WOOSTER, Ohio — Scientists often find it difficult to explain complicated subject matter in a way that is accessible, interesting, and informative to the general public, but one young scientist has discovered that the most effective method might be the simple art of storytelling.
Galen Cobb, a senior biology major at The College of Wooster and a resident of Asheville, N.C., wrote a story geared toward children (kindergarten-3rd grade) to illustrate how butterflies and moths protect themselves from predation. Titled “The Lessons of the Lepidopteran,” Cobb’s story shows how these creatures use bright colors to ward off potential threats, so that instead of becoming the entrée of the day, they are able to escape and force the predator to settle for a far-less appetizing option.
Cobb’s literary endeavor emanated from an assignment in Laura Sirot’s Natural History of Invertebrates class. “We went on a fieldtrip to Memorial Park in Wooster,” says Cobb. “We were asked to write a piece for a lay audience about the things we observed. I thought it would be fun to write about how the bright colors of butterflies and moths deterred predators in a way that would appeal to young readers.”
Sirot, assistant professor of biology at Wooster, endorsed and applauded Cobb’s approach. “Since her first year (at Wooster), Galen has impressed me with her intellect, creativity, curiosity, caring, and deep-seated desire to improve the world,” she says. “These characteristics have been evident in all of my interactions with her, throughout the three courses she took with me and through talking with her about course choices, life choices, and I.S. (Independent Study — Wooster’s nationally acclaimed undergraduate research program).”
Sirot alerted Cobb to an international student essay contest sponsored by the Royal Entomological Society (RES) in London, and Cobb decided to enter. “The essay (Galen) wrote for Natural History of Invertebrates and subsequently (submitted to RES) was also a manifestation of these characteristics,” adds Sirot. “She used her curiosity to make careful observations; she used her intellect to research the biology behind her observations; she used her caring and desire to improve the world by choosing to write about a topic that would increase the public’s awareness of invertebrate biology; and she used her creativity to convey that information in an irresistible children’s story that is organized to educate both children and adults.”
Cobb called on the writing skills she gained at Wooster to edit and massage the story before sending it in. “Wooster really prepares you as a writer, and this project was a great exercise for me,” she says. “It helped me to think about how to explain biology without relying on heavy-handed terminology. It forced me to break things down into a language that would be accessible to everyone.”
Shortly after submitting her story, Cobb was informed that she had won the top prize and that the piece would be published in the society’s publication, “Antennae.” Not only that, but there was also a modest financial award, which will come in handy as she plans for life after Wooster.
“I’m saving for a deposit on an apartment next year,” says Cobb. “I’m really interested in biodiversity, and I am looking into a program in Costa Rica, where I could do research in the area of agricultural biodiversity.”
After that, Cobb intends to pursue a Ph.D., perhaps in natural history. Her dilemma is choosing a particular area of study because right now, she says, “I like it all.”
Wherever she winds up, Cobb’s Wooster experience will likely have a bearing on what she ultimately decides to do. “Wooster has allowed me to explore my passion for biology,” she says. “It has also allowed me to see certain issues in a larger context.
“I am very passionate about conservation biology because of my education at Wooster,” adds Cobb. “My study-abroad experience in Ecuador, my classes in biology and sustainable agriculture, and even my religious studies class, which dealt with religion and the environment, really opened my eyes to the role of people in conservation. It’s been wonderful.”
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