The Caterpillar Lab, an educational non-profit organization that bolsters public support for nature, came to Brandeis to showcase the biodiversity, adaptations and beauty of caterpillars. Expert naturalists set up the caterpillar displays on Fellows Garden and answered questions from Brandeis community members regarding the large range of caterpillar species indigenous to North America as well as a few non-native species. The event was hosted by the Year of Climate Action and the Environmental Studies program.
In addition to casual viewing, students also incorporated The Caterpillar Lab into their coursework for the week. Professor of Biology Melissa Kosinski-Collins took her Plant Biology class to the event, where students made observations about the caterpillars, asked the staff questions and took photographs. They then synthesized information about caterpillars with core concepts in plant biology, such as the parasitic relationship between animals and plants, and examined the evolutionary adaptations used by either organism to survive through their News and Views assignment.
In an interview with The Hoot, Kosinski-Collins described key takeaways from the event and her experience incorporating The Caterpillar Lab with her Plant Biology class. “All too often when we are teaching at the college level, we lecture to students assuming they can absorb information in a very traditional format. We forget about the importance of allowing college students to…engage with material in a new and exciting way,” she wrote.
Kosinski-Collins noted that many students were “struck by the mechanisms caterpillars use to attach to, prey upon or blend in with plant tissue” and learned about the adaptations plants use in order to fight invasion, such as “producing toxins deadly to caterpillars or producing chemicals or colors to attract parasitic wasps to prey on the invading caterpillars.”
Her overall sentiments towards the events were, “I really thought this event was fantastic…Given we are celebrating the Year of Climate Action, this exhibit stressed the importance of caterpillars to our ecosystem…[My students’] smiles and excitement in response to the experience and how plants are involved will last longer in their memory than any lecture ever could.”
The Caterpillar Lab was founded by Samuel Jaffe, who drew from his personal fascination with nature to build an organization centered around sharing the same experiences he had. After graduating from Brown University in 2008, Jaffe undertook a personal project photographing caterpillars found in New England and displayed his work in local galleries, and in 2011, he enlisted the support of his friends and family to host a caterpillar exhibit at the Boston Children’s Museum. On the organization’s website, Jaffe described how at this point, “[his] work with caterpillars had entered the realm of ‘we’ rather than just ‘I.’ It felt right.”
In 2013, Jaffe had launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a summer full of caterpillar-related activities with his peers from Antioch University. Concurrently, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) had indicated interest in filming these caterpillar showings. Jaffe writes, “We filmed with the BBC for three weeks and became fast friends as we worked day and night to bring our vision to life.” This was the first time the group’s work was denoted “The Caterpillar Lab.”
The organization continued to grow, moving into a new space in the Colony Hill Marketplace building in Keene, NH and attracting new nature-enthusiasts over Facebook. In 2015, The Caterpillar Lab officially became a non-profit corporation and has since been conducting numerous outreach programs to “increase [their] audiences’ excitement for and investment in their local natural surroundings.”
Moving forward, the company indicated their interest in supporting natural history pastime in New England and serving as a space to facilitate the work of other natural history professionals, artists, educators and scientists.