Biomimicry 101: Nature & The College Freshman (Part 1)

by Isabelle Seckler| May 7, 2020 | Blog, Education |

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From the classroom to the campus quads, navigating life as a college freshman is filled with plenty of triumphs and trials. Isabelle Seckler never expected that reconnecting with nature, even at a time when we’re more dependent on screens than ever before, would ultimately become her guidebook for how to maximize this experience. Nature taught her the most important lessons she has learned all year.

Like most college freshmen, I started off my first year bright-eyed, excited (okay— 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 is now drawing to a bittersweet end, and with it plenty of time to reflect on how I’ve changed. I certainly didn’t expect how a simple passion project on biomimicry, a topic I first stumbled across on YouTube while procrastinating AP Bio homework, could evolve into the vital framework it has for better understanding myself, my community, and how to create a better future today.

I now call this my first, albeit unintentional, lesson in Biomimicry 101: a reminder to adopt a bird’s eye view of a challenge…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.

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 campus gates in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I hoped that I wouldn’t feel like a fish out of water.

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 a new 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 of a challenge, no matter how small, to better see the whys and hows of the problem in the context of understanding how to address it. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable in effect, is a vigilant approach to adaptation.

Columbia, like most institutions, has its own campus culture created by this diversity of life, intellect, and interests. I find myself in the middle of an ecosystem in balance.

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.” My own existential crisis of being Pre-Med continues as I try to navigate the intersection of human health and the often competing challenges of social and ecological wellbeing. In fact, college is an opportune time 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.

These fundamental skills encourage adaptability. On this holistic foundation lies the many Departments, ranging from the lab rats in Chemistry to the musers of French and Roman Philology to 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 its own campus culture created by this diversity of life, intellect, and interests. I find myself in the middle of an ecosystem in balance.

None of us exist in isolation. Recognizing the interconnectedness and overlaps of our hectic lives strengthens them for the better.

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 exist in isolation. Recognizing the interconnectedness and overlaps of our hectic lives strengthens them for the better. For me, the synthesis of my passions is to advance science in the service of humanity. In nature, the capacity to live in such a complex situation is known as general resiliency at the species, community, and even ecosystem level. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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Isabelle Seckler is a first-year student at Columbia University in New York City. She intends to study sustainable development along with a pre-medical track with the hopes of advancing community prosperity at the intersection of our built and natural environments.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org

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