Director’s Channel, May/June 2020

IONs Director, Paul Katz

In these troubled times, community is very precious. It takes effort to maintain a community when you don’t just bump into people in the hallways or at seminars. We have lost opportunities such as the annual awards dinner to meet and celebrate our students’ accomplishments. Please read about the winners of the Golden Neuron Award and the Vincent Dethier Prize. I am particularly impressed by work of Melise Edwards and Kate Otter, who shared the Early Career Award.  Melise is leading (Mentorship for Under-represented STEM Enthusiasts), which aims to provide representation and mentorship to groups in STEM. She is only a first-year PhD student, but she is an active leader in peer mentorship. Kate Otter has been running a Social Justice Discussion group, which relates social justice to science. I attended the most recent group (via Zoom, of course) and it inspired me to think more deeply about how our perception of the world is determined by our identity and our community. There is a concept in ethology called the Umwelt, which is just German for environment. It refers to how an animal experiences the world. We may think that our own experience of the world is universal and that if anything, animals experience an impoverished version of the world that we see, hear, and smell around us. But, this is far from the truth.

My dog, Lucy and I experience the world very differently. She is far more focused on smells near the ground, which her wet nose picks up. I can somewhat imagine what her Umwelt might be like. But there are others that are beyond my imagination. For example, many insects can see ultraviolet light and distinguish different polarities of light. Both of these features of their Umwelt are completely invisible to us. It means they see colors that do not exist for us and they see the sky as having concentric rings of polarization around the sun. Bats hear sounds that do not exist for us because the vibrations of the air are too fast for our ears to detect and elephants communicate with sounds that are of such low frequency that they pass right through us. Migratory birds are able to sense the inclination and strength of Earth’s magnetic field, which means that they experience a sensation of their position on the planet that we can’t imagine. It is important to be humble enough to recognize that our Umwelt is just one possible way to experience the world.

To take that a step further, each person’s Umwelt is somewhat different. This is obvious if you think of differently-abled people with colorblindness or deafness. But it’s also true of trained wine tasters and musicians; their experiences of the world are very different from my own. That can be taken yet another step further, our personal history affects our Umwelt. For example, a bad experience in school might affect how you perceive learning. As humans, we share experience and identify with others in our community. Our communities extend out from our families to work or school communities to our ethnic or cultural communities. The Umwelt for each of these communities is different. It’s essential, especially in these trying times, to realize that reactions to events are shaped by each community’s Umwelt. Who the community trusts determines the way events will be perceived. It is critically important to keep community ties strong and to make sure that as scientists and progressive thinkers, we are trusted in other communities.