Interview with Aaron Pomerantz
Investigating obscure and undiscovered insect species deep within rainforests with a portable Next Generation sequencer, studying colorful butterfly wing nanostructures, and talking science – that’s how Aaron Pomerantz, the Next Gen Scientist lives. Currently pursuing his PhD in Entomology at UC Berkeley on the topic of structural coloration of butterflies’ and moths’ wing scale cells, Aaron is an experienced field biologist who is passionate about the natural world, and the tools to document it – strong science communication accompany all of his inspiring work. The Next Gen Scientist initiative is one of the prime examples of how he approaches his science outreach goals. Inspired by learning about the Next Generation sequencing that revolutionized the field of genetics, he is attempting to change the way science is done – moving to dynamic, variable media documentation and active science outreach.
We are incredibly excited that Aaron is joining the Field Projects International team, and we hope to have him on board as an instructor in this winter’s Tropical Entomology field course with Geoff Gallice. Aaron shares our belief that hands-on field experience is invaluable when studying natural sciences, and we think our students will benefit from both his enthusiasm and his expertise.
I recently had a chance to chat with Aaron about his passion for rainforests and biodiversity, as well as modern research challenges and opportunities. Here are just some of his insights.
Why Amazonian Entomology?
The main thing that still motivates me is learning how little we know; we don’t even know how many species there are on the planet. We know that the majority are insects, but we’ve only described around 10% of them. 90% of the critters out there haven’t even been described, and of those that have been described, we probably don’t know what they’re doing or how they live their lives, [or whether] they produce any chemical compounds that might have pharmaceutical benefits. […] We have to do everything we can to help discover as much as possible as fast as possible, and to communicate these findings, because that’s going give us better ammunition to conserve those areas.
Academic careers can be very demanding; how does your academic career interplay with your field work and science outreach goals?
It’s definitely a balance. Science communication comes in many different forms – some people prefer writing, some people like shooting videos, some people take photos. I try to use it as an opportunity to share what I’m already working on. For example, I was in Ecuador and I created a video that shows how butterflies create color through pigment production or the presence of little nanostructures on their wings that create the blues and greens we see. Since I was already trying to learn about it for my PhD, the video was an outlet, in a sense. […] Using photography and videography is just means to show what the scientists are actually doing, I’m hoping to show the process of discovery and not just the end result of a science paper.
With both the science communication and doing my PhD, I try for them to flow together and feed into one another.
Do you think scientists should have a duty to communicate science?
The solution has to come from the newer generation; the change has to come from bottom up. As we grew up with this, I think it’s on us to do blogging and YouTube videos and Instagram and other forms of outreach, just because we know it better than the academics. We are going to have to teach them and teach ourselves, and also create models for us to get new types of jobs. […] Science outreach and communication makes you more saleable to alternative jobs, whether is leading full time field courses, working with eco-tourism companies, or getting involved with the National Geographic Society.
So how to make the transition into science communication? How did you start?
During my Master’s degree, I took a class called the Next Generation Sequencing, and I thought that was pretty cool – a new technology that is revolutionizing a lot of stuff. That led me into thinking – what else is new and what other technology is out there, and how will scientists communicate it? What’s the future of all this? So I just started a website and a blog – messing around. I think like with anything else, it takes practice. Your first blog post will suck and no one will read it, and your first few videos will suck, but everything gets better over time with practice. And it’s more about confidence to keep pursuing it, to keep learning from others and get better.
I am excited to challenge myself and produce better videos, better media and produce better science too. I am constantly trying to improve in all those fields. And it just takes practice.
Anyone can do it — that’s the message.
The exciting new face of science:
Aaron’s work seeks to bridge gaps between technology, traditional field work and exploration. Part of his funding from the National Geographic Society will be spent on a hand-held genetic code sequencing device that will enable accurate identification of known species — as well as discovery of new species — in real time. Using this technology, Aaron has already potentially discovered a few new butterfly species in Southeastern Peru. He is also involved in testing the Foldoscope – a tiny microscope that can be an incredibly portable for use in wild, remote areas yet a powerful tool with the magnifying capacity as high as 2,000-fold.
Given all the improvements to technology, the growing access to high quality portable technology, and the rising popularity of free-access internet platforms for blogging, photography and videography, Aaron shows that it’s never been easier to be both a scientist and a science communicator. And he hopes that more and people will get involved: “it’s just a matter of what story you want to tell.”
“I think it is all coming together to be an exciting time to be a field biologist and an explorer by incorporating new technology, “Aaron says with an infectious excitement, “and I hope this will help transition into showing why biology and genetics is so freakin’ cool.” ¶