ABOUT ME

Amanda Whispell.jpg

I have wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can recall. As a child I spent my days running around my backyard, trying to capture ‘specimens’ so that I could practice my identification skills and observe their behavior – I even had my own little zoo in my tree house. My interests haven’t changed much since those days but now I enjoy asking questions about those 'specimens' and finding ways to share the experience with other people.

Growing up in Maine I also had a strong connection to the ocean and I knew that I wanted to be a marine biologist from a very young age. To follow this dream I enrolled as a Marine Biology major at the University of Rhode Island in 2000. I had several amazing experiences at URI—not the least of which includes a year studying abroad at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia in 2003. I had the chance to see the rainforest, the outback, the great barrier reef (proof below!), and to make some of the best (and still closest) friends I would ever make. It was an awesome. I took an animal behaviour course while enrolled there and my professor, Dr. Richard Rowe, introduced me to this whole new field of study – including ramping up my interests in invertebrates. He would go on to teach an Invertebrate Biology course for me subsequent to this first course and that really solidified my “invertebrates are awesome” point of view. 

Cave diving in 2003  in the Whitsunday Islands, in Queensland, Australia (I'm on the left!)

After completing my study abroad at JCU I returned back to URI for my senior year. I spent my last year in Rhode Island researching Northern Diamondback Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin), and the feasibility of founding a new breeding population at the mouth of the Narrow River in Narragansett, Rhode Island as part of an independent study. I was also employed as a student technician at URI's Graduate School of Oceanography. While working as a technician I was trained to identify numerous zooplankton species, specifically copepods. I learned to identify, sex, and determine the stage of numerous copepod species – trust me, it’s harder than you think. I also had the opportunity to work on a project in conjunction with NOAA, and thus I was able to participate in a one-week specimen collection trip on George's Bank off the east coast of the US. That trip just happened to occur in January and also to coincide with some really dreadful storms. My strongest memories of that trip include the 24/7 sound of ice being smashed on the deck, the loss / failure of essentially every piece of scientific equipment we brought with us, the "double bump" as the swells would throw the boat up so high that it would come down on top of two successive crests – BUMP! BUMP! (it was best not to try to eat soup – or look at tiny things under a microscope), the springs in the bunk above mine into which my hair would tangle each time we hit those BUMPs while I was trying to sleep, and my very first experience with sea sickness. It was on this trip that I decided I would shift my focus from strict marine biology to TROPICAL marine biology and zoology.

To pursue this new (warmer) dream I returned to JCU with the intention to work with Richard Rowe on a master’s degree. The funding for the position fell through after the first year and I had to return back to the states. I did get some more time in Australia though and this time I did a bit more sight-seeing up the east coast and was able to see so many awesome critters! Although I was unable to complete the master’s degree at JCU I left more determined than ever. Back stateside I spent the next couple of years relearning things from my high school AP courses and my first couple of years as an undergraduate so that I could take the GREs (which were not needed for graduate work in Australia) and find a graduate school in the US. All that hard work paid off and eventually I was able to snag a position at Rutgers University… in the entomology department. The entomology focus came somewhat out of left field so there was a lot of catch up my first year but it was totally worth it. My friendship with Richard (who happens to have focused his own career on dragonflies) helped me to convince my PhD advisor, Dr. Mike May (a fellow dragonfly-lover) to take me on as his last graduate student. Mike had planned to—and eventually did—retire about halfway through my degree, but not before introducing me to odonates. I completed my dissertation on color changing damselflies in 2016 and have been studying them ever since. 

I also discovered a second love while I was a graduate student – teaching. I never expected to enjoy or get so much satisfaction from teaching as I do. I have had the opportunity to teach at the college level and found it challenging but also very fulfilling. I also found a love for teaching science to people who may not be so keen to learn about science. I love to find the way to show them all of the things I love about it. I have had some really exceptional students and their feedback about how my courses changed their mind or perceptions about biology gives me a lot of pride. I’m still looking for my next chapter but, for now at least, I have my art, online education content, and my own research to keep me busy until I find the right fit.

Beyond studying biology – I also love travelling (guess this one is on hold), camping, hiking, diving, birding, rock-flippin’ (this is where you flip rocks underwater to see all the cool critters living beneath them), painting/drawing, vegetarian cooking/baking, and macrophotography. I have started making short YouTube videos on the critters I find and all the cool things they do. I do biological illustrations, mostly invertebrates, however I am willing to work on other projects if given the opportunity. You can see some of my work under Galleries or CoBioArt

 

Please free to contact me if you would like to hire me for illustration purposes or if you want to know a little bit more about biology!

The #bestVigothecat, our cat, loves damselflies and science too, and he's always available to help when I need some assistance with my research... especially when it involves keeping an eye (or a tooth or two if I'm not paying attention) on living critters.  

WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO ME

Public STEM Education / Outreach: 
A lack of public understanding of—and trust in—STEM topics is having a significant, negative impact on society in America. From antivaxxers latching on to a since debunked claim that vaccines cause Autism, to climate change and COVID19 deniers — the all-to-common belief that an expert should never be trusted because they must have an agenda is both concerning and dangerous. As scientists, we have been thrust into the role of teacher, and it is probably one of the most important "classes" we have to 

teach. We must find ways to have a healthy exchange of information in a way that does not make others feel talked down to and that helps to rebuild trust in the expert opinion. I work to translate science in digestible pieces of information through art, lecture, and activities and am available for outreach opportunities.

Invertebrate Conservation:
I am extremely passionate about conservation and especially concerned with invertebrate conservation. Invertebrates make up 97% of all organisms on the planet but (save for some pollinator species) they are often overlooked in conservation efforts. There are plenty of non-pollinator invertebrates that are ecologically crucial — playing roles in food webs and overall biodiversity. I specialize in freshwater macroinvertebrate sampling and water quality assessment, in teaching others to identity bio-important species, and in outreach talks to help others to appreciate invertebrates. I have found knowledge to be the most powerful tool to calm the anxieties that many people experience when they encounter "creepy crawlies." I'm open to any public outreach that helps advocate for our less-/non-bony cohabitators. 


Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion:
Insects are the most biodiverse group of organisms on the planet, yet you only need to walk through an entomology department at any university to see that the diversity is not mirrored in the faculty. STEM fields are still dominated by white males, while women, BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQAI+ individuals are consistently underrepresented. We’ve known about this disparity for years but very little true action has been taken to correct it and these groups will continue to remain underrepresented unless we make resolute efforts to improve inclusivity, diversity, and equity in all STEM fields. No matter my future employment, I intend to be proactive in developing and/or participating in initiatives and programs to increase diversity in STEM fields