Biomimicry 101: Nature and the College Freshman

May 25, 2020

By Isabelle Seckler

view of low library on columbia campus as night falls

Photo: Isabelle Seckler

Like most college freshmen, I started off my first year bright-eyed, excited (ok, a bit nervous, too), and ready for independence. Eight months later, like all college students, I’m back in my hometown under shelter-in-place orders. My first year at Columbia University has drawn to a bittersweet end, and with it plenty of time to reflect about how I’ve changed. I certainly didn’t expect that a simple passion project on biomimicry, a topic I first stumbled across on YouTube while procrastinating on AP Bio homework, could evolve into a vital framework for me to better understand myself, my community, and how to create a better future.

Moving to New York City, I was prepared for towering skyscrapers to replace the palm trees I had grown up under in South Florida. After spending my summer working with turtles, eels, fish, and stingrays at my local nature center, I felt comfortable explaining the mangrove ecosystem and climate impacts on coral reefs to crowds of people. Yet, as I first stepped through the gates on 116th, I hoped that I wouldn’t feel like a fish out of water in a concrete jungle.

Now, I’m thankful that I can look back on amazing memories made with new friends who quickly became like family, the chances I had to explore the city, and the opportunities to explore subjects that I’m passionate about. Despite many initial denials on the phone to my mom, I realized that I was going through an “adjustment period.” That is to say, I realized I was learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable: taking the uncertainties and newness I was experiencing as a way to learn more about what works and what doesn’t. I now call this my first, albeit unintentional, lesson in Biomimicry 101: a reminder to adopt a bird’s eye view at a challenge, no matter how small, to better see the whys and hows of the problem in context of understanding how to address it. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable in effect, is a vigilant approach to adaptation.

I already knew my academic experience would have to be a feat of balance and adaptation, best summed up in my college application as being “a student who loves Montesquieu and mock trials as much as bioluminescence and barrier reefs.” The challenge of finding my own path as a pre-med student continues as I try to navigate the intersection of human health and the often competing challenges of social and ecological wellbeing. Thankfully, at Columbia, I have an opportunity to translate this variety of interests into a synergy for potential change. With a liberal arts education, the idea is to promote a capacity for critical thinking about the world’s issues, preparing students like me to meet the challenges of our increasingly complex society.

On this ‘holistic’ foundation lie the many departments, ranging from the lab rats in Chemistry to the musers of French and Roman Philology and the future sharks in Business. Special interest clubs, organizations, arts, and athletics offer communities for each and every niche possible. Columbia, like most institutions, has a distinct campus culture created by this diversity of life, intellect, and interests. I found myself in the middle of an ecosystem in balance.

Granted, seeing my campus as an ecosystem might have been a result of spending the previous three years educating people about coastal marine ecology. But ask any college student and they’ll understand a thing or two about finding balance between school, sleep, and a social life. None of us exists in isolation. Recognizing the interconnectedness and overlaps of our hectic lives strengthens them for the better. As I’ve engaged more with biomimicry, I realize just how closely the systems of life as a college student mirror those found in nature. After all, it makes sense — people are part of nature too, no matter how “man-made” our systems become.

It has taken me time to realize that the common denominator of my seemingly opposed interests in political science, biology, and economics is a drive for balance. This balance, known as sustainable development, is the triple bottom-line of balancing the relationship between the planet, people, and profits. Our shared past, present, and future depend on the ecosystem services of the natural world more than you realize. Just look at how much the environment has changed since the global economy got quarantined: we have clearly neglected the proper value of nature and used its resources in inefficient and destructive ways. You can see our existing systems of excessive consumption and production precariously perched atop a crumbling foundation of ecological and social exploitation.

It’s evident that we need a new perspective, beyond the commitment to a new Climate School. If only more people remained as curious about nature as they were as children, they would realize that the key to this balance is in nature’s blueprint of life.

isabelle seckler stands near tree and river

Photo: Isabelle Seckler

Nature’s genius might be the best professor we have

In the fall, a Core Curriculum UWriting assignment inspired me to revisit my interest in biomimicry. I spent hours lost in Janine Benyus’ groundbreaking book of that very title. Page after page I was let in on a million little secrets of how the natural world can help improve every aspect of our society. Biomimicry essentially means drawing design inspiration from the successful biochemical, physical, and cooperative characteristics of life. In medicine, agriculture, energy, data, and industry, nature’s wisdom reveals the guided path to a more efficient and sustainable future.

Yet, I could barely find spaces on campus where biomimicry wasn’t a term that I got blank stares at for bringing up. In losing our connection to nature, among losing an appreciation for its ingenuity in evolutionary design, we are missing countless opportunities to incorporate an interdisciplinary mindset into the frameworks of learning.

Interdisciplinary by nature, the process of bio-inspired change relies on a diverse community of contributors and collaborators. The engineers need to have a conversation with the biologists. Don’t forget the political scientists or the business fanatics, let alone the marine biologists. Today’s students should work across schools, departments, and interests to prepare ourselves to meet tomorrow’s challenges. Imagine how generative a new project for better air quality in Harlem could be if somebody just taught an urban studies researcher about fish gills and filtration. At the heart of my college experience are the people I meet, learn from, and grow with. Over the past few months, I journeyed across Columbia’s wider community on a mission to find this dynamic exchange. I ventured out to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Open House, took a cab up to Mailman to speak with a leading professor in epidemiology, walked through Central Park on a geology tour, and now follow along with the virtual webinars from the Earth Institute.

Sure, biomimicry can transform success rates for heart surgery, help engineers revitalize renewable energy, or start to reverse the impacts of environmental neglect. But that’s for the professionals, the entrepreneurial trailblazers who have embraced nature’s genius after careers as specialized experts, not for the first-years trying to understand existentialism in LitHum. Or so I thought. For the next generation of professionals and workers, the students across the world demanding urgent climate action and taking leaps for environmental justice, our educational institutions need to reconnect with nature and take better note of her lesson of community ecology.

Biomimicry is essentially an approach to problem-solving that emphasizes a theory of collaborative change. It considers the patterns, through lines, and trends of life with a childlike curiosity, and a unique scientific framework, to understand them. Having the expertise to solve a very specific problem — take developing a vaccine, for example — falls short of properly solving the issue by not accounting for the socio-economic and political logistics of people actually getting vaccinated. We need the holistic perspective of system thinking to meet the complex challenges of an increasingly complex world. If the climate crisis hasn’t set off enough warning alarms already, the current pandemic is a deafening roar in our ears. A more resilient future is possible and yes, even probable. It’s time to evolve.

Thinking like a biomimic has shown me how a broadened perspective radically increases the possibilities of action. While it’s often shunned to be a jack of all trades but a master of none, the ability to communicate across the trades even as a master of one is what biomimicry is all about. The most likely species in nature to survive a shock (an abrupt change to their environment) are known as generalists. Able to survive in a wider range of conditions, generalists are more resilient than niche specialists.

A key lesson in biomimicry is that life adapts to survive not despite adversity, but because of it. An individual does not adapt alone, but in the context of a specific community in a specific environment. Last month in a Zoom seminar, I couldn’t help but laugh after a classmate called me out privately over Snapchat when he saw me drop my piece of gum — despite being ten thousand miles away. While virtual classes often seem awkward and disconnected, this small interaction felt like something that would’ve happened in actual in-person class and struck me as the new normal of online schooling. Life finds a steady state within even the most chaotic natural ecosystem. For the ecosystem of humanity, we could learn a thing or two from nature about finding that balance as a new normal.

Biomimicry is so much more than restructuring our built environment to echo the efficient designs of nature. It is a powerful reestablishment of the intrinsic link between ourselves and the systems of living around us. Biomimicry has changed my outlook on what it means to be a student, a friend, and a productive member in a community. I encourage everyone to reconnect with nature, to use this time to see the bigger picture and how you fit into our human ecology. At a time of uncertainty, biomimicry has taught me to get comfortable being uncomfortable — that is to say, reminding me that adapting is just a part of life. We are living in an unprecedented time of fear, anxiety, and disruption, but also one of unity, creativity, and most importantly resilience.

Reconnecting with nature is simply recognizing the fundamental ways we fit into the natural world, and how life always finds comfort, safety, and community amidst constantly changing conditions. Diving deep into biomimicry these past few months has shown me that sometimes all it takes to make things better is simply a shift in perspective.

At the end of my first year, I can’t help but think about Dean Valentini’s comments on the Beginner’s Mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Beginner’s Mind warns us that the “expertness” that derives from our own experiences and those of others can limit our perceptions, our judgments, our understandings and our imaginations.” Biomimicry is the ultimate beginner’s mind.

Looking forward, how can we adapt to a better sense of what’s “normal” for ourselves, for the planet, for the future? Hopefully, I’ll walk back through the famous gates on 116th and Broadway alongside my friends sometime soon. Everyone will change in some way before then, each in a unique way, but certainly together. It’s simply in our nature.

Isabelle Seckler is studying sustainable development at Columbia College.

This story was adapted from two posts originally published by the Biomimicry Institute.

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