My parents didn’t believe in keeping up with the Jones’. We didn’t have the latest and greatest toys or gadgets. My parents insisted that my siblings and I play outdoors. I am much older than my brother and sister, which meant that I spent a lot of time outside, doing my own thing. My own thing consisted of collecting insects and a never-ending search for four-leafed clovers. If my parents looked out the back window at any given time, most likely they would find me crawling around on my belly, parting the grass along the way, collecting specimens. I mostly collected inchworms and kept them in empty General Foods International Coffee tins. I didn’t want to keep my captives as pets, like most children. I wanted to know what happened to their bodies when they morphed into little silky white cocoons.
I liked to draw what I found. I found horseshoe crabs, the Klingons of the aquatic world, the most interesting. One spring, I decided to visit the Manasquan river beach every day to document their activities. At dusk, during the high tides of the full moon, mating pairs descended upon the shoreline. For the rest of the month the horseshoe crabs remained off shore in deeper water, gliding effortlessly along the sandy river bottom. I thought my studies were over. I soon discovered their eggs nestled safely in the sand at the edge of the waterline. I visited them every day. The eggs, over time, changed from a tightly packed mass of tiny white pearls to swollen, translucent spheres. In each one, I could see a single, miniscule horseshoe crab, swimming along the circumference of each sphere. I was hooked.
My parents indulged my fascination with nature and my obsession with Marlin Perkins on reruns of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom while I was a kid. In high school, however, it was time to lay the foundation for a real career. I had zero female role models in science and couldn’t articulate exactly what I wanted to do as a biologist, besides belly-crawl through the Serengeti and observe wild animals in their natural habitats. So my parents enrolled me in accounting and typing classes. It wasn’t until I proclaimed that I wanted to be an art schoolteacher that they relented. A perfectly respectable career for a young woman! I excelled in art classes and enrolled in college.
Part of a well rounded liberal arts education, of course, includes biology 101. Midway through the fall semester, we were immersed in the intricacies of plant reproduction. While reviewing female plants’ reproductive anatomy, my professor pointed in my direction and suddenly exclaimed, “..for instance, she’s eating an ovary.” Most let out an audible “Ewww.” I, however, looked at my apple with puzzlement and sudden fascination. At the end of that semester, I switched my major from art education to biology.
Why does the swallowtail caterpillar rear up and throw out its putridly scented bright orange forked gland? Why does the lightning bug give itself away in the dark of night? Why did we have an outbreak of gypsy moth caterpillars in the 1970s, with their crunching and munching dominating the sounds of summer? Why does one single clover suddenly sprout a perfectly formed, highly coveted fourth leaf?
I’ve always wanted to know why and now I do.
Sandra Schnakenberg has a Ph.D. in Biology from NYU. She now works in a fertility clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital, and tries to determine why good genes go rogue.