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Featuring guest Lynette Strickland

Lynette Strickland | God's World is a Diverse World

Lynette tells some of her own stories that highlight the ways that science as a discipline can benefit from increased diversity and inclusion.


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metallic beetles on leaf

Lynette tells some of her own stories that highlight the ways that science as a discipline can benefit from increased diversity and inclusion.

Description

Last time we talked to Lynette Strickland, she told us all about the work that she was doing to show that tortoise beetles, which vary greatly in their appearances, are actually one species. We play some of that conversation but then we catch up with Lynette to press further into the beauty and importance of diversity within a species. And it’s a short step from talking about beetles to talking about humans. Lynette tells some of her own stories that highlight the ways that science as a discipline can benefit from increased diversity and inclusion.

The first part of this interview is from Episode 19, broadcast on October 3, 2019.

  • Originally aired on June 18, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Strickland:

Saying that a species does better than more diverse they are is an incredibly beautiful concept. And it’s something I really like to bring back when I talk to people because it’s something that I think oftentimes we want to lose the differences between one another and focus on what, what makes us similar, which is great. But also there’s beauty in our differences. There’s strength in our differences. 

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host Jim Stump. And I’m here with my producer Colin.

Colin: 

Hey Jim. 

Stump:

So what’s on tap for today?

Colin:

We’re going to start with a conversation you and I had last October with Lynette Strickland, who we just heard at the top of the episode. 

Stump:

Last October. Geesh. Feels like a different age. Hard to believe we recorded that interview actually sitting in the same small room with Lynette. 

Colin:

Yeah. A lot has changed…but when I listened back to that episode it seemed so relevant to today. One of the things we talked about was this idea that a species that is diverse actually has a better chance of succeeding. 

Stump:

And of course, she’s talking about beetles, but it’s a short step to talking about our own species. And with everything that has happened in response to the killing of George Floyd a couple weeks ago it seems like that conversation was unfinished. 

Colin:

Yeah. So you caught back up with Lynette, who’s now at her post doc at Texas A&M to tease out those ideas a little further, get her reaction to all of this and hear a few stories about her own experiences. That’s the second half of the episode. 

Stump:

Alright. Well we’ll get to that in a bit; let’s first hear some of the conversation from October.

Interview Part 1

Stump:

So to start, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background. Where’d you come from? How’d you get to the place you are now?

Strickland:

Yeah, that’s a fun question. So I’m originally from Austin, Texas. So grew up sort of with a lot of green around me. No one in my family though had gone to college or was necessarily interested in anything academic. I was sort of the odd one out in that I just always wanted to be outside. I want it to be playing with things and looking at things. And luckily I had an incredible mom who was very supportive of that. She made sure we left the house 20 minutes early so that every point along the way I can look at all the insects to get to school. And so just sort of going naturally from there.

Hoogerwerf:

So were you the kind of kid that was always picking up bugs and…

Strickland:

Yes. Yes. Anytime…so every time we had recess or would always be, you know, kickball or people playing on the swings. My mom actually worked at the elementary school I went to, so every time I would ask her for a plastic cup, a piece of plastic and a rubber band and I would go out and find ladybugs and I would put grass and ladybugs inside. And I would keep them until they died because obviously they were in a plastic cup and then I would do it all over again.

Hoogerwerf:

Where do you think that came from?

Strickland:

God. There was no one in my family necessarily that was interested in the same things I was interested in. And so just from such a young age, I was so curious and passionate about it and I had no idea that it was something you could turn into an occupation. But from as long as I can remember, it was just something that was in me.

Hoogerwerf:

When was that moment when you realized it could become an occupation?

Strickland:

Oh, it wasn’t until my third year of Undergrad actually. Yeah. So I went through all…basically from the time I was five, my mom has this paper that I made in elementary school and it was like when I grow up, I’m going to be a veterinarian. And so that was sort of my motivation. That’s what pushed me through. And so it wasn’t until my third year of undergrad that I met a professor who taught animal behavior and evolutionary biology. And we would just talk so often and one day, he was just like, why are you going to vet school? You’re going to be so bored. You ask too many questions. And that’s the first time I learned you could actually have a career in research.

Stump:

We’ll ask you some more about your scientific research in a bit, but let’s rewind again here. And what about your faith background? What was that like growing up?

Strickland:

So my mom’s side of the family, they’re from Mexico, so there’s very much a catholic culture, but we didn’t grow up necessarily with a personal relationship with Christ. So it actually wasn’t until, once again then I went to undergrad, my first year there, my freshman roommate was an incredible girl and we just hit it off right away and she was a believer in Christ. And so she’d gone to church all her life and sort of grew up in the culture and I just thought it was really cool how much she loved Jesus. Like I had never seen someone sort of bring his name into just daily life. You know, she would lose something and find it and then just be like, thanks Lord. I was like, Huh.

So I just found that really interesting. It sort of started a curiosity of like what’s up with this Jesus? And why do you love him so much? So it was from there that I started getting involved in a church and then at my church at the University of Illinois has been very central to my faith and I was baptized five years ago at that church.

Hoogerwerf:

Your interest in the environment and in creatures started long ago, but it kind of grew and at the same time as your faith is kind of growing?

Strickland:

Definitely.

Hoogerwerf:

How to do those work together or were they separate?

Strickland:

I think they very much work together. It was about the same time that I was sort of really coming into this curiosity about the natural world that I also was really becoming curious about the spiritual world. And for me they were…there was no way that I could disconnect them. They were very much intertwined and it was sort of, it was when my faith was growing that I also started to realize a lot of that could be applied to my scientific work. And so I’m looking at these beautiful wonders in the world and there’s no way that I could not ask questions of God. So they were very much intertwined from the get-go.

Stump:

Any tensions though?

Strickland:

There have been some. Personally or? 

Stump:

Yeah.

Strickland:

I think the main tension comes from, so not necessarily when I look at nature because that tends to be what brings the peace in sort of intertwining it, but it definitely comes from interacting sort of with people in the world. And so yeah, that has been my biggest struggle. And especially coming from sort of the background that I did, just asking questions about, I don’t know, social justice has always been a big problem for me. And so it’s just like, Oh God, why? They’re like, we’re so broken, but the world is so beautiful. So I think that has sort of been the biggest tension for me.

Stump:

So it’s not been the science itself that has caused you to ask those kinds of questions?

Strickland:

Right. It’s definitely…the science has been the place that I have to go when I’m almost questioning too much. It’s what brings me back to my faith.

Stump:

Yeah.

Hoogerwerf:

You said your, your background there. Can you say more? Was that a help or a hindrance?

Strickland:

A hindrance. I just, I grew up in sort of like the northeast portion of Austin. It’s a lower income community. My mom was a…she worked two part time jobs her whole life, single income family. And so I just saw a lot of broken communities, just broken homes, broken families. And so coming from that and joining a church, it was just so…so different. Such a stark contrast. And so wondering, it just made me wonder like, where is God in all the mess? You know? And so it’s always been science where everything is so structured, ordered and so beautiful that you’re like, oh, he’s here. It’s literally right here and this beetle on the sidewalk. He’s here. So, yeah.

Stump:

Well let’s talk a little bit about beetles. You’re doing your PhD work now on a specific beetle called the tortoise beetle, as I understand? Tell us about this little creature.

Strickland:

Yes. So Tortoise beetles are incredible. They are a highly specialized sub-family of the leaf beetles. Most of them are found in the neotropics. But you can also find some in the old world tropics.

Hoogerwerf:

So where’s that in the world?

Strickland:

So, right. So neo-tropics would be Central and South America and in the old world tropics would be Indonesia, Malaysia, some parts of Africa. So I started working with these beetles about four and a half years ago now. I got an incredible opportunity to go work with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which is located in Panama. And so it was while I was there, I had no intention honestly of studying beetles for my dissertation. But it was there that I met a scientist who had worked on these beetles for over 40 years. And I was immediately enamored.

They incorporate so many different forms of coloration, namely structural coloration. So they have a lot of gold and silver, metallic and iridescence. And they also have these…so the edge of their body is enlarged  and flattened. And anytime they get sort of scared or anxious, they’ll pull everything underneath and flatten themselves to the leaf. And that’s why they’re called tortoise beetles.

Stump:

So how big are these beetles?

Strickland:

Oh, they range in size. Some of them no larger than like my pinky nail. Some of them can fit nearly in the palm of your hand. So they’re incredibly diverse in size, shape and color, which I love.

Stump:

So you’re in Panama looking for these? What’s it like to go out into the field and do this sort of research?

Strickland:

Incredible, in one word. So for about two and a half years of my dissertation, I’ve been in Panama either on and off, or consistently. And so to find these beetles, I first have to find their host plant. Their host plant just happens to grow in some of the most incredible areas in Panama.

Stump:

I assume not the cities.

Strickland:

Not the city. So, I mean some maybe around the outer edges, but even then, I’m not really going into the cities, which I’m okay with. And so one of the projects I did was actually looking at different populations. So my job was literally to go to as many different parts of Panama as I could and just survey as many beetles as I could find. So I’m sitting here in grass almost up to my neck. The sun is shining. It’s my kind of weather, tropical weather, and I’m just out looking for beetles. And so there’s no way that in the process I could not find God. Like he was there with me the entire time we were looking for beetles together.

Stump:

So what are you, what are the questions you’re pursuing with regard to these tortoise beetles? What are you trying to find out?

Strickland:

So what I’m interested in are basically the mechanisms that maintain variation in the broadest sense. So in the beetles specifically, I’m interested in what maintains color variation, both the ecological, environmental and genomic factors. So anytime I describe my dissertation to someone, I just have to stop and say, I understand how incredibly lucky I am. My job is to study colorful beetles in tropical areas. So it’s incredible. But we’re basically looking at what sort of differences in the environment, how predation or sexual selection might be maintaining color polymorphisms, but then also what genes are involved in maintaining this color variation.

Stump:

And are these mechanisms that are somehow unique to this species or is it a widely used phenomenon among other organisms or?

Strickland:

Yes and no. So in terms of the biological aspects, it’s pretty broad. So I’m looking at predation, that’s something that has been shown to maintain variation in a number of systems. These beetles we also are pretty sure are sequestering toxins from their host plants. So using this to sort of defer predation. So I did a lot of things, sort of testing would predators even eat the beetles. So that’s pretty widespread.

Stump:

Ok, I want to hear some of those stories. You bring the, you’re bringing a spoonful of beetles up to what sort of predator and see if they’ll eat it?

Strickland:

Basically. So some of these were actually some of my favorite studies I ever did, but I had cartinus ants, I had nefila, which are the giant orb weaving spiders and I had mantids and so I essentially would just go out, I would find my predator, I would either bring it back into the lab, or for the ants I just, I brought the beetles to the ants. And I would basically test, so will these beetles, will these predators eat the beetles? And so they were given a beetle once a day over a series of days. I would just observe their behaviors toward them. It was great. As great as it sounds.

Stump:

Maybe not as great for the beetles, but.

Strickland:

Well the beetles were mostly okay.

Stump:

They held their own?

Strickland:

They did. There were not a lot of predators that would eat the beetles.

Hoogerwerf:

There’s this series of videos from the Smithsonian that you talk about this idea that a species might do better if it’s more diverse. Can you explain why is that interesting or surprising?

Strickland:

Yes. I think as an evolutionary biologist, studying variation is one of the most satisfying things. And especially in beetles who are arguably the most diverse and species rich group of organisms on the planet. And it’s this variation that’s been attributed to all of their success. And so studying this variation, studying what forces maintain this variation is really sort of vital to understanding how they’ve been able to conquer so much of the planet. And so saying that a species does better than more diverse they are is an incredibly beautiful concept. And it’s something I really like to bring back when I talk to people because it’s something that I think oftentimes we want to lose the differences between one another and focus on what makes us similar, which is great. But also there’s beauty in our differences. There’s strength in our differences and that story is told most beautifully by the beetles.

Stump:

So here’s a pesky question. How much diversity can you get within a species until you start saying it’s a different species?

Strickland:

That is a great question actually. And it’s been oftentimes really hard to answer, especially in insects. So actually before I started studying the species of beetle that I’m studying, there were still scientists who were not convinced that these were the same species. There were multiple people who were convinced that they were actually different species. And so it’s actually…I mean it still comes to series of crosses. When you cross them can they make viable offspring?

We are not trying…that doesn’t apply to everything. Bacteria have their own thing that they’re doing, who knows? But in terms of at least insects and many other species, that’s what we bring it back to. Now, there are other species that have something like 20 phenotypes and they’ve been, of course not studied to this extent. So how can we say, are these actually all one species? Are they multiple species within a complex? It gets really muddy when you’re working in the neotropics and you have such high diversification rates.

Stump:

What do you know about the history of this species going back in evolutionary history and where they came from and how they did diversify the way they have?

Strickland:

So the tortoise beetles are actually still pretty young in comparison to most other beetles. So beetles themselves actually started evolving about 230 million years ago I think is the first recorded beetle in the fossil record. So they’re very old. But the species that I work with in particular is quite young. And in fact  the subfamily Cassadines or Tortoise beetles, there’s only about 6,000 described species and predominantly in the neotropics. So we would…

Stump:

Only 6,000, still sounds like quite a few.

Strickland:

It’s true. I forget because I study beetles, I forget that not every other taxon has as many species as mine. But right, so about 6,000, most diverse in the neotropics, which would sort of attribute to the fact that they’re quite young as well because many of the things that have been evolving in the neotropics are also quite young but evolve quite rapidly because of all the different selection pressures.

Stump:

What are some of those pressures?

Strickland:

Namely other organisms, because it’s so diverse. So you have everything that you need to create really vibrant life. Right? It’s sunny a lot, it rains a lot, there are so many plants that take advantage of all of this. All of them are dropping fruit or seeds or rotten leaves. And so because you have all of these resources, you can also diversify quickly. But that means what you’re mainly competing against are other species. And so because you’re competing against other species, you have to become more unique in what you actually take advantage of. And so it just creates all of these really interesting characteristics that sometimes can be found in no other places in the world.

Hoogerwerf:

So on the other hand, does that make them more vulnerable to changes in the ecosystem?

Strickland:

In some cases, yes. So a lot…I worked with a couple of species that are located in this mountain range that are located nowhere else in the world. Right? And so if something happens to this area, which a lot of people, especially in Panama, need that area for farming, for taking care of their families, for producing some sort of sustainable income, what do you do in those cases? How do we sort of convey the importance of this one area that isn’t even completely studied? We don’t even know all of the species that live here, but we know that they’re not found anywhere else in the world. So in some cases it does make them very vulnerable. In other cases, the insects become, or even species in general become quite resilient because they have to deal with so much variability in their environment.

Stump:

So I’m a philosopher by training and so questions like what is a species is really interesting to me and you’re talk about crossbreeding or trying to see if they produce viable offspring and all of this. But of course there are examples even in our own evolutionary history of interbreeding with other species now, that it appears. And do you take a species to be just this artificial construct that we’re putting on to these organisms to classify them for ourselves? Or is there something inherent in them that you say this really is?

Strickland:

I personally think of it as more of artificial. As humans, we just really love to classify things and I see the value in that. It is really nice to sort of understand the unique differences and similarities amongst life on the planet. Right? There’s one planet and all of this life is here and there’s something in us that wants to know what makes me the same as you, but also what makes me different? And so we like to classify things.

In terms of studying them biologically, it is important to know, right? So is this set of individuals actually uniquely and significantly different from these other ones? And if so, in what ways? That’s important to know in terms of studying these sort of evolutionary questions that we want to ask. But in terms of very strict sort of lines between species, I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s more that we just really like having a classification system for things

Stump:

For Christian theology, then it gets a little more important. Some theologians will say, when we’re talking about this species we call Homo sapiens, right? Is there something that it is to be human that’s distinct from the rest of these? And of course, when we look around today, we can, we can pretty well distinguish ourselves from everything else. But going back in history, that gets trickier. Any thoughts on humanity as a species?

Strickland:

Yeah, I mean, so it’s always something I come back to because my love of nature started so early. And so I think as humans, yes, there is something that makes us a bit different. We have a consciousness, namely, but when I think about the beetles, and particularly this quote that has sort of started my love of beetles and God in sort of keeping them intertwined—is totally anecdotal, we’re not even sure if he actually said it—but it was Haldane who when asked what his study of nature had taught him about the nature of our creator, said, “if I’ve learned anything about the nature of our creator is that he has an inordinate fondness of beetles.”

And that just gets me every time because I often question, especially, you know, as humans, we’re steeped in sin, and so it’s just how…the idea of this unfailing love is probably one of the hardest things for me personally to grasp. But when I look at my beetles, when I’m out in a tropical rain forest looking for beetles, and I think of that, I see how God loves them and I can see how he loves me. And so honestly relating myself to a beetle, weirdly enough is what sort of helps me understand how God loves us, how God loves his creation, how God loves his world. And so I think in that sense it is not necessarily a good thing for us to try to separate ourself from creation. I think sort of bringing them to us and understanding like what makes us the same in this place that we inhabit is good for our soul quite honestly.

Stump:

So some people will look at the evolutionary process and think, oh look at all this waste that has gone on. But it sounds to me like you’re flipping that on its head a little bit and saying, look at the lavishness of creation that has come about as a result of this process. These 6,000 different species of this one little section of the beetle world. And what does that tell you about the creator? I mean, there’s a, you know, it doesn’t seem like those are wasted species, right?

Strickland:

Right. Certainly not. And that’s why studying variation is so important because oftentimes it’s used for functions we don’t even know of yet. It’s as the environment changes, something else can be co-opted and diversified and that’s beautiful. It’s not wasteful at all, it’s almost, we’re prepared for change, we’re prepared to be dynamic, which is incredible. It shows creativity in a creator. It shows love, a love of beauty. It shows that we were like, we are versatile as living things on this planet we have the capability to survive, which is incredible.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part 2

Stump:

Jim here, back in the studio. Back to a world that has been rocked by the COVID19 pandemic and more recently by the massive protests that have come in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. 

BioLogos has made a concerted effort to stay out of politics, in order to stay focused on our mission of showing harmony between science and religion. For too many people, controversial issues come bundled together, and we have made it a priority to unbundle those and just talk about the science and theology. But we have seen now that Black Lives Matter is not a political issue; it’s a human issue. We cannot in good conscience sit back and watch this play out in our society. But our mission continues to be focused on science and religion, and in this conversation with Lynette, we see how race is connected and influences even these issues. 

Since our first conversation with Lynette, she has moved on from graduate school, defended her PhD and we spoke to her where she is in her post doc in Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Stump:

Lynette, good to talk to you again.

Strickland:

Yeah. Good to talk to you, Jim as well, you and Colin.

Stump:

So last time we had you here you had introduced us to tortoise beetles in your field of research of traipsing through the brush in Panama trying to find these little guys, right? And since then, I saw that you have successfully defended your PhD work. So congratulations, Dr. Strickland. 

Strickland:

Thank you. It feels very good. It was a long time in the making. 

Stump:

Well, that’s certainly an impressive achievement. So what’s the next step for your career?

Strickland: 

Oh, wow. So I when I defended, I was actually in the really fortunate position to have two postdocs. So I’m currently working at my first postdoc in Corpus Christi, Texas. And next year, I will move on to the University of Memphis.

Stump:

University of Memphis. Very good. And continuing the same line of research with Beetles?

Strickland: 

So this year on I’m actually working with fish, which is very interesting. And then next year at the postdoc that I got is funded by the National Science Foundation. And that will be with the same species of beetle that I use for my dissertation.

Stump:

Well, very good. we’re anxious to see where all of that goes.

Strickland:

I’m very excited for it.

Stump:

Well, there are two major crises in our world today. How has a COVID-19 affected your work and your life these last last few months?

Strickland:

Yeah, that’s…yeah, we’ve all been so affected by COVID. So in terms of, I guess, just the defense, that actually got pushed back by an entire month. So that was sort of a mess to deal with. And, you know, defending online was interesting to say the least. But it worked out well. They passed me. And then yeah, so then I actually had to move to Corpus Christi for my first postdoc, and so, moving during a pandemic, I definitely do not recommend. It was very difficult to try and make sure I was sort of maintaining all the social distancing rules. And yeah, so it’s been a…I had to do a two week quarantine when I first got here. So that’s been difficult, but things are slowly going back to normal. Slowly.

Stump:

And does this work with fish include fieldwork that is somehow complicated with COVID?

Strickland:

Yeah, definitely. So right now, we’ve been sort of just trying to find projects that I can do remotely until we see what will happen with the rest of this field season. So a lot of the field work has just been pushed back by months, potentially. And we’re all just sort of trying to scrounge up interesting review projects or things that we can all work on online or from the office. Yeah.

Stump:  

And of course, the other crisis in our culture today is the racial tension that has been thrust front and center again, in our cultural consciousness because of this latest horrific death of a black man at the hands of police. How have you processed all of that the last couple of weeks?

Strickland: 

Whooo. That’s been difficult. That’s been far more difficult actually than dealing with the pandemic. You know, I think for me, especially as a black woman, it gets exhausting. You know, it gets really exhausting hearing these stories over and over again. It was inspiring to see so many people, especially on social media, sort of rally this time and all the protests that have come out of this. But it’s just…the word I can only use is exhausting. Every time I look at the news and another black person has been killed and you know, it gets hard trying to defend the black voice over and over and over again. And so I’m hoping, you know, this will inspire some, some real change and for people to step up and really act out.

Stump:

Well, I’d like to talk about that a little bit more specifically in your field of studies. A couple of years ago, you were a co-author on an article in Science magazine that pushed for greater awareness of the actual experiences of underrepresented minority students in STEM fields. Just to start with what led to that article, if I may ask. How did that come about?

Strickland:  

Definitely. So a few years ago, five years ago I think, I went to Centennial Conference for Ecology. And this was in Baltimore and they had a late night panel session about increasing representation in ecological fields. And so I went to that and, you know, it turned into, I think, something like a three and a half hour discussion with everyone in the room, and so It was composed of about half of minority graduate students. And then the other half were panelists, so people from different universities and institutions in general who were interested in diversity work and increasing representation. And there were a lot of heated conversations. And it got actually really emotional at one point. And so we just realized that, from that discussion, we couldn’t just leave what we had discovered in that room. Like we had to sort of write this up and share our experience from that moment. So that’s how it all started.

Stump:  

You argued in the article that there needs to be a shift in these kinds of settings, the the academic graduate students setting and departments and such, there needs to be a shift from just diversity, which sounds like it’s just ticking boxes somewhere of the number of students with various skin colors or something, that there needs to be a shift from that kind of diversity to inclusion? Can you unpack that difference a little bit more for us?

Strickland:

Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, diversity when diversity initiatives first started, that was sort of like a huge step, I think for a lot of institutions. And so it was a focus on yeah, like, what is our percentage of underrepresented minority students? And, you know, schools would often boast something like 2% or 3% to minority students. And so that’s what it means to focus on diversity is that there are sort of, in a sense, diverse cultures or peoples represented in a group.

Stump:

The public relations photos look diverse right?.

Strickland:

Right. Exactly, exactly. When you log on to the web page, who pictured front and center? That’s a focus on diversity. But focusing on diversity does nothing if behind that photo on the webpage, those underrepresented minorities who are in that group actually feel unvalued or unheard or like any of the ideas that they bring to the table don’t really matter. And so you can have diverse institutions that aren’t actually inclusive. And so focusing on inclusions means that you’re focusing on hearing each member of that group and valuing the different perspective that each member brings to that group. So yeah, focusing more on inclusive institutions is what we’re arguing would ultimately promote better science.

Stump:

Can you share with us about perhaps some times where you yourself have been made to feel unwelcome or otherwise discriminated against? I think our community needs to hear those.

Strickland:

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, it’s just so interesting when you hear all these stories start to come together. I mean, I have examples that stretch from middle school to getting my graduate degree. And so often in high school, so I went to an accelerated high school like a magnet High School, and so I was one of very few black people in that program. Yeah, one of the things I remember most vividly is we would have like a lunch break. And so there was a small corner store that I would often go to. And so most of the other high school kids who are taking this class were white and from wealthier families. And there was one time where, you know, these kids, we were all like 15, jokingly mentioned to someone that I said I was going to bring a gun to school. Which is….I didn’t…I don’t even think I talked to anyone in that class, I was so incredibly shy at that time. And so actually an officer came to the class and asked me to bring my backpack and searched it. And he was actually a really incredible officer. He asked me a few questions like, you know, where I lived. And, you know, found out that I actually had to take a two and a half hour bus ride every morning to get to the school. And so to do that, I was waking up at 5:30. You know, I was one of the most motivated kids in the class. And I remember watching him close his eyes, and sort of take a breath. And I think he realized something in that moment that took me years to realize, in that these kids, you know, from their very privileged sort of perspective, had no idea what they could have done to me, like what that situation could have done to me. And it took me several years to realize what had actually happened, I think at the time, you know, it didn’t make any sort of impact on me. And it’s been years later sort of realizing, like, wow, our comments can really affect people and can really put people’s life in danger sometimes. So yeah, that’s just one of the more like, vivid recollections I have. And it, you know, it goes on and on, like being denied certain places in grad school or being asked if I really should be in that building, which was my office. So yeah, it’s hard. It’s very difficult to have these lived experiences. But I do think it’s really important to share them as well.

Stump:

Since…so I’m a little nervous to ask because I fear I know what the answer is, but since the article that you and your cohorts wrote about this has anything changed?

Lynette;

Not very much, right. So very little concrete tangible actions I think have been placed. I’ve received a lot of emails, which has been great over the past few years that have said, you know, certain graduate students have used this as sort of discussion for increasing inclusive institutions. And so that’s been really nice to hear. It does seem like it’s been at least used as a discussion tool for increasing these sorts of conversations. And you know, I suppose that is the first start, is making these conversations normal in academic settings, outside of like, just minorities having these discussions.

Stump:

I want to get your view a little bit on science in general and how diversity contributes to that. I’ve made the statement before that one of the virtues of science is that it works regardless of ideology, right? There are laws of nature that are the same no matter your race, or your political persuasion, or what country you come from. But now saying that strikes me as perhaps a little naive and definitely incomplete for the actual practice of science. And here, you have, I think, a fantastic story about your identity and your perspective that really helped to bring some insight and solve a problem that the dominant culture scientists just didn’t even see. Can you walk us through that? I think this is a great story.

Strickland:

Yeah. So let’s talk about the beetles.

Stump:

Back to your beetles 

Strickland:

Back to the Beetles. So the particular species that I study is now known has been shown to be a polymorphic species. 

Stump:

Say what that means for people who don’t speak science here. 

Strickland:

Yeah, so it’s one individual species. But there are different color variants in this species. And so these color variants range from entirely red to red with metallic stripes and red with black stripes. So they’re incredibly gorgeous. And so for the longest time it was thought that these different color variants that all occurred within Panama were not the same species. It was actually said that they could not be the same species because they looked too different. And I remember hearing that argument so well. And you know, this was said by well established scientists, you know, people that I trusted. And at the time I was a first year graduate student. This was my first trip to Panama in 2015. This was the first time I’d even seen these beetles. And so it was really hard to hear that. And I mean, it was still sort of inconclusive. There were some people, one of my committee members, actually who did believe that they were one species. But in thinking of that argument, they couldn’t be the same species because they looked too different. That just made no sense to me. Like it didn’t make sense as an argument. And in thinking through this over the years, that attributed to my own family. So I come from a mixed family. My mom is Mexican American and my dad is African American. And so me and my sister actually look incredibly different. So my sister took more from our mom, so she’s got pretty fair skin and like silky hair, that’s usually pretty straight. Whereas I totally took after my dad and I have dark skin, really curly hair. And so we honestly we just look entirely different. And growing up, you know, I just remember so many times in restaurants or out at the movie theaters, people would ask if we were actually sisters. And it was just so weird every time we would look at each other, like, yes. You know, my sister would be like, Yes, I used to babysit her all the time. She’s my sister.

And it was often said, like, “wow, y’all looks so different.” So for me it was never part of my perspective that two things might be unrelated because they look different. Right? And so the argument just had no foundation for me. So you know, I move forward from there. Luckily, I had an amazing advisor who just sort of trusted me and let me pursue my interests. And so it was, you know, six years in the making for my dissertation. But what we’ve shown is that these different color variants that were said to look too different are actually one species.

Stump:

What were some of the evidences that you saw that you clearly interpreted as no, these must be the same species that other people just weren’t seeing?

Strickland:  

So for me, it was the fact that we would find them mating in the wild, often. So a lot of times, people will say that, and this is true, especially in insects, matings occur between organisms that aren’t the same species, and they’re usually accidental. And so that is what was said is what was happening in this species and these beetles, but they were occurring really frequently. Like in multiple populations across Panama. And Don, one of my committee members, had actually generated this beautiful, really extensive crossing data set where we were literally just taking beetles of these different color variants. And we would mate them to see if they produce offspring. And that’s sort of one of the, one of the big rules, at least for biological species is if they can mate and produce viable offspring, then they’re one species. And so we did something like 10,000 crosses, with different color combinations, and we were repeating color combinations to make sure what we were seeing was accurate. And every single color variant we mated with each other can produce offspring. So that was the main sort of thing where we knew, like no, this is the single species and they’re just very colorful and very variable. 

Stump:

And that finally became persuasive to people who had the opposite view before?

Strickland:

It did. Once we…so we got a little bit of funding in my first year first and second year to actually do some genetic and genomic work. And so once we did that, we were actually able to look at what’s the degree of genetic relatedness, which is also very useful for determining biological species. And so once we had that data paired with the crossing data, it was enough. We had finally shown, this is a single species.

Stump:

So I just think that’s a really fascinating example of how somebody’s presuppositions going into something like this even sort of forecloses them from asking the question that you were able to ask because you didn’t have that presupposition. Right. So is that one of the real concrete areas where diversity of opinion can affect the actual practice of science?

Strickland:

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, we think about this all the time. And I think it’s something we inherently understand—that diversity is important. But it’s once you realize that someone else asked a question that you had never even thought of, a question that had never occurred to you, that we truly start to see the benefits of diversity and inclusion. And so understanding that we all have different perspectives and those perspectives influence our interests, our passions, what we choose to pursue, and valuing those things. You know, I think as scientists, we always want to be incredibly objective and say, you know, nope, this is the question, this is the data set, this is the statistics, this is the answer. You know, we’ve got to…you know, we just have to stop pretending that that question you even chose to ask was subjective, because it’s the one you chose to ask. And so yeah, I think about this all the time. It’s like, how many questions are we missing out on because we don’t have inclusive institutions performing science? You know, because we don’t have so many people of different backgrounds, different perspectives, different cultures, asking different questions.

Stump:

I think last time we talked, you brought this point out a little bit, on diversity within biology itself of the ability of diverse populations to thrive, when others wouldn’t make it if there was not that diversity. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately with regard to the Apostle Paul and his metaphor of the body and how we’re not all the same body parts that we need each other. Tell us a little bit more just refresh our memory on the this argument of diversity from the beetle populations themselves and the extraordinary number of beetle species that there are and how this has led to some of their success.

Strickland:

Yeah, I love this is my favorite thing probably in the world to talk about, relating diversity in beetles and relating that to sort of God’s plan for all of this. But so beetles…the group Coleoptera, so the beetles, are incredible. They’re one of the most successful animal groups on this planet. And that’s due to their sheer numbers and diversity. So currently, there’s over 400,000 described species of beetles, which is…

Stump:

How does that compare to some other groups?

Strickland:

Yeah, so this is my favorite sort of example that I use for that. So if we were to take a single representative of every known species that there currently is, and we were to just lay them all out in line, one in every five would be a beetle. One in every ten would be a weevil, which is just a different kind of beetle. So it’s incredible. Their diversity is amazing and one of the things that has been attributed to their success on this planet, is the fact that they are so diverse in terms of their color, their shape, the habitats that they can live in, what they eat, their life history cycles. So they’re so variable as a group of organisms. And you know, this is…it’s been debated, especially amongst people who study beetles and who are passionate about beetles. But it’s attributed to how diverse and variable this group is their success.

And so, you know, for me, I’ve always found that to be incredibly beautiful. I love studying variation. And I love understanding and working out the benefits to variation and not only within beetles but within people, as we relate to God. You know, I think it means a lot that God’s world is a diverse world. And we see that in humans. We see that in beetles. We see that in all of life.

Stump:

Well, thanks so much for the diversity of perspective that you bring to this. And I apologize on behalf of the people who have been responsible for times when that has not been valued. And pray that our world will continue to move toward the beautiful diversity of the Kingdom of God that God has intended for all of us.

Strickland:  

Thank you so much, Jim. It’s been great talking on this topic. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. And you know, my hope is that it will…these sorts of conversations will happen more frequently. And we’ll just bring more awareness to the importance of our individual differences and the benefits to them.

Stump:

Well, blessings to you on your work.

Strickland:

Thank you so much Blessings to you too as well.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote work spaces and the homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Lynette Strickland

Lynette Strickland is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute PreDoctoral Fellow. She received her B.S. in Marine Biology from Texas A&M. Her research, focusing on how ecological factors and genomic factors shape a naturally-occurring color polymorphism in a species of Neotropical tortoise beetle, has been published in journals including Science and Hereditary.

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