By Vincent Gabrielle
BU News Service
Dr. Karen Warkentin is a dual appointed Professor of Biology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGS) at Boston University. A pioneer in herpetology, her work established that red-eyed treefrogs are capable of hatching in response to changes in their environment. She also simulates snake attacks on eggs in the lab. Her work in the WGS program integrates the often messy world of biology with the complexities of gender and sexuality. Dr. Warkentin self-identifies as queer and recently co-hosted a workshop on diversity in science Nov. 17 for the Boston University Biology Grad Student Association. This Q&A is composed of multiple interviews and has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to biology? What attracted you to working on frogs?
My family moved every four years. My father worked with the Canadian International Development Agency and I lived in Kenya as a kid. I’m sure my Kenyan childhood is why I’m a tropical biologist.
Kenya was an amazing place to be a kid. We lived in the hills outside of Nairobi. That’s where “Out of Africa” was filmed. We’d be driving in and out of the city. We’d see giraffes, zebra and gazelle every day by the side of the road. One day, I woke up and there were leopard tracks outside my window. My parents would keep us quiet on car trips by saying, “The first kid to spot an elephant gets a chocolate!”
I have some memories of Canada from before we went to Kenya, but I became a conscious entity in Kenya. Coming back to Canada was a big transition.
Was the transition hard?
Transitioning back was hard for many reasons, part of it cultural. I grew up as an expat. With that international experience, I never had the idea that there was just one normal way to do things. I always had this idea that there are all these different people in the world and they’re all interesting and good. In some way I think my international childhood made it easier to come out.
Experiencing different cultures as a kid is like coming out in some ways. You’re going to a new place where you don’t know what it’s going to be like. Being poised at a transition between worlds and negotiating that kind of liminal space is familiar from living a queer life and also from moving around with my family.
I work on terrestrial embryos that develop in the trees and fall into the water when they hatch. The tadpoles grow up and climb out of the water and back into the trees again. They have two really big transition points in their life. You could say they’re leaving a familiar world and then diving into something totally different or climbing into something totally different. That’s something I could definitely relate to.
Is that why you chose to look at the way frogs develop and change in the egg?
Actually snakes were my first love, but I ended up working on tadpoles for a masters. My very first semester as a Ph.D. student, I went to Costa Rica looking for a frog to study. I was monitoring egg clutches and I saw a lot of predation by snakes. Then I had the experience of bumping into a clutch of eggs accidentally and some tadpoles hatched. I wondered, “If they can hatch that fast when I bump into them, what when a snake bumps them?”
At the time I wasn’t thinking of that work as informed by personal experience but looking back it seems obvious that it would be informed by my own experience of transition points. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person too have seen this. I mean other people certainly have but…
They just hadn’t thought to investigate why the frogs might “jump” out of their eggs when touched.
Paying a little bit more attention to something than someone else or thinking a little bit more about it? It can change the trajectory of a career. I’m used to bringing disciplinary expertise from different areas together in my teaching. It has obvious benefits, right? But that’s also true of just life experience or personal perspectives.
If you have different kinds of people asking different kinds of questions, then we’re going get a better understanding of the world. There’s social science research that supports that. It’s not just my intuition.
Boston University has changed a lot since you first got here. What was the climate like for LGBTQ people and women?
When I got here in 2001, I was the only woman in the Ecology, Behavior and Evolution Group and there were no out queer people that I knew in the Biology Department. The Gay-Straight Alliance was banned from the BU Academy (a BU-run high school) soon after I arrived. Individually, faculty may not have cared, but it was like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They recommended I take sexuality research off my CV when I came up for tenure. It was emotionally draining, negotiating and wondering about the unsaid things.
Students and faculty fought to improve things for LGBTQ people on campus. When we changed presidents, LGBTQ nondiscrimination was added quietly to campus policy. It’s a lot more open now and better. But in some ways we’re still living with that earlier legacy.
You talk a lot about phenotypic plasticity in your work. What is that? How does it relate to your work with the WGS Program?
A simple way to think about phenotypic plasticity is environmental effects on development. Another way to think about it is the capacity for genetically similar or identical organisms to be different in different environments. It can be behavioral or anatomical or physiological; any trait above the level of DNA is part of the phenotype. Not all DNA is expressed. There’s lots of hidden capacity in organisms.
WGS programs across the country are inherently interdisciplinary, but the stretch of that interdisciplinarity is usually from social sciences to humanities. It’s rare that natural sciences are included. There’s a long history of biology being used against feminists and queer folk. They may see biology as something you’re just stuck with, that limits possibilities for social change, but this is not my understanding of biology. Biology is full of possibility and variation. There’s a lot of variation and fluidity based on environmental context in human sexual behavior. For example, the largest number of people having same-sex interactions are straight, even in cultures where it’s OK to not to be straight. There’s more variation than fits our conventional understanding. Identity is a complicated thing.