A wheelchair doesn’t stop this scientist from soaring to the treetops

Rebecca Tripp studies tardigrades in the tallest of trees

Rebecca Tripp ascends into the tree canopy to study tardigrades.

courtesy of Rebecca Tripp

Rebecca Tripp speaks about her research with real passion, emotion that goes far beyond the fascinating organisms she studies. When she talks about her research with tardigrades, tiny, eight-legged creatures that she collected from the tops of trees, she doesn’t just talk about science. Rebecca describes her adventures in the treetops, and what it took to get there. She talks about overcoming fear, working through challenges and giving your best.

Rebecca has faced some challenges of her own. A spinal cord injury means that Rebecca is in a wheelchair. But that hasn’t stopped her. She works with Meg Lowman, an ecologist at the California Academy of Sciences who studies the world of the tree canopy. With Lowman, Rebecca has been studying tardigrades, which are known as extremophiles for their ability to live everywhere, from the tops of trees to the leaves of your lettuce and can even survive in space.

Rebecca graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in psychology. She never thought that she would be able to do ecology research, or spend much time in the woods that she loves. But then she heard that Lowman had started a program specifically for people with mobility limitations. Lowman wanted to get people like Rebecca up to the treetops, and Rebecca immediately volunteered.

Now, Rebecca is a laboratory assistant for Lowman. She continues to study the tardigrades she found in the tree canopy, and trains others to reach the same heights.

I had the chance to chat with Rebecca at the ScienceOnline Together Conference in Raleigh, N.C.  She’s got some great things to say about confronting challenges, fear of failure and going for your goals. Below is a portion of our conversation.

What made you decide that you wanted to study tardigrades?

Rebecca Tripp (left) speaks with Bethany Brookshire about her research and confronting challenges. B. Brookshire/SSP
Rebecca: There was no real definitive decision to study tardigrades specifically. I was looking at going back to school to study conservation biology, and I was talking to one of the professors at the University of Maine. She happened to be looking at the National Science Foundation website and that’s the organization that funded this research [on tardigrades]. She noticed this project that was actively recruiting participants with ambulatory disabilities. They were looking for students in wheelchairs, basically, which is kind of unheard of. And she encouraged me to apply and I did. I had never even heard of a tardigrade at that point in time. This was a completely new learning experience for me. It was very exciting.

You’re still participating in the research, what did you like most about doing the research?

Rebecca: I think what I liked most about doing the research while I was in Kansas was climbing trees. You know when I became injured I certainly never thought I would be climbing trees ever again. I didn’t see how that would be humanly possible for me to do. That was really the most exciting part. Learning about tardigrades was really a lot of fun too, they are such interesting animals. Like I said I’d never heard of them, so I had a lot to learn.

Was there anything about your research that was particularly difficult? What was the biggest challenge?

Rebecca: I would say the biggest challenge doesn’t have to do with tardigrades at all. The biggest challenge for me going into this, it’s really I think a challenge that most of us face, it was overcoming a fear of failure. I was really intimidated going in. And I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome that fear, but I don’t allow it to debilitate me and keep me from moving forward with my life.

Do you have any advice for anyone who might be starting out in college and who might want to try research?

Rebecca: I guess my best advice is pretty simple advice, and that’s just to go for it. If you have a goal, and you have a dream, just go for it. No matter how hard you think it’s going to be, or how difficult. There’s a great quote by E.O. Wilson, a great biologist. I’m just paraphrasing here but basically he said, “you are more capable than you know.”

So choose the goal that feels right for you, and just go for it, you know, no matter how difficult it is. Give it all you’ve got and start doing your best. We all face challenges, every one of us. It’s all about that goal for you and just giving it everything you’ve got. The world needs more scientists, especially with the challenges we’re facing. If you’re interested in science, field a field that interests you, and just persist, no matter what, just persist.

Power Words

biology  The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

conservation  The act of preserving or protecting the natural environment.

extremophile  A microorganism that lives in conditions of extreme temperature, acidity, alkalinity or chemical concentration.

metabolism  The set of life-sustaining chemical reactions that take place inside cells. These reactions enable organisms to grow, reproduce, move and otherwise respond to their environments.

psychology  The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior.

tardigrade  An eight-legged creature not much larger than the period at the end of a sentence. Tardigrades live in many places, including ponds, the sea floor and parts of Antarctica where rock sticks above the ice.

tree canopy  the portion of a forest that is formed by the tops of the tallest trees. This area is also a habitat for plants such as epiphytes, lichens, and animals that make their living in the treetops.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.