A Lifetime of Natural History with Gonzalo Giribet, incoming Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology

Gonzalo Giribet, Jennifer Berglund

Jennifer Berglund  00:04
Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with Gonzalo Giribet, a professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, and curator of invertebrate zoology, and the new director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Unlike the majority of people in the world, Gonzalo always knew he wanted to be a biologist. In fact, he doesn't remember a time in his life when he was interested in doing anything else. I wanted to ask him what it was like to follow such a direct path into science, and the life experiences that shaped how he views his work, the MCZ collections, and his philosophy for teaching budding scientists. Here he is! Gonzalo Giribet, welcome to the show!

Gonzalo Giribet  01:27
Thanks for having me!

Jennifer Berglund  01:33
You grew up in Spain, where you happen to be at this very moment on the coast just south of Barcelona. And from a very young age, you were fascinated by shells. What was it about them that you found particularly enthralling, and what inspired you to start collecting them and other animal specimens.

Gonzalo Giribet  01:55
I grew up at the beach, I was at that beach just a few minutes ago. And I just, you know, as a kid, I loved spending countless hours just walking along the beach, beach combing, looking for shells. Shells and everything else, but mostly shells. And I was just fascinated by their beauty. So the beginning it was just about finding different colors, different shapes. And obviously, later on, you know, I wanted to know more about the shells, I always wanted to put a name, the scientific name, the Latin name to the shells. And then as every collector does, I just wanted to find more, new ones, that I didn't have in my collection. And then with time, I became much more interested in other aspects like their classification, or evolution. I was also trying to use the shells, you know, my goal was to use the shells later on to study evolutionary biology. I always wanted to become a biologist. So that's one of the things that I had in mind, that one day I will be a professional biologist, using shells to work on these things. I'm not totally sure what really inspired me. I don't have a memory of wanting to do anything else than just working with the animals, and go out and collect them and then use them for my work. 

Jennifer Berglund  03:14
I think that's just, that's so amazing. And particularly because your family, your parents, don't have a background in biology. Your father's an engineer and mother's a lawyer? Is that correct? 

Gonzalo Giribet  03:25
Yeah. Yep, it was totally me. There was a little bit of inspiration from a neighbor that was a couple years older than me, and he had a very nice shell collection. But since much earlier than that, I was always interested in going out and collecting everything that I could find and bring it home and try to figure out what it was. So yeah, that was me. No, there was no one in my family really that was a scientist other than my grandfather was a medical doctor. But no one really had any interest in the type of biology that I did, and especially not in zoology.

Jennifer Berglund  04:05
And you must have had very tolerant parents as well collecting all of those dead animals bringing them back to your room. Did you ever get any complaints?

Gonzalo Giribet  04:14
Yeah, exactly. I did. I think that they were very tolerant with that. They never encouraged or discouraged. It's not that they will buy me more books to grow into that, they just let me do it, right? And, you know, if I ask for a book, you know, for my birthday, or for Christmas, I will get it. But it's not something that they were also trying to feed. It was mostly me bringing weird things at home. Always smells in my room. So yeah, there was quite a lot of tolerance in that respect.

Jennifer Berglund  04:45
What did your siblings think about that?

Gonzalo Giribet  04:49
I had an older brother that, you know, when we were very young, we still shared a room and then two younger sisters, my older brother, you know, we had very different interests. So in retrospect, you know, he just again, let me do that. I brought really stinky things into the room, and he never complained about it. And my younger sisters, one of them kind of followed me for a little bit. And for a few years, she also started having her own shell collection. But then she went to something else. 

Jennifer Berglund  05:22
What did she ultimately go into?

Gonzalo Giribet  05:24
She did history. She's a historian. And she's also involved in museums, but actually not natural history museums. Although, you know, because she's in charge of some of the museums from the city where we grew up. One of them is one of the museums that inspired me as a kid. And she's actually kind of inherited that collection for the city and really put it together now in a new museum of the sea, that she's kind of designed and she oversees a lot of the exhibits that go on there.

Jennifer Berglund  06:01
So this museum that she's overseeing now was created by a man in your town that, when you were a kid, he, you know, sort of had his own personal collection on display. And, his collection was comprised of materials entirely from the sea, just anything relevant to the sea. So tell me about that, and what it taught you about collecting objects of natural history at that young age.

Gonzalo Giribet  06:28
This was an old man, that he had been around the world. And then he basically started collecting anything related to the see whether it had been brought by him or other people will give him artifacts, and these are parts of ships or shipwrecks or maps, postcards. And then there was this part of the collection that I really love with what? Shells. Shells from all over the world or fishes and, you know, things that came from their remote places. So those really fascinated me. And so, you know, whenever I had a chance, I you know, it wasn't far from my home. And I could just sneak in there and check out the things that he had. And if the place was very famous, you know, for all these sea artifacts, but really because he trained this koi fish to eat from a spoon, and then drink a soup he made like kind of kind of a broth from a porron. A porron is a Spanish recipient made of glass to drink wine. So he will just call this koi fish, will come there, will give it something to drink, and then something to eat. And people were fascinated by that, you know, and the fish was-

Jennifer Berglund  07:41
So how did he call Juanita?

Gonzalo Giribet  07:44
I think just recognize him, when he approached the pond, she will come and then just stick her mouth out of the water and wait to be fed, right. And it was amazing. And he took years and years to train it. Recently, actually, I was talking to his daughter, when there was this transfer of a lot of the artifacts to my, to the museum that my sister is running. And we asked her, you know, but was there only one, or was there many? She couldn't give us a real answer. You know, there's some myths about how long it took to train it whether it was multiple or just one. So I don't really know the answer. But yeah,  this fish gave name the name to the museum. Actually, the museum was called La Carpa Juanita, which means the koi fish Juanita, was the name. And, you know, it was a museum of, you know, sea curiosities or anything related to the sea. Which the koi fish is not, you know, it's a freshwater fish, but, you know, training a sea fish would be much harder.

Jennifer Berglund  08:53
I want to fast forward a little bit and talk about how you got started in natural history museums. How did that all begin? And what about them really drew you in?

Gonzalo Giribet  09:03
Yeah, as a kid, I visited the Natural History Museum in Barcelona, but that is not a very big museum, but I loved it. And then at the age of 15, I went to England for three weeks to learn English. And the last day of that trip, we were in southern England in Bournemouth, and the last day of the trip, or the last two days, we were in London. And they basically told us "go wherever you want." We were 15 I don't know that we'll do that today. But I took the subway, I went to the Natural History Museum, I waited at the door until they opened and I spent the whole day at the museum until somebody told me it was time to leave, they were closed. So it just, you know, that was one of the happiest days of my life. You know, being able to spend an entire day in one of the greatest museums in the world. And then during grad school, did my grad school in Barcelona at the University of Barcelona, and I had a chance to work for three months at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. And again, I just loved it. And before returning to Spain, they told me that if I wanted to go back there for a postdoc, I would be very welcome. So I ended up going there for postdoc and spent a little bit over two years working at the Natural History Museum there. And then after that, I moved to the MCZ. So basically, just again, at all the places that I've worked in the recent times are natural history museums, and that's one of the things that I really like to visit. And then today, I'm involved in many other museums, and I have honorary positions or research associate positions in four other natural history museums, which is really nice. Including the London one, which was my, you know, my youth dream at the American Museum of Natural History where I've spent quite a lot of time and I have really good colleagues. So yeah, I'm a museum man.

Jennifer Berglund  11:09
Field work has always been a major component of your work and your teaching. How did all that begin? And what added value do you think it provides to a student's educational experience?

Gonzalo Giribet  11:24
It all started as a kid, you know, I was always out in the field, whatever the field was available to me, right, whether it was running down to a river nearby or going to the beach. So whenever I had a chance, often, again, alone. I was like, six, eight, whatever, I will run to places. And sometimes I will take my cousin with me or some friend. Even today, they keep reminding me "Dad, remember when you used to take me to get snails when we were like eight years old", and things like that. So everyone remembers that, you know. And that's actually a very important thing, because we never forget the field. That was always something that I loved doing. And so it was a part of me. Then, when I was at university at the University of Barcelona, I did also my undergrad there, we had a lot of field work for classes, you know, many of our classes for different zoologies that we took and botany and geology. So a lot of these classes we had some times even a week, or 10 days in the field. So we had a lot of these trips. And they were very important for us to really master what we're learning in terms of the diversity of the organisms and things like that. So because it was so important for me, for my educational experience, I also wanted to incorporate it into my classes. But when I arrived to Harvard, there was no one really running long field trips in tropical places. At the beginning, I tried to do a few short field trips, local field trips, but I was teaching invertebrate zoology, and at the end of the spring semester, you know, still very cold in Cambridge, or it can be very cold. So one day I remembered getting the students out in the Harvard Forest the last week of classes, and the soil was frozen. There was nothing there to show my students, pretty mad. So I decided no, I need to go to a tropical place, we also need to be in the water, that's where most of the invertebrate diversity can be found. You know, there's a lot of insect species on land, but but if you're looking for other types of diversity, you know, more different groups of animals and things like that, I need to go into water. So I, you know, navigated some of the problems of Harvard that doesn't allow you to take students multiple days within the semester, and finally, ended up with this formula, that we were allowed to take students out of campus during spring break, right. In theory, that's a holiday. And that's why now we have this tradition of having these field trips during spring break. But, you know, basically, I started that because we couldn't take them any other time during the term. And we don't have enough time in the fall to take the students for eight or nine days out in the field. We don't have any short break like that in the middle of the semester. So I wanted to incorporate it there because it was really important in my education. And you know, it's been proven to be also very important for the students here, the class dynamics, the students interest for the class, the relationships that we have with the students, they all change radically after we come back from the field. You know, they they see the effort we're putting in organizing these activities, which are all research, right? I mean, some people think, "Oh, yeah, you go to the tropics for spring break on holidays,"  no, the students are so tired at the end of the day that they just want to catch some sleep so we can start early the next morning and be out in the water snorkeling or finding the animals and then in lab. But it's really I think worth they end up learning everything that needs to be learned from those classes.

Jennifer Berglund  15:12
Yeah, I would imagine that, as an educator, it's really exciting to ignite that spark. Finally, put all of that abstract knowledge that you're learning in the classroom, to use in an environment and have it all sort of click there. I can imagine that's really exciting as an educator.

Gonzalo Giribet  15:31
Yeah, no, it definitely is. And, you know, the one thing that I love the most these how so many students at the end of the year, or sometimes even more than a decade after, you know, they took my class they send you an email or a card or something saying how important that class was for them, you know, or how that was the best class they've ever taken. And, you know, it's in part, obviously I tried to do a good job. But they never tell me that in classes that don't have that component, right. Many of them have never been in the sea before. They've never been in another country before. They've definitely never been snorkeling and collecting things and then studying them in the lab. And it really, really clicks. And that's the thing that I was saying earlier, right? They never forget for the rest of their lives, no matter how, you know, they might end up doing whatever they do, how successful they are all the things that will always remember that class, where they went to do these field work. You know, they'll always remember they dived in Panama or something.

Jennifer Berglund  16:40
Have you had students that have decided on one of your trips to change their majors or to become biologists because of the trip?

Gonzalo Giribet  16:49
Yes. I mean, they might not say it's just specifically because of the trip. I mean, some of them said, yeah, I want to I want to do research, I want to do things related to fill work, right? Maybe some of them were thinking already of going into a research career, but had never considered fieldwork. And definitely, you know, a lot of the biology students, we get are pre-meds, and I have had several students saying, look, I came in here wanting to go to med school. But no, this is what I want to do. I want to do research, I want to go into the field. And in fact, one of my best grad students, he was a pre-med, you know, until the last day of school. And then once he told me, pretty much he's like, no, I want to defer med school, I want to say and then he wanted to stay to do grad school. I was shocked. Because, you know, I had in my lab since, you know, since he was a freshman. And he had only talked about med school for four years. And then the last day tells me no, this is what I want to do. I was like, "wow." So yes, some change. But not everyone, obviously.

Jennifer Berglund  17:59
In normal years, you're traveling constantly for this field work and for your windsurfing competitions, and you know, whatever else you have going on in your amazing life. But this year, you've been stuck at home, and you have actually picked up a new hobby. Bird photography has has become a major part of your life. So tell me about that, and do you think that it's helped you view nature in a different way? Why or why not?

Gonzalo Giribet  18:26
Yeah, I have always loved animal photography. I mean, this is something that I always liked. And for example, in my first trip to New York, when I went through my grad school to do three months at the American Museum of Natural History, I already went to purchase my first professional camera with a macro setting so I could take better photos of small animals, right. So I've always had that photographer side. But I've always used the photography mostly for my work to document the specimens we collect in the field, to make sure we have photos of them when they're alive, which they might look very different than when they're preserved in alcohol or something like that. So I've always done quite a lot of photography. But a couple years ago, I got more hooked up on nature photography for larger animals. And more recently, I did a trip to Namibia with my brother who is also doing a lot of nature photography. And I got more into it. But you know, I haven't, I haven't had the time to do it and didn't have the proper gear to do that type of photography. So it was a little bit of a hobby on the side. So it is true that during COVID-19, you know, I started just going to the field, that part of me that I need to get out of the house and go see animals and just going very local places around Cambridge, or in Cape Cod, or some of the other places a little bit north of Boston. And it's just like doing a lot of observing. You know, the birds there. There's not much more in the winter than birds, for example. And then we will have quite a lot of diversity of birds there, the different ones in the summer and then they come and reproduce. And so it's been fun to track them through the year. And then I got much more into the photography and getting the photographs more, you know, more art into the photos. At the beginning, it was just capturing the animals, and then more of their behaviors and trying to have a little bit more artsy. So yeah, that's that's been one of the activities have also spent a lot of time talking to my brother on the phone discussing technique. He's, he's really good. He's an architect, and he has very good eye for the aesthetics of the photos. So we've done a lot of that. And actually, it's really fun, because this is photography that some people think, you know, it's a bit of a competition. I think it's the opposite. It really has drawn us together even more. We've always been pretty close, but this is even more. And whenever we have a chance, we would go out or plan a trip together to go somewhere. I mean, we have now trying to plan a trip to Alaska next summer. What you're asking changed my view, I didn't pay much attention to that local fauna, because I focus a lot on mostly southern hemisphere, Gondwana. And then some of the tropics also because of the big diversity. So I hadn't paid too much attention to what's going on around Boston. And I think that that has changed my view a little bit. I'm much more interested now also in some of the local conservation or conservancies. And so yeah, I think that it has had an impact on me, that will change the way I do certain things in terms of appreciating and document our local biodiversity.

Jennifer Berglund  21:56
You're the new incoming director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the MCZ. What's your vision for the museum's future and what excites you most about this new venture?

Gonzalo Giribet  22:09
It's a big adventure. I'm very happy and very proud of having become the director of the MCZ, the Museum of Comparative Zoology. And I've been thinking a lot about this vision, right. I mean, museums are a library for biodiversity. The specimens that we have in museums are an amazing resource. And in some places, this resource is untapped. And in many other places, they don't appreciate or they cannot maintain a lot of these collections because they are expensive. And in some sense, they're not modern science, or you know, a lot of the things that that people are very excited about today. So my vision for the museum is that it needs to bring a lot of these untapped resources more to the forefront, to make them more interesting to researchers and the public in general as well. And I think one of the aspects in which we need to grow is in connecting the specimens to their genomes. Especially for this is that are very rare, or that are extinct. People are able to sequence genomes of Neanderthals, right are tiny fossils from a long time ago, we have much more recent specimens in our museums, some of which belong to species that are extinct. And I think that it will be very important to continue developing the tools that will allow us to preserve the DNA from these organisms. And start incorporating the genome sequencing and DNA storage as a normal procedure in a modern Natural History collection. Right? Having those resources will demonstrate to many people that we've been storing sometimes for centuries, still has a very deep value because many people think that well, you know, what's the value of of a specimen other than just aesthetics of it, or description of the anatomy, but we already have the name for the species, right? Why do we need to re-describe the anatomy or something like that? And sometimes it's hard to justify for certain things. Why are we preserving, you know, 1000s of mice in a collection or 1000s of drosophila, right? Don't we know everything about mice and drosophila? But the reality is that we don't because by preserving the specimens also through time, we can go back now and sequence some of these things from 200 years ago and 100 years ago from today, and we can see what changes have been incorporated in the genomes of these organisms as a consequence of human impacts or environment change, whether the species have shifted their ranges in response to events that are happening around them. So really, by bringing the DNA And the genomes of these specimens to the forefront, we should be able to show, even more, the importance of preserving these things long term, right? These long term series are very important for understanding many aspects of not only evolution, but also human impacts, environmental change and things like that.

Jennifer Berglund  25:27
What would you recommend a young naturalist do to pursue a career like yours?

Gonzalo Giribet  25:34
I think that the most important thing is to be out observing things, right? Whether it's in a small city garden, or if you have the possibility of running, you know, into a bigger backyard or some local, you know, area where you can go out and seek things. And today, kids have, you know, cell phones, they can take fantastic photography, right. I mean, I used to collect things, and now it's more difficult because, you know, for ethic concerns, and you need permits, and there's a lot of things that, you know, sometimes we think that might prevent kids to become a naturalist like I did. But they are other resources that they can use, right, fantastic movies and TV shows that show everything about nature. The one thing is that not to be afraid, right? People are in general, very afraid of many things in nature. Now, obviously, you need to know what dangerous animals are there around, right? But, you know, I grew up in a place where there was nothing dangerous. So no, my parents didn't care if I went, and, you know, lifted rocks and looked for things under stones, or it was very few dangerous things. And I you know, in some parts of the US, there are very dangerous things. So you need to be aware of that, of course. But in general, people are very afraid of many things like spiders, people are many people are terrified about spiders. And spiders, there are more than 100,000 species. And there's a bunch of them, you know, a dozen or two that are dangerous to humans. Most spiders we encounter are just completely harmless to us, right? So don't teach your kids to be afraid of every spider because you've read that the Black Widow is dangerous. Show them what a Black Widow is telling you they see a Black Widow not to handle it. They don't need to be super scared because Black Widows don't chase people and jump their necks, right? I mean, if you just see it and you see a Black Widow to let it be, and don't be afraid of the natural world, right? Most things, you know, I've been stung by things and it's okay. You know, it's like, it's not the end of the world. And I've never had any major issue. I've been in all over the world in all the tropical rain forests, you know, crawling the floor and night and, you know, it's just the world is, you know, we think that there's all these animals there in Australia waiting to jump up your neck and they're not. Know your local fauna. Know when things are dangerous. But because there's one danger species don't be afraid of the other 80,000 species.

Jennifer Berglund  28:24
Gonzalo Giribet, thank you so much for being here. This has been really fun.

Gonzalo Giribet  28:30
Thank you for having me here. It was a lot of fun, and I hope that I inspire some young naturalists to be another director of a museum.

Jennifer Berglund  28:48
Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Emma Knudsen and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to the Museum of Comparative Zoology and to Gonzalo Giribet for his wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!