By Allison Campbell-Jensen
One of the first things Marlene Zuk does upon moving to a new town is to drop into her local library for a new library card.
“Libraries are the linchpin of civilization,” says Zuk, Regents Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. She’s an effusive library fan who also serves on the board of the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries, supporting institutions that have done so much for her education.
Zuk knows many other people value libraries, too. One day, at the St. Anthony Park branch library in her neighborhood, Zuk overheard a young girl, about 7 years old, accompanied by her mother (for whom English seemed to be a second language), ask the librarian: “How much does it cost to check out books?”
“They’re free,” the librarian replied, to the amazed delight of the child and her mother — and Zuk.
Most of her eavesdropping, however, calls less upon her emotions and more on her knowledge, observation skills, and experiences in the lab and in the field. Her work consists of listening to other species, usually crickets, as they try to communicate with their potential mates.
Zuk’s “Sex on Six Legs” is a favorite among her popular science titles for Zuk’s writing buddy, Kathryn Nuernberger, professor in the U’s Creative Writing MFA program.
“You get so many good stories to tell people at cocktail parties” about bugs and sex, Nuernberger says of her friend’s more popular books.
Books for everyone interested in insects, animals, and … sex
“Her way of thinking is generous and outward-looking.”
—Kathryn Nuernberger, professor in the U’s Creative Writing MFA program
Zuk’s recent publications include not only books with titles like “Riddled with Life,” “Paleofantasy: What evolution really tells us …,” and “Sexual Selection: A very short introduction,” but also four co-authored papers in 2019 alone.
As an educator and a colleague, this “innovative thinker” also has made an impression on her colleague Mark Bee. “She’s very energetic and engaging — all the time,” he says, with a note of admiration in his voice. He adds that she appears to think by doing or, with companions, colleagues, and students, by talking out loud about an issue or problem — often classified as traits of an extravert.
“When I’m around her,” says Bee, also a renowned teacher and researcher, “I feel like an introvert.”
Bee and Zuk have collaborated on advising students. A recent success story is Jessie Tanner, who earned her Ph.D. at the U of M. Tanner will begin an academic position at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, this year.
Walking the writers’ way
“Her way of thinking is generous and outward-looking,” says Nuernberger. Nuernberger is the author of two poetry collections, “The End of Pink” (BOA, 2016) and “Rag & Bone” (Elixir, 2011), as well as an essay collection, “Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past.” She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, American Antiquarian Society, and the Spring Creek Project at the H. J. Andrews Research Forest.
The two talented writers and thinkers often walk around the St. Paul campus, checking in on the cows, rambling about near the sheep, and “communicating” with the horses, while discussing their respective work. Animals have been a fascination for Zuk since her youth. Nuernberger gets a kick out of their discussions of anthropomorphism and what might be called zoomorphism. These conversations provide Nuernberger windows into the way Zuk’s mind works as a scientist.
Says Nuernberger of her friend’s cogent explanations of how science works: “She [Zuk] can make it engaging really fast.” What strikes her poetic sensibility are certain aspects of Zuk’s thinking and writing that she finds quirky but that may be essential to her scientific methodology. These include:
- the use of Latin names, part of precision thinking;
- paying very close attention “and then describing what [she] is seeing;” and,
- “She’s showing us a scientist trying to think like an animal” or an insect.
Nuernberger appreciates Zuk’s verve, intelligence, and, her sharing of insights that help illuminate that: “The human way is not the only way to be in the world.”
Combining science and writing for a passionate career
As a young person entering college, Zuk had considered becoming an English major, but she ended up creating a career that was even better suited for her passions.
“What saved me,” she says, “was that at UCSB [University of California – Santa Barbara), they have this thing called the College of Creative Studies, a structure between an honors college and Hogwarts.” It was a small college designed for people intensely interested in a certain topic. She adds: “Students were encouraged to take whatever they wanted to take — [it was] like a small liberal arts college within a large state research university.”
Still, it took time and working at other interesting-but-not-quite-it things to sharpen her thinking about a career. After earning her undergraduate degree, Zuk was working part-time jobs, mostly related to birds. She was not sure what she wanted to do. But she was certain of one thing: “I wanted to understand something really deeply.”
Zuk adds: “I wanted to be the person who knew stuff.”
She has accomplished that, and more, by investing in relationships, collaborations, and education of scores of college students, grad students, and colleagues. After all, Zuk is eavesdropping on other species’ sex lives for the knowledge, not the slightly illicit thrill that many Homo sapiens experience when we talk about … you know.