A photographer’s challenge: Communicating complex science stories

Anand Varma spoke at the 2018 Planet Forward Summit about his parasite project. He said he tried to approach something most people would shy away from and make it interesting enough that the audience will investigate and learn. (Adam Mason for Planet Forward)

Anand Varma is a science photographer and National Geographic Explorer. He studied biology as an undergrad at University of California, Berkeley, but then found that photography allowed him to explore the natural world and learn about biology in a more flexible way. More recently, his focus has been on parasites, and his talk “Beauty and the Bizarre” showcases the intricacies of parasitic interactions. I sat down and talked to him about what’s next.

Q: Many people cringe at the idea of parasitic insects. What is it about parasites that interest you so much?

A: I think what I find so interesting about parasites is the fact that they challenge my assumptions about how the natural world works. I learned about biology, I learned about all these kinds of ecological interactions; predator and prey, and how animals evolve, defenses against predation, or competition. All of that sort of fits into a framework of how I understand the world. And these parasites come along and then give examples of things that don’t really fit that framework, and all of a sudden I realized wait a minute, the level of complexity that’s possible in nature is far beyond what I thought was possible. It’s not like I thought I knew everything about nature ahead of time. But you feel confident in saying ‘yeah, I see this hawk chasing after a squirrel. That fits into what I know of how the world works.’ And then you read or hear about how these parasites are manipulating their host, and you think that makes no sense. And I found that really interesting. It’s so novel; it’s so interesting to me.

Q: How do you think photography can be used as a form of environmental communication and why might this be more effective than, say, a scientific paper?

A: Photography has this advantage because we are very much visually oriented creatures. So much of our biology is based around the fact that we have such good vision. I think our brains are already well-built to take in imagery; it’s automatically stimulating for us. So, you sort of have this built-in advantage. In that sense, I think it takes a lot less effort to grab somebody’s attention. Now, when it comes to changing somebody’s worldview, and inspiring their curiosity, and all those things, it takes more than just the image to do that. It takes a story, it takes context, and a better understanding of what your audience’s assumptions are. A photograph by itself can’t do all that, but it’s an amazing way into somebody’s attention. I didn’t really recognize that until I was having a conversation with my editor over that story, and he really defined my objective for that story. Like, you’re not going to teach everybody about every step of this process. The magazine is only going to give you one page, one photograph. And your job is to get people to stop flipping through the magazine and read the caption. And I’ve really seen that as what the role of photography is more broadly. You can’t necessarily give somebody an entire biology lesson with a single photograph. But you can get them to be at least interested to learn about it on their own, or to listen to you talk, or to read the paper or read the article. I just think it’s this window into a larger subject.

Q: In your talk “Beauty and the Bizarre,” you talk about photographing the Emerald Wasp. Could you talk a bit about their relationship with cockroaches and the possible relation to Parkinson’s disease? What exactly does the emerald wasp do?

A: The Emerald Cockroach Wasp, or the Emerald Jewel Wasp (another common name it’s known by) hunts cockroaches. But these cockroaches are larger than it, like many times. So rather than try to overpower it or kill the cockroach, it has figured out a way to immobilize its prey. It does that by leading its stinger into the back of the cockroach’s head. Its stinger has special sensors that can actually detect where in the brain its stinger is, and it finds the part of the brain that is responsible for the motivation for movement in the cockroach. It then injects a venom cocktail that disrupts the dopamine activity of that part of the brain. And that’s a general way of describing a process that’s actually more complex than I understand. I know that it involves something that disrupts the dopamine activity. What that means is this cockroach can still move, but it can no longer decide to move on its own. So the wasp removes its stinger, and then it grabs the cockroach by an antenna, and by pulling on the antenna, that stimulates the cockroach to move. But if it lets go of the antenna, the cockroach can’t run away. So it’s this way of getting around the fact that its prey is too large. But it also doesn’t want to kill the prey because it’s not going to eat it itself, it’s going to actually feed it to its babies. It’s going to bury it alive with a single egg that can feed on this living cockroach that stays fresh, because it’s not dead.

So I visited the scientist Frederic Libersat in Israel who studies the action of this venom. I went to the lab, and I photographed this. I had done some research on this biology, but I didn’t realize until after when I saw that professor give a lecture at a conference where he said “you know, we’re actually working with Parkinson’s researchers to try and develop a better treatment for this disease by studying the wasp.” And that’s because the dopamine-disrupting activity of this venom has a similar mechanism to how Parkinson’s works in humans. And what I don’t understand is how close that gap is. So on the one hand, it’s insane that our own brains and cockroaches brains share similar neurotransmitters. It kind of points to the common building blocks of all of the animal world, and the biological world more broadly. I don’t know how far along that collaboration is, or what the near-term implications are. I don’t know that they’re necessarily going to market with a new drug based on this, but I think the idea that they can think about the activity of this disease and the system from a mental perspective. It’s almost like a model system where the activity of this neurotransmitter and the chemistry of the cockroach’s brain is far simpler in terms of its effects on the cockroach’s behavior than our own super complicated brain and super complicated disease. So it’s a way to simplify a system and think about how to approach the much more complicated problem.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: For the immediate, I’m very much trying to organize my life and take a break. But I am in the beginnings of my next project on jellyfish and using that as an example for how to think about complexity in the biological world. Parasites is another example of this; it’s creatures that have something to teach us about how the world works. Everybody knows about jellyfish, but even I’m just scratching the surface of how intricate and beautiful and complicated they are. To look at this thing that just looks like a bag of goo and to understand how it sees the world and has survived longer than almost any other animal on the planet, through mass extinctions. This is a cool thing that we could probably learn something from. So that’ll be the next project for me.

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