An Interview with Juli Berwald

  • By Tyler Cymet
  • April 9, 2019

The scientist-writer talks jellyfish, polluted oceans, and why we all need more spine.

An Interview with Juli Berwald

Dr. Juli Berwald, author of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, is a science writer with the ability to explain biology to people who enjoy biology but don’t want the science to interrupt the story. Her background as a textbook writer and training as an ocean scientist at the University of Southern California are both evident in her book that weaves the science of jellyfish with her own journey to becoming a writer seeking the right questions, chasing knowledge that we should have but don’t, and working to keep herself balanced and effective in all aspects of her life.

Sharing your journey to becoming a scientist along with the story of jellyfish gave people a way to connect with both stories. What made you decide to include both in the book?

As science has gotten increasingly specialized in recent decades, a sort of dangerous gap has grown up between science and the mainstream. This has led to the potential for discrediting and sometimes even vilifying scientists and the information they discover and report. (Yes, I’m referring to climate change here.)

But science is really the realm of everyone because it’s about the world we all share. A potent way to bridge that gap is through personal stories which demystify what it is to be a scientist. We all had our version of the bad boyfriends and bad bosses like the sort I talk about in the book. When I read a book, I always want to know who’s telling me the story. Sharing those personal stories was a way to introduce myself to my readers and hopefully connect with them.

Can life be sustained without the oceans? And what would life be like without jellyfish?

Life as we know it cannot be sustained without the oceans. The weather on our planet is created because of the atmosphere’s interaction with the oceans. Rain falls because water vapor evaporates from the seas. The reason the U.K. is so temperate despite being at the same latitude as Newfoundland is because of the power of the Gulf Stream, which picks up warm water and transports it north and then east across the Atlantic. That doesn’t even get into the fact that the ocean is responsible for pulling 93 percent of the heat and around a third of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The question about life without jellyfish is hard to answer because of our own lack of information. The way we studied the oceans in the 20th century was to move fast, with big nets and big winches, and so we have biased our understanding to durable things with shells and skeletons, which jellyfish don’t have. But the more we learn about them, the more we are starting to see that they are integral to ecosystems. Lots of fish and turtles, even penguins, eat jellyfish. And there are many small crustaceans that hitch rides on jellyfish or use them as surfaces to live on. In the wide, surface-less, open ocean, jellyfish can be like a palm tree in an oasis.

You talk about the negative perception of jellyfish. Do you think that is changing as aquariums put them on display and allow them in “petting pools”? Are there other ways for jellies to acquire “charisma”?

I do think that the more people see jellyfish in tanks, they can’t help but be swept away by their beauty and mesmerized by their elegant movements. On the other hand, there’s no getting around the fact that they sting people, which hurts a lot or can even send people to the hospital. So, I doubt the negative perception of jellyfish will ever fully disappear. I think that the best way for jellyfish to acquire “charisma” is to understand more about them, about what makes their simple anatomy so sophisticated, about their astonishing adaptations for life in the ocean, and their extraordinary life histories. Really, the deeper you look at any creature, the more fascinating and delightful it becomes.

What is the most important thing we don’t know about jellyfish that knowing could make a difference?

Where their polyps live. Here’s the story: The jellyfish have an amazing life cycle that is really not widely known. I didn’t know it before I started the book. The swimming medusa we all call a jellyfish is just one part of its life. It produces either eggs or sperm, which fertilize to become a very small larva that’s reminiscent of a furry Tic Tac. The larva settles on a hard structure like a dock or a rock and grows into a polyp, which looks like a skinny sea anemone. Then, at some environmental cue, the polyp slices itself horizontally like a stack of a dozen or so pancakes. Each pancake then pops off the stack and becomes a baby medusa, which grows into the jellyfish we think of.

So, the polyps are medusa factories and they are the reason that we find jellyfish in giant aggregations called blooms that wash up on beaches and clog power plants. And as we build more hard surfaces on our coastlines, like docks and oil rigs, we are making more and more polyp habitat. But the thing is, there are a couple thousand species of jellyfish. And, yet, we’ve only found about two-dozen species of polyps in the wild.

Can you clarify the subtitle in the book, “the art of growing a backbone.” Does that refer to jellyfish or something else?

Jellyfish are definitely spineless. And, for them, the spinelessness is a huge part of their success. Their watery-jelly insides make them efficient swimmers because they can use the incompressibility of water to open up their bell like a water balloon returning to its original shape after being squeezed. This means they use very little energy to get around. They can also control the gases in their jelly, which allows them to survive better than creatures with high oxygen demands in polluted, low-oxygen water.

But “the art of growing a backbone” was really about me learning to grow my spine as a scientist-turned-writer, to step into the role of communicating about increasing abundances of jellyfish in so many of our damaged seas. The ultimate story of the jellyfish is that we are powerful enough to control the biology of our planet, but we haven’t yet mustered the will to do it. Collectively, we need to grow a spine.

Tyler Cymet, DO, is the chief of Clinical Education for the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, where he works on issues of curriculum, assessment, and change management. He is the author of Health Info to Go and Addictionary, and practices emergency medicine with the University of Maryland Capital Region.

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