The Daily sat down with Samper, who is in town to speak in Silicon Valley, to discuss his start as a botanist, the steps Stanford students can take to lead ecologically conscious lives and (one of) his favorite species the short-billed hummingbird.
I find myself doing such hard thinking at odd intervals, usually when science is treating me either very poorly or very well, or when some environmental catastrophe rouses the media. Mostly, I ask myself, “Does this research matter? Am I doing enough?”
California has a rich history of environmental activism. When an obscure easterner named John Muir arrived in San Francisco in March 1868, he immediately he asked a local carpenter how to get out of the city. “Where do you want to go?” asked the carpenter. “Anywhere that is wild” replied Muir. Muir proceeded to walk straight through the Central Valley and into the Sierra Nevada, where he would begin his long career as an environmental advocate and an important figure in the establishment and growth of the National Park System.
It wasn’t until my next flight had lifted off, treating me to a panoramic view of dawn over the southern Pacific Ocean, that I realized the irony of what I’d done. Overnight, a plane had carried me across the world’s biggest body of water, containing the world’s largest trash dump, the Pacific Garbage Patch. In the morning, I had, though indirectly, contributed to its continued expansion.
But today, as pennies are being pinched and a growing faction actively denies the societal value of scientific knowledge, those of us working in basic science are feeling a bit on edge. As evidenced by scores of cell biologists linking their work to cancer biology, and numbers of ecologists citing the impacts of climate change, we’re all looking for ways to make our work immediately relevant to society’s needs.