On April 20, the College of Science is hosting Eva Pell for the last Discover Science lecture of the 12th season. Eva Pell is the author of three children’s books, a plant pathologist and the former Under Secretary for Science at the Smithsonian Institution. Registration for Pell’s lecture is now open via Eventbrite.
Pell grew up in the Bronx, where she found her love for science while growing lima beans on her apartment windowsill. She went to college and got her doctoral degree in plant biology, studying the effects of air pollution on plants. She served as a professor of plant pathology at Penn State University for 26 years, then became the Senior Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. She served in the administrative roles for 11 years, before she decided to pursue another opportunity.
The Smithsonian Institution had reached out to Pell, asking if she would be interested in serving as Under Secretary for Science. She remembers going to the first interview for the position and thinking to herself, “You’re not going to leave Penn State.” After the interview, Pell decided to open her mind to the possibility, and by the end of the second interview, Pell had decided to take the role if she received the offer. In her role Pell had oversight of the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Zoo and a number of research institutes remote from Washington D.C. During the Discover Science lecture, Pell will share lesser-known stories about the Smithsonian Institution and its fascinating beginnings.
Pell, inspired by biodiversity challenges she learned about while working at the Smithsonian, played a game with her grandson where they would rescue endangered animals. This “Rescue” game became the inspiration for a series of middle grade children’s adventure novels when Pell’s daughter encouraged her to put the ideas on paper.
The first book Pell wrote, “ResQ and the Baby Orangutan,” follows Wheaton and Stowe, two young cousins, who are deployed to Borneo in search of a missing baby orangutan.
“I had these stories spun up from the games I'd been playing with Hudson, and there were some that I really liked—the orangutan being one of them,” Pell said. “Because of my work with the National Zoo, I knew about the plight of this critically endangered species and found it really interesting.”
Pell would soon discover that the skills needed to write children’s books were a far cry from the strategies used in writing scientific articles and grant proposals. She joined a writer’s group for kids and “…boy was it a wakeup call!”
“The first thing somebody said at my first meeting was, ‘You write really well.’ Pause, pause. ‘But not for children.’” Pell laughed. “Because what does your character look like, and what does it feel like to be in the rainforest? It's a very different kind of writing. You can be much more creative.”
Pell has written other books in the series, “ResQ Takes on the Takhi,” about a wild horse in Mongolia, and “ResQ in Panamá: Can We Save the Frogs?” that follow the cousins on other adventures. In each of the books, the children meet people native to the region who help them with the rescues. Pell said it was important to include and acknowledge the unique understanding that can only be provided by people who inhabit a particular region. The kids have special skills but without this local insight they could never succeed.
“So, with each story, [there is] very different geography, very different cultures and very different reasons for [threat of] extinction,” Pell said.
Pell’s lecture will close out the 12th season of the Discover Science Lecture Series. Pell’s talk will be at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Apr. 20 in the Redfield Auditorium in the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center. Free parking is available on the second and third floors of the Gateway Parking Complex on 9th Street.
Discover Science was founded by the College of Science more than a decade ago to bring world-renowned scientists to the University’s campus. The series is funded by generous supporters of the College of Science, and due to their generosity, has been free and open to the public since it started. More information can be found on the Discover Science Lecture Series website.