I did not always know I wanted to be a biologist. I entered UC San Diego with an interest in history and foreign language, hoping to one day work in international relations. My science classes in high school hadn’t really inspired me. Then I took a biology class for my general education requirement, and by the end of the course, the professor had convinced me that the complex life cycle of the slime mold Dictyostelium—his specialty—was the most fascinating story I’d ever heard. I knew that if I could be wowed by slime mold, biology was the subject for me.
I was smitten with biodiversity. I wanted to know more about the organisms and processes of the natural world. I took classes in ecology, animal behavior, and evolution. Before long, I canceled my plans to study abroad in Spain for a year, changed my major to biology, and traveled to Costa Rica to study tropical biology for a quarter. In the cloud forest of Costa Rica, what I had studied in my biology textbooks came to life. We saw more species of plants and animals in three months than I had in a lifetime of living in North America. I wanted to know what they all were, how they all fit together. The visible complexity of life was astounding, but I was also interested in the hidden diversity that was found in organisms’ genes.
Back at UC San Diego, I delved into DNA, phylogenetics, and the mechanisms of natural selection and evolution. I realized then that the diversity of living organisms was to become my lifelong fascination, and that not only did I want to understand biodiversity, I wanted to help conserve it.
In the Genetics Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, I found the opportunity to put my interests and experience to work. We have an incredibly diverse collection of biological materials in the Frozen Zoo®, with as many as 1,000 species represented. Many of these species I had never heard of before I worked for the Zoo. We’re all familiar with the giant panda, but a tamandua? A pangolin? A hyrax? I am constantly learning about unusual and endangered species, and I enjoy sharing that information with researchers, students, and the public. I now know that a tamandua is an arboreal anteater, a pangolin is a mammal covered in scales, and a hyrax is a small, furry animal whose closest living relative is the elephant. The one thing these seemingly divergent species have in common is that we have saved some of their DNA, that crucial molecule that helps us uncover hidden variation and relationships that we can’t see with the naked eye.
I have used that DNA to identify individual species of tamanduas and hyraxes and to learn that these groups contain more genetic variation than previously thought. I have used DNA to help describe the diversity of endangered Fiji iguanas, a group which promises to yield new species even today. I have used DNA to identify endangered species of coral trees in our collection that can be used to augment declining populations. Better understanding the identity and taxonomic relationships of these organisms is not only fun, it helps us decide how they should be conserved.
Such conservation decisions are made by government officials and land managers, but more importantly, they are made by the public. We each decide what we want to conserve based on what inspires us. Because we are all biologists, even if we don’t know it yet.
Heidi Davis, Research Coordinator, Genetics Division