Rob Dunn

About Rob Dunn

Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

March, 2017. The month you got to name a new creature.

March 2017: The month you named a yeast.

As humans, we give significance to something by giving it a unique name: whether this is our pets, our boats, our children, or our sourdough starters. It is how we distinguish the specific from the general. It is not just “a child,” it is our child, “Adrianne.” It is not “a boat”, it is the working fishing boat off the cold Maine coast, “Harvester of Sorrows.” As scientists we give names as well. We give highly specific names to species such as “Homo sapiens” and “Canis lupus” to distinguish humans and wolves, respectively. […]

By | March 7th, 2017|Education, Participate, Sourdough|0 Comments

Ten Things Graduate Students Should Study (Never Out of Season Edition)

One of the luxuries of writing about science is that it gives me a chance to weave together discoveries made in disparate fields. I can connect the stories for readers. Sometimes I can even connect the scientists themselves. But the more I write, the more that I see that where such connections are most conspicuously missed is not random. In some subfields of science our ignorance is both vast and predictable. One of these subfields is the intersection between basic ecology and evolutionary biology and application.

By | March 6th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

The Syrians and Iraqis at Your Dinner Table

Each detail of our daily lives has a history and, just as with any history, it is a history we would do well to learn from. Consider the biology of your dinner table. Your table itself is Syrian or Iraqi as is most of the food on it.

Mesopotamia, about which we all learn in middle school and then promptly forget, is the region between (meso), the two rivers (potomus), the Tigris and the Euphrates. It includes Syria in the West and Iraq in the Southeast and, biologically speaking, should probably also include the Zagros mountains of Iran to the East.

In the […]

By | January 28th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

A Letter to the New Students of Vassar

[Rob has been invited to Vassar to talk to the entering class of students about his book The Wild Life of Our Bodies, but also about our wild lives, theirs, his, those of the future. This is his letter to those students.]

Dear students of Vassar,

Let me begin with a warning. Don’t trust anything a writer says about his or her own family. That said, my grandmother, Barbara, grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. She lived in a room that was meant for an observatory and spent at least some days on William Faulkner’s porch listening to him tell stories to younger […]

By | July 24th, 2016|News|3 Comments

Announcement: 6 to 100 Hires in Public Science

[Positions listed at the end of this post]

By the time the potato murrain arrived in Ireland scholars had already begun to explain its cause: a blight, a water mold. They had also begun to explore ways to mitigate the effects of the potato blight through shifts in the timing of planting and harvest and strict quarantines. In addition, some farmers had noticed a way to control the blight through the use of copper sulfate (which is still used). But in this moment, the voice of the scientists was too quiet and the willingness of the scientists to listen to those in the public who […]

By | September 24th, 2015|Feature, Jobs|2 Comments

The First National Inventory of All Household Life (on a swab)

In dust one can record the actions of storms, the wearing of mountains, the consequences of industrialization. The study of dust has a long history. Geologists consider it. Toxicologists too. Arthur Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes look to dust to discern where a criminal might have traveled.

But perhaps the most telling feature of dust is its life. Each mote of dust is an entire world composed both of living organisms and of those in the process of falling apart. Run your finger along a surface, even one that seems clean, and in the particles you retrieve will be a measure […]

By | August 25th, 2015|Homes, Wild Life of Our Home|4 Comments

The Value of Art to Science—A story of rotting bodies, belly buttons and the music of symbiosis

In The Man Who Touched His Own Heart I tell the story of the artist Leonardo da Vinci’s discoveries inside bodies. Among the most astonishing of his efforts came late one afternoon in 1508 when…

“[D]a Vinci was at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, a church hospital. He was not a doctor, but he already knew more about the human body than almost anyone else who had ever lived. He was talking with a very old man, a centenarian. The man, who is known to history simply as il vecchio, the old one, was kind and garrulous. He had lived […]

By | June 4th, 2015|Belly Button Biodiversity, Books, Hearts, Science Art, Video|4 Comments

How Islamic Scholars Saved Knowledge (and Science)

My grandfather was concerned with a relatively small number of things in the last years of his life; one of those things was the dark ages. As an intensely curious man, a furiously curious man, he could not fathom how even a single generation of humans lacked the spirit necessary to try to understand their world better than the generations prior. He couldn’t understand a single such generation much less the hundred of them that actually occurred.

And yet history is unequivocal. For more than a thousand years knowledge failed to advance. Rome was sacked. The ignorant book-burning masses moved in. […]

By | June 3rd, 2015|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Ecological Medicine: Can intestinal worms cure us of our modern pandemics?

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Hundreds of self-experiments, tens of thousands of worms

In 1976, Jonathan Turton, a British parasitologist was suffering from allergies. Most of the time scientists suffer from maladies just like everyone else. They sniffle. They whine. They ache and curse the universe. They eat the soup that reminds them of their mothers. But sometimes this is not enough. Sometimes a scientist will wake up in the middle of the night with the nagging feeling that she or he is clever enough to do something more. This is when the scientist will start to read […]

By | May 29th, 2015|Uncategorized|14 Comments

Help us Solve The Mystery of the Danish Underpants

Recently, Pernille Hjort from the Danish Museum of Natural History visited us in Raleigh to exchange ideas about new projects in public science. It was an opportunity for grand scheming, but also to take note of things available in the American South but missing from Danish society. The Danes may have universal health care, free college education and a bike culture that makes biking to work easier than driving, but as Pernille noted, they don’t have turkey vultures, blue birds or robins. But while life in Denmark and the American South may be relatively similar apart from these subtleties […]

By | May 4th, 2015|Cat Tracker|8 Comments

On Joining the Lab (Boat)

Some people go from early life to death focused on one mystery. This approach, I am told, can be very satisfying. One of my mentors, Carl Rettenmeyer, spent fifty years studying the animals that live with army ants. In this endeavor Carl found enough rewards and mystery to sustain another dozen lives.

Yet while I appreciate (at least in an abstract sense) the fruits of such an approach, it is not for me. My greatest scientific joys come instead from making connections across fields, connections that require me to read about and engage scientists who do work very different from that which […]

By | April 26th, 2015|Behind the Scenes, Your Wild Life Team|0 Comments

The Bear

I was staying in a one, room shack beside a river. The river, a majestic river, reminded me of the sound of a washing machine. My girlfriend was visiting. At night she punched me when a mouse ran over her face. It remains unclear whether her intent was to hurt the mouse or, as I now suspect, me. Each morning the old Czech woman across the dirt road would bring me a glass of fresh milk from the cows. She spoke little Spanish, I no Czech. I couldn’t convince her of the truth, that I am unable to digest milk much […]

By | April 13th, 2015|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Could there be 200 million species on Earth?

Recently, one of my colleagues, Brian Brown, found thirty new species of flies in urban Los Angeles. Species not yet named. Species not yet studied. Species that could be of great value to society (or, less likely, great cost) but that had just gone missed, flying among highways and movie stars.

The discovery made by Brown and his team is wondrous, revelatory, awesome, and makes me want to look for new species of flies in my own backyard. But, in a broad sense, it is not a surprise, for one simple reason, two hundred million species live on Earth […]

By | April 13th, 2015|Books, Homes, Wild Life of Our Home|4 Comments

Chimps and Humans are Less Similar than We Thought

Mary Claire King, as much as any individual scholar, has changed how we think about what it means to be human. She did so using genetics as a lens through which to see what was otherwise invisible. In her hands this lens offered many insights. It was King who first identified a key gene in breast cancer. It was King who helped to identity the missing dead in Argentina in the 1980s. It would also be King who, in 1975, first compare the genetic similarity of humans and chimpanzees. It was known chimpanzees and humans were similar, kin, but just how similar? One could […]

By | April 8th, 2015|Books, Hearts|3 Comments

The Magic Seeds of UCONN EEB

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The amazing thing about trees is that they start as seeds. Some small enough for ants to carry. Others that ride in the guts of bats. Others still that float in the wind, tumbling across fields and continents.

Similarly, the amazing thing about the best scientists is that they start as students. As I say this, I am not thinking about my own students (though my own students have been wonderful, the highlights of my professional life), I am thinking about the young people with whom I started graduate school.

I went to […]

By | April 6th, 2015|Uncategorized|3 Comments