Here’s how honors students are like ‘extinct’ bugs

(And also like the scientists who study them)

Sarah Diver, the outstanding graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences for fall 2013, holds degrees in chemistry plus studio art and art history.

By Clint Talbott

To Sarah Diver, honors students at the University of Colorado Boulder resemble an ugly, large bug that lived on an island in the Tasman Sea off the Australian coast, long thought to be extinct.

That simile might seem stretched, but Diver has credentials to back it up. She is the Fall 2013 Outstanding Graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder College of Arts and Sciences, graduating Summa cum Laude with degrees in chemistry plus studio art and art history.

Diver explained her extended metaphor as she addressed fellow honors graduates in December. Off the coast of Australia is the diminutive Lord Howe Island, on which early western explorers discovered a nearly foot-long bug with a black, shiny exoskeleton and six legs.

European traders called it a “tree lobster,” and the bug was quickly wiped out by the sailors’ stowaways—rats.

Like scientists, honors students go the extra mile, or climb an incredibly dangerous rock in complete darkness. We do this in order to discover the unknown, and to learn about the planet and ourselves.”

While large insects might not seem particularly attractive, Diver told her fellow graduates they have their charms. Unlike most insects, they mate for life. Further, “The male stick insect will affectionately wrap his legs around the female when they sleep at night.”

The newly arrived rats were not charmed, except in the culinary arena, and no Lord Howe Insects were found after 1918. The stick bugs, it was thought, were extinct.

But 80 years later, rock climbers on an island called Ball’s Pyramid—13 miles off the coast of Lord Howe Island—saw what they thought could be the dung of the Lord Howe Insects.

Scientists, excited by the prospect of finding the bugs, ventured to Ball’s Pyramid, where they searched for months. They climbed the cliffs, scouring for clues. And they clung to one of the most precarious spots on the rock face to inspect a single bush thought to be home to the last surviving Lord Howe Insects.

Because the bugs are nocturnal, “They did this in the middle of the night and surrounded by sharks” in the water below.

This precipitous island, called Ball’s Pyramid, is where scientists found an insect long thought to be extinct.

There, under that single bush, scientists found the only known population of Lord Howe Insects, 24 of them. The bugs are thought to have made it to Ball’s Pyramid by clinging to the bellies of birds that happened to fly there from Lord Howe Island.

“To me, this is the most incredible part—that a form of life thought to be totally wiped out had been surviving on a small little bush all this time, having traveled 13 miles clinging to a bunch of feathers!”

Now, the insects’ future is less precarious; scientists have brought the bugs to the Melbourne Zoo, where the population numbers in the hundreds.

“As an honors student, I can identify with both the stick insect and the scientists in this story,” Diver said.

Like the stick insects, honors students “possess a unique drive to carry on, or see the project through.” Researching and writing an honors thesis is “entirely dependent” on a student’s individual motivation and desire to bring a project to fruition, “which can be a bit like clinging to a bird sailing over shark-infested waters.”

“You sometimes wonder why you would ever choose to embark on such an arduous and difficult journey, but you hope in the end you’ll find your home, a new place of growth. And the struggle will be worth it.”

While Diver identifies with the seemingly indomitable spirit of Lord Howe Insects, she argues that honors students are also like the scientists. For one thing, the students are human.

“And thus, we are not strictly motivated by survival but by empathy—and curiosity,” she said.

“Like scientists, honors students go the extra mile, or climb an incredibly dangerous rock in complete darkness. We do this in order to discover the unknown, and to learn about the planet and ourselves.”

That meant conducting original research, “even if it meant finding the metaphorical bush on the most precarious cliff.” And the reward is more than “a Latin title that we hesitate to pronounce.”

The real reward, she said, is “contributing to the greater human knowledge on whole.”

That, it happens, she has already done, according to professors who evaluated her honors thesis, titled, “The Man and the Myth: Clyfford Still at the Colville Indian Reservation.”

Still is known as one of the most prominent Abstract Expressionist artists of the 1950s; he spent time at the Colville Indian Reservation in 1936, but there is virtually no scholarly work on this topic, the honors committee stated.

The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver recently opened its archives to scholarly research, and Diver served as an intern in the museum in 2012. She studied the archives with the help of CU-Boulder Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

Art-history scholars have noted the impact of Greek myth on Still’s work, but Diver’s work “critically located the impact of Still’s American experiences on his work.” The committee added, “Her thesis not only expanded and critiqued assumptions regarding Still, but offered new insights and interpretations into this little-discussed area of his life.”

The committee pronounced itself “extremely impressed with the quality and depth of her research.”

In an interview with Steven Leigh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Diver said Still went to the reservation with the perspective of an anthropologist and tried to document some of the distinct costumes and characters of the people he interacted with.

“I would say he’s a monumental figure,” particularly as he helped establish New York as a major world center of art in the 1950s, she said. Additionally, Still is one of the first modern artists who draw from truly American sources and “look at things that could only really have come from American soil.”

Among the Abstract Expressionists of the ‘50s, Still and others were “the first American painters of their kind, and it’s such an important part of our cultural history.”

That investigative spirit permeated Diver’s commencement speech, in which she concluded:

“My hope for each and every graduate is that you may continue to explore the world with the same determination and curiosity that you have demonstrated during your time at CU,” Diver told fellow graduates. “Keep searching for the forgotten, the lost, the unknown. Continue to look in the places where others fear to tread.”

March 2014


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