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Geek of the Week: Ellen Wildner, Biological Sciences '15

October 24, 2017

Ellen Wildner

The annual Philadelphia Shell Show is coming up at the Academy on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 28 and 29. It’s the largest show of its kind in the Northeast, and it features thousands of shells for sale and on display.

The Academy’s Malacology Collection of 10 million shells is an amazing resource for scientists around the world, including our own researchers, who conduct studies and collaborate with others. We thought you’d like to learn about one of our researchers, and you can look for her and her colleagues at the Shell Show.

Ellen Wildner is a trained biologist and anthropologist. She currently studies snails at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, but like most scientists is curious about everything and how it all connects.

Her short list of curiosities include plants, farming, sustainability, cats, cheese, ethics, and humans.

Passionate, curious and quick witted, Ellen spent one night on stage for Mega Bad Movie Night and plays a game at home called “That’s Not Science.”

Tell me about yourself, as if you had one elevator ride to share it. Doors close….go.

Hi, my name is Ellen Wildner, I’m from Pennsylvania and I love cheese! Did that sound like I was on a game show? Good. In all seriousness, I have a biology degree from Drexel University and I work for the Academy of Natural Sciences. I absolutely love science and I’m interested in (almost) everything and anything. Learning is probably one of my favorite things. I’m coming off really cool aren’t I?

Ok, elaborate on that thing or two you are most passionate about. Plenty of time, no elevator doors opening. 

I am probably most passionate about people and how they interact with their environment. We are such an odd species, and we do things in the strangest ways. I love anthropology and ethical dilemmas of all sorts. I just want to chat about why humans started domestication of plants and animals and how that caused pest problems and all of the ways we have tried to “solve” those issues since then. People are just really weird!

You work in Malacology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and recently graduated from Drexel.  What did you study?

I graduated from Drexel University in 2015. I actually studied biology with a concentration in Organismal Biology/Physiology. I have a minor in Anthropology and a Certificate in Medical Humanities. Essentially, I studied humans. Their anatomy, culture and ethical dilemmas.

What’s your work like as a Curatorial Assistant in Malacology at the Academy?

I spend my days trying to figure out what old dead guys meant when they described new species. You would think that that would be pretty simple. It’s not.

We are working towards verifying the status of all of the type specimens (a type specimens is the specimen, or each of a set of specimens, on which the description and name of a new species is based) we have in our collection and getting high quality images online. This will allow scientists all over the world to refer to our images rather than asking for us to send them the specimens.

Wow, so specific but with a worldwide impact. Is this your dream? 

I love my job. I love what the Academy stands for, and I believe that they do amazing research. I absolutely adore the people I work with. I do love snails, you develop an affection for them if you work with them long enough. Are we sensing a but here? However (fancy but), it’s not my dream job. I would really love to work on an ethics committee in a hospital.

I would especially love to deal with cross-cultural ethical dilemmas. I am also really interested in sustainable farming. Ecosystems and native plants really interest me and I would love to experiment with organic and sustainable farming. Ask me “what do you want to do when you grow up?” when I turn 70, maybe I’ll have an answer for you then.

What do you love about Philly? About being a geek in Philly?

Philly is one of those cities that you have to live in to truly understand. It’s one of those “love to hate it” kind of places. Sure I can’t leave my house past 11 PM because I’ll probably get mugged but that’s just part of the charm, right?

I must say though that Philly has a huge population of geeks! With all of the Universities, Museums and Hospitals we are just teeming with weirdos. Which is a really fantastic thing. If I tell people I work with snails some of them are actually interested! Freaks…

What do you do for fun?

Apart from looking at snails?! Nothing! Just kidding. My fiancé and I garden a lot which is always fun. I also research ethically sourced and sustainable ingredients for skin care, makeup and hair care. Does that count as fun? Well, I think it is.

My roommate, fiancé, and I play the game we like to call “That’s not science!” It’s a great little game where we watch the news, or read the paper and scream “That’s not science” when we come across something completely asinine. It’s a lot easier than you’d think. Everyone wins! I also play hide and seek with my cat’s vomit. Bonus points if you step in it. I win this game a lot…

What else do you geek out over? 

I am a total geek when it comes to native plants and sustainability. I enjoy learning about the anthropological background of farming and domestication of animals. Especially the impact that this has had on humans and the earth. It’s really interesting to look at the anthropological and biological significance of large scale manufacturing of food products versus a hunting gathering society. I am really not cool. But that’s okay! I completely accept my quirks.

Post by Jill Sybesma Lim. This originally appeared on Geekadelphia and The Academy of Natural Sciences Blog. Photo courtesy of Geekadelphia.

Come to the Philadelphia Shell Show on Oct. 28 and 29! To purchase museum admission online at a discount, click the link here.