January 25, 2024 / Abby Roberts

Embracing Your “Peculiarity” as a Scientist and Communicator

Photo Credit: Getty Images / William Jones-Warner

Entomologist Samuel Ramsey, PhD, is known for achievements that seem far outside the purview of occupational and environmental health and safety—in February, he'll head to Southeast Asia to study bee parasites in partnership with National Geographic. But as a science communicator as well as a scientist, he encounters challenges that OEHS professionals will relate to. "It doesn't matter how great your science is," he said. "If there's no one who's interested in hearing about it, it really is restricted in its capacity to cause change."

Ramsey's science communication work is the reason AIHA selected him to deliver the opening keynote at AIHA Connect in May 2024. In his session, he plans to guide participants in embracing their "peculiarities"—their unique traits and perspectives—as strengths.

A Breakthrough in Bee Research

Even if you have no particular knowledge about insects, you've probably heard about the vulnerability of bee species. The western honey bee, an import from Europe, cannot be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act but remains susceptible to parasites and colony collapse, while North America's native bee species are threatened by habitat loss, disease, climate change, and pesticides. Keeping bee populations strong and healthy is critical because, as pollinators, bees are essential to the environment and human economic life alike. Crops pollinated by bees make up about one-third of all foods and beverages consumed by humans. One study estimated that honey bees alone contributed $11.68 billion to the U.S. economy in 2009.

"Bees are some of the most efficient pollinators on the planet, if not the most efficient, and so keeping them healthy and safe maintains safety in our food supply," Ramsey explained.

In his entomology work, Ramsey is best known as the lead author of a 2019 study that transformed scientific understanding of Varroa destructor, the parasitic mite that is driving the global decline in honey bee health. Previously, entomologists had believed that the parasite harmed bees by consuming their hemolymph, a fluid produced by insects that is analogous to the blood produced by vertebrates. Ramsey and his coauthors upended 50 years of thinking with their finding that the mites consume the bees' fat body, an organ comparable to the liver in mammals. For this work, Ramsey was honored with the American Bee Research Conference's Award for Distinguished Research and the Acarological Society of America's Highest Award for Advances in Acarology Research.

But he hadn't expected that his research would lead to a breakthrough. Varroa mites are present in nearly every honey bee colony in the world, and thousands of researchers are studying them. "I just thought we had learned everything about them that there was to learn," he said.

He had also been disappointed to learn that generations of scientists hadn't challenged the consensus on Varroa mite feeding. "I was kind of bummed that we were just figuring out, more than 100 years after discovering this organism, how it's impacting bees," he said. "A big reason for this is because the parasites and diseases in bees typically come from an area of the world that we refer to as the developing world. Not a lot of research is done there, and I wanted to do what I could to right that imbalance."

Realizing that bee researchers would need to incorporate new perspectives if they were to protect bees from parasites and diseases led Ramsey to the work that will soon take him to countries such as Singapore, Thailand, and Bangladesh. "I'm working with a number of indigenous groups, conservationists, and researchers from all of these different countries, and we are going to fix that imbalance so that something like this doesn't happen again," he explained.

Accepting Your Peculiarity

However, you don't need to travel to the other side of the world to find a fresh perspective. You can start by embracing your own peculiarity—that is, the things that cause you to think differently than everyone else.

Many people learn to feel self-conscious of the traits that make them different from those around them. Ramsey's entomological research—which focuses broadly on symbiotic relationships between organisms of different species—has taught him that difference is a strength. "Something that has become very clear in both the biological world and the more anthropological world of human beings is that diversity is really important, that it promotes a healthy ecological context for organisms like animals and plants and bacteria, but also for us," he said. "We oftentimes try to separate ourselves from nature. We forget that we are natural organisms ourselves and that diversity is integral to us functioning at optimal efficiency."

Some have characterized efforts to increase diversity in institutions such as academia and corporate leadership as "diversity for diversity's sake," but Ramsey pointed out that there is no such thing. His own work has demonstrated the inherent value of diverse perspectives. Moreover, he stressed that diversity is not limited to characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. There is diversity in your personal background and the way you think, which, he explained, influences the questions you ask and the way you approach problems. "If we are willing to lean into that and not think that we have to behave like and think like everyone else," he said, "we can harness a power that can really change things."

"I also want to help people better understand how we as human beings can apply all the things that make us different to solving problems, to reaching remarkable breakthroughs, and to seeing the world differently than other people see it," he added. "So, learning how to lean into our peculiarity is something that I want to make sure that everyone leaves the keynote with."

For scientists, such as entomologists and industrial hygienists, Ramsey believes peculiarity is almost a necessity. But the vulnerability that comes with being seen as "different" causes many scientists to lose confidence in themselves. "It's really easy to think that the things that make us different make us weird and are things that need to be hidden, that they make us odd in some way that's going to be unsettling to the rest of the world," he said. But in the science communication class that he teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder, he encourages his students to overcome this lack of confidence. If peculiar people develop comfort in their peculiarity and project it as a strength, he explains, they will become more creative problem-solvers and more effective communicators with healthier self-images.

"I'm not going to make it seem as if it is smooth sailing if you decide to be different," Ramsey said. "There will be contexts where other people won't understand you, where you may have to explain yourself more, where you may feel uncomfortable with all the eyes that are on you. But if you can develop comfort in that, it is incredibly worthwhile."

Samuel Ramsey will give the opening keynote at AIHA Connect on Monday, May 20, 2024, from 8 to 9:30 a.m. Eastern time. The opening keynote is sponsored by SGS Galson. AIHA Connect 2024 will be held May 20–22 in person at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, Columbus, Ohio, and virtually. To learn more about the keynote sessions, view the conference agenda, or register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the assistant editor at AIHA.


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