The Sixth Sense
Alden Liang, Division 3, College sophomore #ws17e-s3d3

Do you know why we are able to write or type and read sentences such as this one? Some people would answer because we went to school. However, if you can dive deep enough in your mind, you’d realize that we are able to do the things that we like and do not like because of our sixth sense. Like most people, I have always thought there were only five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. After interning at a science and history museum in New York City this summer and being involved in an environmental research project, I discovered our sixth and broadest sense: nature.

I have always known that nature is relevant in our lives because nature is basically the physical world that we are a part of, but I never really dug into the significance of this phenomenon until this year. The main reason why nature is important to me personally is because of its emphasis on interconnectedness. We, humans, have to realize that our actions effect animals and even ourselves. For instance, when plastic gets dumped into oceans, the toxins that they absorb from outside sources and the toxins that they already have are exposed to the animals underwater. Underwater, plastic bags look very similar to jellyfishes. As a result, animals that rely on jellyfish as their food source such as sea turtles might consume them, especially if they are hungry where their perception might not be as vivid. Additionally, humans might eat fish and aquatic mammals that are contaminated which can pose serious health risks.

At Rockefeller University, I got involved in a research project called “Detection of Diverse Aquatic Vertebrates Using Environmental DNA.” Since traditional methods of detecting the presence of aquatic vertebrates, including seining and electrofishing, are relatively expensive and can be harmful to the environment, my team and I turned to environmental DNA from collected freshwater samples and amplicon-sequencing to detect species in three bodies of water in Central Park. We have optimized a technique that could help detect fish and other aquatic vertebrates without harming the environment. This technique is based on the observation that organisms in water leave a molecular imprint of DNA behind through their waste matters, urine, or skin cells to the environment. This project meant a lot to me because I got to go out in the field of nature and help reduce the problem of conservation of freshwater. According to National Geographic, scientists have cataloged less than fifteen percent of species now alive. It’s shocking and exhilarating that there are so many mysterious species inhabiting nature that we do not know about. Nature allows me and others to participate in environmental projects that can increase the percentage of species before many unknown organisms will wink out of existence due to current extinction rates.

Nature has enabled me to become an educator at public places. I am grateful that I got the opportunity to design my own tour and present it to numerous visiting camp groups at the museum. Additionally, when I was not giving a tour, I would be engaging visitors at educational touch carts in the museum halls with specimens and artifacts on the carts that connect with the displays in the halls. I feel so ecstatic when I see the visitors’ faces light up when they assimilate something new or when they touch one of the many objects on a cart such as a replica of a preserved animal’s skull. Visitors of all demographics tend to find it simplest to absorb the information they find at the carts by relating it to themselves. For instance, this could be a kid naming distinct animals from their animal book, recognizing rocks from his or her household, or contrasting an animal’s teeth with his or her own. Like many visitors, I find myself facilitating self-reflection effortlessly. It feels very natural to ask questions that stimulate ideas to the visitors rather than discussing topics in sheer isolation. Self-reflection is not just an integral mechanism for learning the content of the museum, but also a means of self-discovery. In other words, visitors enter the museum expecting to enhance their knowledge, but departure having also learning about themselves more. Nature provides the template for people to take a glimpse at themselves in the context of the vast world represented in the museum.

On the other hand, I notice that there is a great quantity of visitors that just come to the museum so that they can have the satisfaction of saying they have experienced the museum. This type of visitors is called experience seekers and since they just come to take pictures of the dioramas or just pass by the halls quickly, they barely learn anything. Informal education teaching methods such as giving a tour or showcasing the carts reduces this issue significantly and can possibly close the gap between visitors remembering what they saw at the museum versus what they learned. I observed that sometimes, when I express a lot of enthusiasm and project my voice, I catch an experience seeker’s attention and I alter that person’s perspective on learning at museums and they find themselves encountering an epiphany that museums are not places to just view things.

While working at the American Museum of Natural History, I have stumbled upon various controversial issues with some visitors. One instance is when visitors become enraged when they find out that the skin in the animal displays are real (taxidermy). Visitors feel disappointed because they think that people killed animals for museum displays. Although there is some sense of truth present in that statement, I explain to them that the animal skins that they see in the dioramas emanate from hunting done many years ago for human survival or sometimes when animals die naturally in zoos, the zookeeper would donate their animals to the museum. Even though people still hunt animals today, it less prevalent as it used to be due to the fact that there are acts that make hunting certain animals illegal. It is also illicit in the European Union and the United Kingdom to perform surgical procedures on an octopus without anesthesia. Applying anesthesia on octopuses is like utilizing anesthesia for wisdom tooth extraction for humans where the same intention is to relieve pain. It’s indispensable to recognize that animals can experience the same range of emotions as we humans can.

I think that the American Museum of Natural History does a marvelous job to show the importance of the preservation of species to the public. Despite the controversy regarding the creation of the dioramas, I think they really capture and immortalize the animals, especially those that are currently endangered or extinct. Also, seeing an animal in the flesh (skin) in its natural habitat, makes you come to an abrupt halt as you become enticed by the scenery and the eyes, the texture of the skin or fur, the claws, the teeth, etc. of numerous strong animals. Plenty of people do not realize that specific animals are currently endangered, but as a former educator in the museum, I got to spread awareness and hopefully people will stop hunting animals for their own personal desires such as turning tusks from elephants and other animals into jewelry.

According to campaigners from Nature, as of August 2nd, 2017, “we emitted more carbon than the oceans and forests can absorb in a year, we caught more fish, felled more trees, harvested more, and consumed more water than the Earth was able to produce in the same period.” It is imperative to protect oceans since the first organisms, although microscopic, appeared in the ocean. Once oxygen appeared in the atmosphere, life-forms multiplied and became more complex and diversified. We must continuously think of methods or ways to keep the evolution of life up. An example is implementing more seaweeds in bodies of water because they absorb carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that causes the warming of Earth. Unfortunately, when it comes to global issues like climate change, we are currently in a time of blind faith versus fact and sadly, faith comes with more passion than fact. However, there is evidential science present so instead of spending time debating whether science issues are real, we should acknowledge the proof and attempt to make a change before it jeopardizes our next generation’s futures. Some might argue that doesn’t science also predict our daily weather, but the weather is and has always been unpredictable while climate change is something that climatologists have been meticulously measuring for a long period of time which makes it easier to predict and monitor. Ultimately, nature is an all-inclusive canvas that we constantly paint from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep and we have the power to make our canvas exquisite or grimy.
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