MacGyver Moments in Ecology

In some scientific fields there are standard techniques and equipment that all researchers use.  For biologists who work on laboratory species like fruit flies or lab mice, there are lots of tools that every researcher learns to use during their training.  However, in Ecology, researchers often work on a species that has only been studied by a few scientists, or hasn’t been studied at all.  Ecologists have to try lots of different things to get their species to survive in the laboratory.   Researchers who study unusual or rare species often have to make their own food and cages for their animals.  For example Jessica and Heidi made their butterfly cages from some tubes and screen that they bought at the hardware store.  In the lab where I worked as an undergraduate, my advisor used to raise tadpoles for his experiments in children’s wading pools.

Sometime having to use household items to do research reminds me of the TV show MacGyver.  For those who haven’t seen the show for a few years, MacGyver was a freelance secret agent who solved crimes with science.  Since he believed that guns were unethical, he had to use whatever object he had handy to fight criminals (the first few seconds of the video below should give you an idea).  

The other day I had a “MacGyver Moment” as I was trying to set up my research project here in Japan.  Normally I grow my own plants for my butterflies to lay eggs on, but I couldn’t do that this year because I only arrived in Kyoto three days ago.  My Japanese labmate planted some cabbages for my experiment, but they were too small to use.    Another student drove to his mom’s house and borrowed some cabbages from her garden.  It was incredibly kind of him, but the cabbages didn’t survive the trip back to the lab.

I wasn’t sure what to do, and I needed the plants to start the experiment, so I looked up a home and garden shop in downtown Kyoto, hoping that they might have some cabbage seedlings for sale in their garden section.  Since I don’t speak Japanese, I couldn’t just call and ask them if they had cabbages.  I decided to jump on the subway near my university and tried to get downtown before the shop closed.  Unfortunately the subway ticket machine was in Japanese, so it took me a long time to figure out how to buy a rail pass.  Luckily, most of the stops were labeled in English so navigating once I was inside a bit easier.

However, once I got off the subway, the streets weren’t labeled in English, so I tried to navigate by landmarks.  I knew that I needed to go left at a large temple and right at a high school.  However, Kyoto has a lot of temples and high schools, so I ended up pretty lost on the back streets of Kyoto.   

I eventually did find the Home and Garden shop after about an hour of walking, and bought some small cabbage plants.  However, taking them on the subway was a bit of a challenge.  Luckily, I made it back to the train before rush hour, because the subway cars are incredibly crowded around 7 pm when work gets out, and I was afraid someone would crush my plants.

My laboratory is still about a mile from the subway station, but luckily I have a bike with an enormous basket. Kyoto is an incredibly bike friendly city.   The train system here is cheap and efficient,  secondhand bikes are about $50.00, and every street has a bike lane.  Most bikes here are built to haul everything a person would need in their daily life.  My little bike has just one basket, but it’s common to see moms with two children in saftey seats on the front and back of the bike and a basket of groceries on the back of the bike as well.  My Japanese labmates even use their bikes to go out collecting insects in the mountains outside the city.

After all that work, I was really happy to get my plants into the lab.  It was a pretty crazy and stressful day, but I think that if he was real, MacGyver would be proud!


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