Furry puppies and fluffy bunnies have no shortage of fans, and the internet seems to be powered entirely by cute cat GIFs. But who will speak up for the snakes and spiders?
Christie Wilcox, that’s who.
Wilcox, a biologist, writer and social media maven, published her first book Monday after years of blogging about science for Scientific American and Discover magazines. “Venomous,” weighing in at 256 pages, makes a case for embracing many of the creatures we fear the most.
“My main hope is that the book will help fight against the bad rep some of these animals have,” Wilcox said. “When I read a story about a snake or a spider, and then I foolishly read the comments, so often I see things like, ‘The only good snake is a dead snake,’ or, ‘Eww, can’t we kill them all?’”
She points out that many of these ostensibly dangerous species often carry important pieces of the puzzle when it comes to understanding life on Earth, and especially human adaptation and immunity.
Wilcox put it this way: “I wish I could grab those people by the shoulders and say, ‘If you only knew how amazing they really are!’”
Instead of accosting internet commenters, which would be difficult and an inefficient means of spreading knowledge, Wilcox instead wrote her book, which she describes as “an ode to these animals and how important they are.”
Her passion for science, and science literacy, took root early in her life.
“I moved around a lot as a kid,” Wilcox said. “I was born in Boston, lived in Hawaii for some time, lived in Vermont, and went to high school in Massachusetts, so I experienced a lot of different schools.”
A lot of her schooling focused on science and nature.
“I was out counting trees in the backwoods of Vermont in middle school, and combing tide pools for critters as a young girl,” she recalled.
“Venomous” spans the globe in its exploration of venomous animals, from caterpillars to octopuses, and explores the chemistry and effect of venoms — including their potential to revolutionize medicine.
She recently earned her Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Hawaii Manoa and is now a researcher there, but her career path wasn’t a foregone conclusion in her youth.
“I was a theater nerd, singer/songwriter, a history geek and a poetry buff,” she said. “It wasn’t obvious that high school-me was going to be a scientist.”
Her high school physics teacher, Brian Potter-Racine, was the most influential person in her early science life.
“It became a point of pride that I was one of the very few students to take AP physics,” she said. “I think that’s when I really embraced the nerd in me.”
Wilcox, whose Twitter username is @NerdyChristie, enrolled at Eckerd College planning to major in physics and marine science, but later switching her focus to marine science and swapping physics for chemistry. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she came to UH to pursue her doctorate.
Parallel to her evolution as a scientist was her growth as a storyteller.
“I like to talk — you can ask my parents — I’ve always been very … outgoing,” she said. “Doubly so when I’m excited about something.”
As she was preparing to enter grad school, a friend encouraged her to start a blog.
“I liked writing and science, and it would give me the ability to share my passion with others,” she said. “It’s been eight years since then, and I’m still blogging.”
Wilcox’s online writing — beginning with “Observations of a Nerd” in 2008 through her current outlet under Discover magazine titled “Science Sushi” — built a strong following, and has been featured by other outlets, including The New York Times and Slate.
Meanwhile, she embraced social media as a promising channel for science advocacy, something she has written and spoken about, leading workshops for the National Institutes of Health and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
While some researchers might declare such outreach to be beyond their job description, Wilcox said it is important for scientists to share the work that they do.
“I think it’s absolutely essential,” she said. “The whole point of scientific inquiry is to build upon the foundation of knowledge. How can your work do that if no one hears about it?”
As a writer, Wilcox had always thought about a book project, but she knew that it would be a very different undertaking than a blog. One of her readers was a literary agent, and he reached out to see if there was a way to put Wilcox’s name on a tangible, thicker tome.
“I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously, but he did,” she said. “The more we talked about the idea, the more excited I got.”
The agent, Eric Nelson, worked with Wilcox to develop the proposal for “Venomous,” which is based on her scientific work with venomous animals. And her regular blog posts positioned her well as far as stringing sentences together was concerned.
“As a blogger, post frequency is important for maintaining your audience, so when it came time to write the book, it wasn’t as hard to sit down and write all the time,” she said. “What was hard, though, was the length — my blog posts are rarely over 3,000 words, so writing 8,000-word chapters was daunting.”
While her blog helped her write the book, the book also brought new energy to blogging.
“Since writing the book, I’ve continued exploring longer articles on my blog,” she said. I really like the room it gives you to unveil a story slowly.”
She points to her recent recounting of a personal expedition to find the mythical “Hawaiian orgasm mushroom,” which could allegedly trigger a physiological response with a simple sniff.
“I wanted the actual piece to be about more than whether sniffing it did the trick or not,” she said. “I wanted to bring the reader along with me as I unpacked the mystery and chased down leads.”
Wilcox is proud of “Venomous,” as it furthers her mission to ensure that knowledge trumps fear — especially when it comes to public policy. She mentioned the recent plan to establish an endangered rattlesnake colony on an uninhabited island in Massachusetts.
Though based in sound science and in the works for years, public opposition prompted the state to pull back.
“I would like to think that if those residents had read “Venomous” first, they might have had more appreciation for the animals the state was trying to conserve,” she said.
“Venomous” spans the globe in its exploration of venomous animals, from caterpillars to octopuses, and explores the chemistry and effect of venoms. Wilcox writes about her own research and profiles scientists who dedicate their lives to “lethal beasts.”
Though used in nature as defensive compounds, engineered to stop an attacker in its tracks, venoms have many promising properties of interest to biologists, chemists, and medical researchers. Their ability to target specific molecules and cells is useful in medicine, for example, and venoms have played a key part in the development of new medicines for heart disease and diabetes.
Scientists see potential applications in everything from pain relief to cancer treatment.
“I never realized how often medical advice is given without evidence to really back it up,” she said. “Sometimes even from doctors.”
And after that?
“I would love to write another book — I already have a few ideas waiting to be fleshed out.”