Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Craft Knowledge and Marine Professionals

The New York Times posted an article by William Broad detailing the scientific career of Richard Ellis, a pioneer of marine science and museum display. Go here to read this amazing "profile in science"; a story that may be surprising to some but is familiar to historians of aquariology.

In short, Richard Ellis took a degree in American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, but couldn't decide on a career. He was drawn to the ocean and ended up working for the Philadelphia Zoo and the Academy of Natural Sciences.  In 1969, he was offered the job of designing a whale exhibit for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He built a replica of a blue whale that was suspended from the ceiling.

After that success, Ellis' career snowballed- he started painting pictures of sharks and was called by a little known author, Peter Benchley, who bought one and invited him to a party.  Benchley's publisher met Ellis and this led to his first book. Ellis has now become a revered professional in the marine science community; he's worked with many professional biologists to highlight the unseen underwater world of sharks and other marine creatures.

What is exciting about this "profile in science" is that it highlights a professional scientist that does not have an academic training, but instead rose to the height of his profession through craft knowledge and experience. While this is uncommon in many sciences, it is not as uncommon in the marine sciences as one might think.  David C. Powell is one of the foremost aquarists, responsible for some of the most forward thinking and game changing aquarium exhibits.  Powell's resume reads like a list of memories and associations from the world's greatest aquariums.

Neither Powell nor Ellis have PhDs in marine sciences.  Instead, they parlayed interest in the marine environment into a hands-on education with the oceans inhabitants. Their gift, and the foundation of their careers, has been to be particularly proficient at translating their knowledge into visual representations and models that make this universe visible to the general public.

Marine science has many professional stories that mirror Ellis', and I hope that this blog can highlight the multifaceted careers and professionals that work with marine organisms and the aquatic environment.

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