People give me gifts with insect motifs. Just because I once worked with insects doesn’t mean I identify with them. Never mind that I wrote a novel in which the main character, somewhat reminiscent of myself, is a mayfly.
As a graduate student I studied mayflies and other stream-dwelling insects. After I earned my Master’s degree I went to work as a research assistant in moth systematics. Systematics is the study of how groups of organisms are related. In practice we searched for similarities and differences among species of a few genera of moths in order to reconstruct their lineage.
I knew little of moths when I started my employment, but they became the conduit for important life experiences. My first project in the lab was one for which I had to kill just-hatched caterpillars from several female moths to determine which caterpillars were genetically identical—that is, produced asexually. This work demanded that I face a complicated moral issue: did individuals of a clone share one soul or did each have her own soul? How many deaths would be counted against me?
Another task early in my apprenticeship was to remove and clean the legs of dried moth specimens. The procedure involved removing the soft tissue from inside the leg and then brushing—with a fine, camel hair brush—the scales from the outside of the leg. We then compared the legs of different species. Hour upon hour of looking at moth legs paid off. I discovered a certain turn in the tarsal claw that was key to distinguishing between two closely related groups of moths. What the power of observation will do! I became a coauthor.
Moths became emblazoned upon my psyche. I dreamt of moth legs stuck between my teeth. In dreams I worked through the night, struggling to see the relationships among species and genera, straining to find the character that would make all the pieces fit in a crystal-clear “family” tree. I was searching for the truth that hid in the data, apparent yet obscured—until one could find the right question.
When I wondered what I was doing with my life I would reflect that Vladmir Nabakov also dallied with the Lepidoptera.
But I was not a genuine lepidopterist, taken by the turn of a velvet wing. I just worked with moths. As I graduated from legs to wings to genitalia, I became a skilled technician to an esoteric pursuit. My eyes and hands focused on chitinous structures that held keys of identity and affinity. My struggle was to maintain my peripheral vision.
The technician often is an invisible being in the hierarchy of academia and like institutions. At one party a tact-deficient, big-egoed graduate student introduced me with the sole appellation of her advisor’s technician. She then went on to wish for the day she had her own.
In the academic hierarchy everyone is given a place, and that place qualifies the strength of one’s voice. Amidst those who have achieved an often hard-won professional status and graduate students aspiring for the same, someone who is not on a like path must somehow be incapable of the rigors. This sentiment is not universal, nor is the contribution of a good technician always overlooked, but the general sentiment can be quite oppressive to the technician’s ego. As time went on, I learned little more about moths but had the lesson about my place repeated too often. Fortunately, the investigators lost their grant, and I lost my job.
The fine features of a moth can amaze anyone who has the interest to take a close look. I miss brushing away scales to reveal the structure beneath. In academia I looked for affinities while exploring my identity. I wanted to find the character that would make all the pieces fit.