During my travels this spring and summer I’ve met a lot of people, and inevitably they want to know what I do. Usually I start off pretty vague, not knowing if they really care that much about the details of my research and if they ask enough followup questions I eventually get to “I study the evolutionary history of a group of small deep-sea snails that live on strange substrates like wood, bones, worm tubes, etc etc” and some people respond with something like “wow! that sounds really interesting!” and I am glad they think so since their tax dollars are paying for it, but others say something like “snails? that sounds boring*” or ask in what way they are helping humans like “can you eat them?” or “oh, are you hoping to use them
for medicine?” which tends to make me feel like I have to defend my research and explain why studying the natural world is important generally, not just for direct benefit of the human species.
For one, as the number one threat to Earth’s diversity, I think humans have a certain responsibility to understand it and how it evolved, this may even
help us preserve what’s left of it, which in the end actually helps the human species, so people who study diversity are really doing the rest of y’all a favor ;)
For two, snails aren’t “just snails” they are a tool I am using to understand evolution in poorly understood environments, which yes, are NOT directly relevant to humans, but are a piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding how we get diversity in habitats that are difficult for most animals to live in. By the way, if I were studying the exact same question in some brightly
colored vertebrate group, like birds of paradise, African cichlid fishes, or even lizards, I doubt I would get the “that sounds boring” response.
I could go on about the reasons to study the world we live in, but I have a feeling most of you (people who are reading this) are already supporters of basic research and have your own reasons why you think it is important, or maybe you have arguments for why it is less valuable than cancer research. Either way, I would love to hear from you in the comments. This is a topic that often has quite variable views depending on your perspective and experience, and I find that fascinating.
By the way, if you have the impression I don’t enjoy meeting those people that don’t appreciate basic research, I actually really do! I try to see every encounter in a beer garden, on the chair lift, at a party, or basically any situation where someone ends up actually asking about my research (I don’t just go around talking about how cool snails are, I don’t think I would have any friends or convince anyone that they are…I would just be crazy snail girl…maybe I am….meh…I digress), to show them that snails aren’t as dull as they seem, and not all marine biologists study dolphins, and you don’t have to be curing cancer for your research to be important ;)
*one of these interactions was at a beer garden in Munich (I love the atmosphere at beer gardens, so relaxed) and this response was from a couple of engineers who couldn’t tell me what was so interesting about what they did (I do appreciate that engineering is important though, nothing against engineers, to each their own) and then proceeded to ask me more questions about my boring snails, guess they aren’t so boring once you get to know them! This is the lesson though, you’ve got to give the little things a chance before you will see that they are amazing! Or simply appreciate that there are many interesting things in this world and different people that find them interesting, it would be pretty boring if we all had the same interests and did the same things no matter what it was.