each offering advice to young scientists for how to be successful in their careers, how they can help the different species around them but, more than anything, it was a love letter to science and to our world. Wilson was a prominent figure in the field of entomology, more specifically the study of ants. This niche area enabled him to go leaps and bounds before what anyone else had, because he was interested in finding out the answers nobody else really was – other scientists at the time were much more interested in working with bigger animals; mammals, specifically. Reading about his findings made me realise that it is the quiet voices, the ones which often go unheard, that tell the stories which often most need listening to. For instance, you might not have thought much about the ants outside other than that you found them a little annoying when you had a picnic and they crawled onto your jam sandwich. But Wilson made me see ants from a different light and love them almost as much as he did. From talking about how they function mainly on olfactory systems (smelling), their unselfish social and family ties, and the astonishing impact of invasive ant species upon things such as crop pollination. For something so small, the ant shapes so much of our world, just as Wilson may seem unfamiliar but in ways is an extremely familiar name with the work he undertook during his life.

I spoke about this at length in my application to university, and still think often of it now in my degree. Although I am interested in all areas of science, and by all species, knowing that invertebrates and insects particularly remain a relatively unknown area in the field, I’ve made it my mission to learn as much as I possibly can about them. Last summer, I said ‘yes’ to the amazing opportunity to go on expedition to a small island called Skokholm and it completely changed my life. Every day we would go swimming with the seals in our cove, we would survey the puffins and other bird species. But my favourite… every morning I would get up bright and early at 5am to go and survey the moths we had caught in our trap before safely returning them to nap on nearby plants. On a good day we caught 600 moths! From a retired geography professor on the island (even to describe this sounds so much like being on Animal Crossing come to life!), I learnt eons about moths; such as that their wings have small scales that when brushed against things fade, making their patterns more difficult to distinguish. Amongst the names I memorised for common moths were buff irmines, heart and darts, Bright line brown eyes, marble coronets… the list went on. One of my favourites remains the buff tip moth which resembles a stick with their wings curled up tight. Heading home, I have continued my research on moths and hope to write my dissertation on them in around two or three years. In the meantime, I continue to learn as many more species as I can, and to explore the species and migratory species of moth in my own area.

Another of my passions is education, and at the weekends I help lead a science club for pupils in my own area. Those from working-class backgrounds like mine, who might not realise initially the impact they can have on local wildlife and beyond. Each week, we learn something new – whether it is about testing water PH and the impact of pollution on coral reefs, or hearing a local beekeeper visit to talk about the danger of Asian hornets to our local honeybees. From my helping these students, and seeing how excited they became about their own respective favourite species, I had another seed of an idea. What if every person could save a species? Or more precisely, what if every person could make another person more conscious of the actions they could undertake to help a species? Think of it; One person teaches a class of thirty about their favourite species. It inspires them to go out and help one different species each of their own. Thirty species supported. Those people then go on to tell a person each about their favourite species, which inspires their listener to go out and save a species of their own – that’s a further thirty species. Already from one person, that is sixty species saved in terms of small actions, awareness and increased efforts.

I took this idea to the Chester Zoo Youth Symposium last October, and discussed how important working-class education is, especially science education, in the battle against the clock to face climate change head on; to square up to our challenges and think outside the box on how to conquer them through the lens of education. It was and this is, I suppose, my own love letter from my experience in the sciences so far. Similarly to E. O. Wilson, I hope this inspires you and shows you how you too can help work towards helping save our world, or to support even one species. To help just one animal group in my lifetime be safe from risk of endangerment and extinction is my aim. So, just as you would sprinkle wildflower seeds in your garden for the honeybees or share your favourite recipe for those brownies I mentioned earlier, please do share the ideas mentioned here. Tell a neighbour your favourite animal. Research a new species every Monday to see if there is something small you could do to help. And most of all, write your own love letters to science – you never know who they might reach and the pockets of the world they might help conserve.

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Written by Charlotte Stevenson

Charlotte is a Wildlife Conservation and Zoo Biology student