July 27, 2008

Natural Curiosity: An Inordinate Fondness for Fungi

My sister and her family are visiting this weekend. She and and my brother-in-law are both psychologists and my niece, Alex, is a rambunctious and extremely bright four year old with tremendous curiosity about nature. I don't know whether that's nature or nurture at work. They live in a rural area in the Hudson River Valley. Their home is the kind of place where deer wandering across the lawn is a daily occurrence and it's not too unusual to have a bear raid the garbage every so often. Nonetheless, as I've mentioned before, Alex seems to have been born with a particular interest in fungi. It's not something that anyone taught her about, though it's certainly been encouraged. I can't think of why...

An important message from my nieceWe met up at Elm Park yesterday to let Alex blow off some steam at the playground. The plan was that the adults could check out Art in the Park at the same time, but there wasn't much art to see despite the banner proclaiming that the event runs through October. Practically the first thing that happened is that I was handed the note you see to the left. It was important that I see this right away!

When we started getting hungry, we left for Binh Duong, which still ranks as LL and my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Worcester. I asked Alex if she'd like to see the lab where I work on the way and she was very interested in doing so.

It being Saturday night, nobody else was around. We did a quick tour of the clean lab; it's very hard to explain to a four year old what we do in there. She did want to wear the cool purple nitrile gloves, though. Alex was much more interested in the dirty lab. She wanted to see the mushrooms, of course, and she got to check out a whole preserved Bondarzewia berkeleyi and giant specimens of Ganoderma applanatum as well. She also went through some of the Russula specimens I've collected and she thought the big green ones were pretty impressive. I noticed that she was eying the microscopes, so I asked her if she wanted to look at a beetle and that was a cool idea. I dug out a big staphylinid from my bug box and set it up under a dissecting scope for her. Woah! Giant beetles... the kid was psyched.

I asked Alex if she'd like to look even closer and see what a beetle's foot looks like. Big surprise; let's do that! I dissected off a tarsus and described what I was doing. At each step, Alex replied with a "yeah" and implicit, "and then what," the pitch of her voice increasing a little each time. I showed her how to make a wet mount and each step brought a higher-pitched "yeah" dripping with curiosity. When I had the slide set up on the microscope, Alex climbed into my lap to look at the foot at 100X magnification and her eyes were bugging out enough that she could probably have seen it from a foot away. By the time she'd had her fill of those tarsomeres and tarsal claws, she was ready to do it again. "Let's do another one!"

It was time for dinner, though, so I let Alex use a pair of watchmaker's forceps to put the beetle back in its vial. I didn't tell her how to do it, and it struck me that she knew enough to be very delicate about the task. She started off trying to barely exert any pressure at all, dropping the insect a couple of times before she squeezed just hard enough to get the thing from the hack to the vial without crushing it in the slightest. The kid is a natural!

Our plan for today was to go up to Wachusett so that she could see the giant green mushrooms and whatever other kinds might be out. Alex wants to find beetles, too, so I let her pack a few vials of EtOH in my kit last night for use today. Unfortunately, we're having a wicked electrical storm at the moment and the forecast is calling for rain throughout the day, so I'm not sure whether we'll be able to follow through on the plans. We may need to come up with some kind of indoor alternative. I think I'd be as disappointed as Alex would about that. Most, if not all, kids are born with a curiosity about nature, I suppose. If the four year old keeps that same level of curiosity past adolescence, they become science geeks. When they keep it past the age of forty they become... well... me, I suppose. Doesn't every kid need a weird scientist uncle?

I hope the rain stops so I can go find mushrooms and bugs today! Am I a four year old dreaming that I'm a graduate student, or am I a graduate student in the company of a four year old?

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