Episode 7: Merging STEM and Humanities: Ted Melillo

Hosts: Charlie Blue Arm '22 and Nicole Chung '22

In this episode of the STEMherst podcast, chemistry students Charlie Blue Arm and Nicole Chung discuss the merging of STEM and humanities with professor Ted Melillo of environmental studies and history, amongst other things such as his recent book, and his course structure.

Timestamps: 

Charlie Blue Arm  02:13

What are you doing currently, what have you done in the past?

Charlie Blue Arm  04:30

Could you speak a little bit about your background, what inspired you to become involved with environmental history?

Charlie Blue Arm  06:15

So what do you think's causing it to come to light today? Is it something in the global scale that's causing people to want to study environmental history?

Nicole Chung  08:18

So I'm wondering how the colloquium might explore, like indigenous science and these kind of ideas that have long been cast as a dichotomy, right of Eastern science, Western science, how does your work attempt to bridge those things?

Charlie Blue Arm  11:11

You're talking a bit about environmental history at Amherst, and at other colleges, how it's an expanding, expanding community, specific to Amherst. What does it look like? Are you the only person doing environmental history? How will the community expand in the near future?

Charlie Blue Arm  13:09

So what do you think hard sciences can learn from this interdisciplinary work that might be beneficial for students?

Charlie Blue Arm  15:38

So let's let's talk about the current student community of environmental history. What's it look like? How can current students get involved? If they want to get involved and speaking to prospective students? How could they learn more about the program? Maybe how can they become involved as prospective students?

Charlie Blue Arm  18:14

So what do you say to somebody who is like a hard science person that might be kind of scared to take something with more history or reading or writing? 

Nicole Chung  21:16

What is the remote semester since March really looks like for you? And how has that affected your approach to teaching in in your discipline?

Charlie Blue Arm  27:00

What kind of effect will remote learning have on future generations of students, what positive effects and what negative effects you think it might have?

Nicole Chung  31:20

How, as an environmental historian, do you think that like, this moment will be recorded, like as, like, a testament to our humanity's relationship with nature?

Charlie Blue Arm  34:50

I wanted to back up actually. This is a weird segue, but I want to talk about your book. Do you think you could tell us a little bit about it? How long Have you been working on it? what's the what's the central theme? You know, what do you want people to take away?

Charlie Blue Arm  41:58

Why is it such a different occurrence in the Western world?

Charlie Blue Arm  47:33

Now, now, you mentioned how Hollywood makes evil, evil things look like insects. And I was just thinking about Alien, and how like, the alien actually kind of looks like a like a, like a bug. Yeah, it's actually super interesting, what we may in the West consider exotic versus what some indigenous cultures might consider to not be exotic and, and you even spoke about what those communities might consider to be exotic that we find pretty, not exotic. I think the book will touch upon that right?

Charlie Blue Arm  49:16

How can prospective students reach the environmental history department at Amherst and and maybe even, not just specifically students, but how can other people become involved or understand what's going on at Amherst or getting involved in understanding what is going on in the environmental history? In general, like around the around the world? How can you recommend people and students understand more about this interdisciplinary?

Charlie Blue Arm  51:42

Just a brief follow up to that, how can prospective students reach out to you?

Credits:

Publisher: Amherst STEM Network

Podcasts Coordinator: Julia Zabinska

Music Composer: Grace Geeganage

Cover Art Designer: Chloe Kim

Transcript:

Charlie Blue Arm  00:00

Hello and welcome to the Amherst Stem Network podcast. My name is Charlie Blue Arm and I'm a junior majoring in chemistry.

 

Nicole Chung  00:06

And I'm Nicole Chung, a junior majoring in chemistry and education studies.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  00:10

and we will be your co-hosts for today's episode, where we'll cover how Amherst is bridging stem and humanities with Professor Ted Melillo of environmental studies and history. We're here today with Professor Ted Melillo at Amherst College, I assume you could start by telling us a little bit about your position at Amherst.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  00:39

Yeah, so thanks for having me. I teach in the history and environmental studies departments at Amherst. I'm a professor. And I've been teaching at Amherst since 2009, which is when I first got here. And before that I taught at Franklin and Marshall College for a year in Pennsylvania. And before that, I taught for a year at Oberlin College in Ohio. And so I've been around at Amherst for a while. And I really enjoy teaching and working here.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  01:09

You said, you're in the environmental science and history department. It seems it's like a weird combination for people who don't really know anything about environmental history.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  01:17

Yeah, exactly. So I'm jointly appointed. I'm in both departments, as are many people in the Environmental Studies Department. All of us, except for two now are jointly appointed in other departments. So we have at least two homes, although it's very exciting. Now that we've got Ashwin Ravikumar and Becky Hewitt, who is just arriving at Amherst College for the spring semester, she'll be teaching climate science, those are the two first full appointees in environmental studies. So we're coming into our own as as a department with heft. But we got our start from people who were interested in environmental studies coming to it from other fields, although the thing that I do, which is called environmental history is inherently interdisciplinary. So I've always felt at home in both the sciences and the humanities. And I guess you could also say, the social sciences to a certain extent.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  02:13

Let's talk a bit about your current primary focus of research. What are you doing currently, what have you done in the past?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  02:20

It may sound a little bit all over the place. But there are some coherent themes that run throughout. my most recent book is called the butterfly effect, insects and the making of the modern world. And it's about the central role that insects have played in so many of the institutions that we think of as resolutely modern, from genetic science to the future of food agribusiness, to, in fact, many of the commodities that are in us, on us, and around us, in our everyday lives. And I've long enjoyed studying the history and movement of commodities throughout the past. And that's animated my work from the very beginning. And I've also always done studies on the way humans have interacted with nature in the past. My first book is about the connections between Chile and California going back 222 years. But it also looks at the exchanges of commodities in world history. And the ways that humans and non human nature interacted in both the distant past and the more recent past. So there are some themes that run through all my work, I tend to geographically work on what I call the Pacific world, which means the people, ecosystems and cultures in and around the Pacific. And I was really fortunate and got to have a year in Hawaii learning to speak and read Hawaiian from 2017 to 2018. And as my hosts know, I will be teaching a colloquium called islanders abroad in the 19th century, during the spring semester, and we'll be looking at Pacific Islanders who traveled in the 1800s to China, Japan, Europe, in the United States, and we're going to be putting their stories at the center of travel narratives. Otherwise, you know, often in travel literature from the 19th century Pacific Islanders are never thought about or talked about, except as exotic others, and yet many of them were cosmopolitans going hither and thither. And so we're going to be tracking down their stories and building a website based on those histories.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  04:30

So, you spoke a little bit about before we started recording, how you became involved in your field of study. Could you speak a little bit about your background, what inspired you to become involved with environmental history?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  04:45

So, I mean, it is in many ways in my DNA because my father is an ecologist. He's worked in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, as the CO director of the ecosystem Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory for many decades. And my mom is a history an English teacher, she was one of the founding teachers of a small school called Falmouth Academy. And so I grew up just feeling like and thinking that the Humanities and Sciences talk to each other at the dinner table. And I lucked out, I intertwined two limbs of the family tree, and people gave me a career out of it. And ever since then, I've been pursuing this quirky, but rapidly expanding field, environmental history is probably the fastest growing branch of historical discipline. And now, you go to most universities and colleges, and there'll be at least one person doing environmental history, if not more, and it's a well established field today, people think of, you know, people like Jared Diamond, or Charles Mann as prominent environmental historians who are reaching a much wider audience than just academia. But about 4045 years ago, it was a field that was unknown to many. Now the early pioneers were just emerging, Alfred Crosby, Bill Cronin, Carolyn merchant. And so it's a field that's really come into its own in the last half century. And I've been lucky enough to I guess, to pursue the via metaphor to surf this wave.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  06:15

So maybe we're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves here. But I want to talk about that a little bit, because it's fairly new. So what do you think's causing it to come to light today? Is it something in the global scale that's causing people to want to study environmental history?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  06:29

Yeah, certainly, I think the the sort of presence of, of issues like global climate change, and these notions like the Anthropocene, the idea that humans have become geologic agents in our own right, has put the study of environmental history front and center. But more generally, I think, since the 1960s, and 70s, people have been looking for ways to kind of heal some of the fragmentation that's been seen in the rise of the modern disciplines. You know, the disciplines that organize our academic life are relatively recent. They're the product of, frankly, the late 19th century. And sometimes they make a lot of sense, I want my students to be trained in historical methods, and I want my environmental students to to know their ecology. But now that we're dealing with problems that are increasingly complex that span the scientific domain, the political domain, the social and cultural domain, the types of solutions that students need to be equipped and prepared to deal with and come up with, are really demanding that we don't just exist in their disciplinary silos, we may have to think beyond these boundaries constantly to solve some of the problems the world's facing. So yes, I think one of the big drivers is, is the omnipresence of these, these global environmental issues that require more complex problem solving skills. But also, it's the kind of attempt to heal some of the fragmentation of the breaking of knowledge into these discrete disciplines that don't always get us back to reality in in useful or convenient ways.

 

Nicole Chung  08:18

This is going a bit off book, but I couldn't help thinking about this in relation to the colloquium. And I'm wondering, in this moment of like, I don't know, Western science and our modes of objectivity really feel like they're kind of at the, at the, at the, what's the, what's the expression at the stake, like, I don't know, all these ideas about how we frame science just seem really under siege, especially in this moment of like trying to decolonize and antiracism, really coming to the forefront of science, especially at Amherst. So I'm wondering how the colloquium might explore, like indigenous science and these kind of ideas that have long been cast as a dichotomy, right of Eastern science, Western science, how does your work attempt to bridge those things? Or maybe I don't know if it does. I'm just curious.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  09:06

Yeah, a great question. It's actually absolutely central to my work. I'm also very involved in the Native American and Indigenous Studies group at the five colleges. And one of the things I'm really interested in is traditional ecological knowledge, and non Western cosmologies, and systems of understanding nature. And in many ways, they're extremely advanced and have much to contribute not only his ways of coming to new understandings about the past, but also is these latent reservoirs of potential learning about how we might shape our future in terms of sustainable management strategies in terms of land use practices, in terms of the ways that people have interacted with oceans in the past, because I also teach an oceans of the past course and I'm very interested in seas and maritime history. And so I'm thinking about that Non Western Ways of Knowing nature. And those are absolutely central to my work. And in fact, even in my book on insects, a lot of it is about these commodities, I talked about silk and chalok, and a 30 minute know about his coaching deal, which is the source of the scarlet red dye. And these are all produced by insects. And they've all been cultivated by traditional cultivators in ancient worlds for 1000s of years. But they've also made a resurgence today, and it's indigenous peoples who are at the centerpiece of these commodities that are all around us in our everyday lives. But we don't acknowledge the systems of knowledge that are operating there. And as you're saying, that can be really relevant to conversations about decolonizing methodologies and, and understanding race in new ways and thinking about colonialism and the environment. And those those themes are woven in throughout my work. So that's sort of how I see it, fitting into the colloquium but, but generally, my work is really animated by by wanting to come to better understandings of traditional ecological knowledge. You know,

 

Charlie Blue Arm  11:11

You're talking a bit about environmental history at Amherst, and at other colleges, how it's an expanding, expanding community, specific to Amherst. What does it look like? Are you the only person doing environmental history? How will the community expand in the near future?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  11:28

Yeah, so I'm very fortunate because I'm not the only person here doing environmental history, which is a real luxury to be at a small liberal arts college and have colleagues and collaborators who span many disciplines. Rick Lopez in the history department, also considers himself he's also an environmental studies and yachts, and considers himself an environmental historian. And in fact, when I had just gotten the job, I met up with Rick at the American Society for environmental history. And we had a meal together and talked about what it would be like to teach at Amherst, and we were at the same professional conference because we both consider our work to be environmental history. And there are a lot of other people on campus who are doing things that intersect profoundly with the field of environmental history, Nicolette kortright, teaches a number of essays that I also teach. She's an art history, but has co taught a course with Rick, thinking about nature, and Holloman in Environmental Studies is also in sociology. But some of the work she does is very historically grounded. She's written a book on the dustbowl, in fact, and, and looks very much like environmental history. And she reads and thinks about that. So there are all sorts of areas in which people are doing work that intersects with this topic, Joe Moore does environmental philosophy, but but his work is very historically grounded as he's thinking about the problems that are at the center of environmental ethics of his concerns. So yeah, it's been, it's been neat to see some this web of connections that's emerged on a fairly small campus to bring this field to the fore for students.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  13:09

You know, like you had mentioned before, this is a, this is a great example of the merging of STEM and humanities. And that's a central theme. And, you know, one thing that at least I have a problem with at Amherst is the fact that a lot of hard sciences, don't spend very much time talking about the people who discovered anything in the field or the background of where the science comes from, you know, that sort of thing. So what do you think hard sciences can learn from this interdisciplinary work that might be beneficial for students?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  13:44

Yeah, well, I think I think the moves are already happening. And the signs are good, this idea of being human in STEM, this course, that's that's going to be taught here is a real progressive move in the right, right direction, to start thinking about these intersections and about intersectionality, quite, quite literally, in the sciences, and how important it is to be discussing topics like race and ethnicity, and history alongside, you know, looking at the sciences as some sort of pseudo objective domain of study, we need to historicize these things and, and put them in their context to understand what kinds of thinking and assumptions have gone into their makings. I mean, you know, fundamentally, the most important thing I do as historian is I take Givens and turn them into contingencies. And I want to try to do that always with my students to take basic assumptions and start to think about how did we get there and, you know, growing up with a scientist, Dad, I know how important that is for constituting the scientific fields and if it's not done consciously, it's a real oversight. And, and I think we're heading in good directions with this more work. So Certainly needs needs to be done. But But I think Amherst could, in fact, be a leader here. But it's, you know, it's through supporting fields like environmental studies where a lot of these conversations happen. me my greatest aspiration is that my classrooms are a place where an English major won't run shrieking from the room when I talk about the nitrogen cycle, and a biology major, well run shrieking from the room when I talk about culture. And so so I'm trying to create spaces for these types of conversations to occur. And I think the more we can do that, the better.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  15:38

So let's let's talk about the current student community of environmental history. What's it look like? How can current students get involved? If they want to get involved and speaking to prospective students? How could they learn more about the program? Maybe How can they become involved as prospective students?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  15:56

Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, obviously, trying out and taking courses in Environmental Studies is a great way because many of us do things that cross cross boundaries quite overtly in Ashwin, Ravi Kumar, who's one of our new professors full time and environmental studies, does work on politics and political theory. His field work is in the Peruvian Andes, working with indigenous groups and and, and their interactions with their environments. And so, and there are other people in environmental studies who are doing these kind of boundary crossing things that give a lot of potential for exploring these new methods and a Homans courses are great for doing this. And I think Becky Hewitt, when she's teaching with us, this coming semester is also going to open up spaces for this, she, for example, has been working with indigenous communities in Alaska and their responses to climate change, in addition to doing hard kind of science field work that we might think of traditionally as, as part of the climate change scientists repertoire. She's doing work in the political sphere, thinking about, you know, how these issues are constantly part of diplomacy and politics as well as part of the scientific realm. So, you know, I think that's the really important role than environmental studies plays here. Now, in terms of environmental history, in particular, you know, there are certain course offerings that I would suggest to people I've my courses and, and Rick Lopez's courses are there. But there are other courses that that pop up along the way that explicitly do things related to environmental history. You know, Robert Hayashi teaches, teaches writing in American Studies, but he very much also considers himself a historically minded and an environmentally minded writer and teaches things about environmental writing, that are very much in the wheelhouse of environmental history, and many of the seminars and environmental studies, things that Kara vigil, and Lisa Brooks do, they do a course on the history of corn, where I've come in and given guest lectures, that's environmental history. So there's a lot of possibilities if you wanted to pursue this, and, you know, students should just come to me and we'll, we'll talk about ideas for how to go forward.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  18:14

So what do you say? So, so you said that you you want science people and humanities people to feel comfortable in your courses? So what do you say to somebody who is like a hard science person that might be kind of scared to take something with more history or reading or writing? Because I was one of those? I was one of those students, honestly, and and I took the jump, but what would you say to a student like that?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  18:37

I would say, you know, you're at Amherst College. And this whole place is designed for you to take those kind of plunges. And, you know, I also maybe maybe plunges the wrong word, you can dip your toe in, and I try to create a comfortable space where, where those, those intersections are going to occur I built in, it's sort of baked in to the logic of the way I approach things. And, you know, it's an open curriculum. And so experimentation is prioritized and encouraged. And, and we try to create a lot of introductory courses at the college in general. And I do this in my own coursework, in particular, where students coming from other areas and other types of training can feel comfortable moving into these new fields of inquiry for them. Now, that said, I'm not going to hesitate to push you as a writer and a thinker and a discussion, because I think those are the core skills you're going to leave here with. I mean, you know, unless you're in a few of the hard sciences or pre med, there are very few fields where it actually matters what you majored in as an undergrad that may leave some people feeling distraught but you know, when you go out into the world beyond Nemours, people want to know if you can write if you can think critically if you can speak articulately about topics that are germane to your your fields of interest. Those are the courses skills that we want to teach. And you can get those skills in a lot of different ways. I also often suggest to my advisees, to take courses based on faculty members, not just topics, you just want to try out different approaches, people are going to teach differently. And there's a lot of word on the street, it's a small place. So you can find out, you know, maybe you just want to take a course with somebody who's going to teach you really differently than the way you were taught last semester. And that's going to be useful, because you see different ways of breaking up fields of knowledge, different ways of thinking about the crucial issues that shape the way we learn. And so I almost suggest you to go out there and try a variety of teaching approaches don't just take things based on you know, the topics are going to be exciting, because we all come up with great, great titles for our courses, but try out different professors here, and you have the luxury to be able to do that we don't, there's not a lot of tracking, I mean, other than there are a few majors where you've got to follow through the series of steps of courses that you need to take to complete a major. But even those, you know, we've had so many random combinations of double and triple majors, you can pull it off and take all sorts of different stuff.

 

Nicole Chung  21:16

My next question kind of builds off of like, of course, looking really good on paper, but then not really knowing how it's gonna play out, could not be more fitting for the remote semester. So just to kind of go there. What is the remote semester since March really looks like for you? And how has that affected your approach to teaching in in your discipline?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  21:35

Yeah, I mean, it's profoundly altered everything for all of us, or pedagogies, or interactions with students, the way we cut up our time, you know, on a day to day and in a semester, timeframe is completely different. I mean, for example, last spring, I was teaching my commodities nature and society seminar. And I had one student who had to go back to Singapore. And he was 12 hours ahead of us. So what we did is we did periodic discussions at 930, at night, so that he could be waking up and eating his breakfast with us, but we wanted to include him in the discussions. And so that kind of retooling and then the sort of synchronous, asynchronous stuff, some of us have kids at home, and we've had to be recording some lectures so that we can, you know, supervise, in my case, a second grader who's getting online for his zoom classes in the morning. So it's been radical, but I will say the thing I'm most excited and proud about is the way the students have, you know, you all really weren't with us and and stuck it out. And it's taken a lot of adjustment. But for the most part, I think the quality of the discussions, the caliber of the discussions has been really high. Because people are just excited to learn and want to get as much out of this no matter what the circumstances are as they can. And so I was teaching the environmental studies senior seminar this semester with Professor Ethan lamellas. And the discussions were marvelous. They were just so on point, and so enthralling and illuminating. And I think it's because students were really trying to extract as much value from whatever they can salvage from this semester as possible. And, you know, we never had a single absence, and all of the sessions among the 14 students, and that was great. You know, that's remarkable.

 

Nicole Chung  23:33

And I guess it sort of like, go even further and name the elephant in the room. How is COVID-19, and this entire pandemic kind of brought out, like public health, like that's like one of the most interdisciplinary things but Amherst doesn't specialize enough to ever do that. And I'm wondering how that has made its way into your classroom or not, if you don't really include it in any of the units or anything, but I know a lot of humanities classes in particular have tried to adapt and put that in, in their courses to some degree. So I'm curious.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  24:01

Yeah. And and I will say, you know, I haven't really because we designed the environmental studies, senior seminar, it was actually really exciting. What we did, we basically last summer decided that what we wanted to do was to make this a capstone event for seniors and get a kind of star studded cast of characters from across the field to come in and speak with us. So one of the big impacts of COVID was we can get all these people on zoom, that we wouldn't have been able to get in person if we had to fly them in, put them up in a hotel. So we had Betsy Kolbert who's the Pulitzer Prize winner, winning author of the sixth extinction. And, you know, Charles Mann came in 1493 1491 and met with our students and my dad came in and spoke to our students and Susan hassel is a climate change. Communications expert and Joe Moore presented to us and Peter virtuosic, one of the Leading biodiversity ecologists who's at Stanford came in. And so what we did is we tried to transform the kind of COVID limitations into potential, where we took a bad situation and said, Okay, so where are the small silver linings in these dark clouds, and one of them is that you can get hold of a lot of people. But in terms of teaching about the pandemic, I think that's going on more and more to I mean, there are several courses happening this spring, one of them in environmental studies, I believe it's Professor Haldeman teaching an actual course on the pandemic. And that's starting to get pretty well covered. And certainly in our colloquium, we'll be we'll be thinking about and talking about the ways that limits our access to archives, and the ways that shaped conversations about cultural patrimony, and people's access to, to archives to do genealogical work, for example, a lot of Pacific Islanders depend on traveling among islands to reconnect with family. And that's going to be a topic that comes up as we talk about Pacific Islanders movements in the world. And I think you know, for all of us, we're thinking in new ways about how to conduct our research and live our lives in these radically circumscribed circumstances. I mean, I was planning last summer to go to Hawaii and work with my language tutor, and do archival work at the Bishop Museum. And my plane tickets were scheduled for May 24. And by March, I knew that I'd have to cancel that trip. And it's totally shaped my research agenda. And that, of course, bleeds into my teaching, because I'm talking a lot with my students about what I work on to give them a firsthand you know, a taste of, of what I do as a scholar and a thinker. So yeah, it's, it's affecting every aspect of life in ways that that show up in the classroom and all sorts of different permutations.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  27:00

Want to kind of ask you what you think remote learning will will, what kind of effect will have on future generations of students, what positive effects and what negative effects you think it might have? Because I personally, I think that there's a lot to learn from remote learning, and there's some things that were working really well, and things that aren't working very well, and, and we can build off of that.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  27:20

Yeah, I'll be I'll be really curious. Post COVID. And it's fortunate, we know that there will be a post COVID having that horizon, there matters a lot. But I'll be really curious to see what we retained from all this. And what we what we forego, I think some of the things are virtuous, you know, the carbon footprint of doing long distance book talks, where I'm not flying all over the place. I published a book, which came out in August, and I've done about 24 book talks since then. And if I was flying to Cleveland, Ohio, or to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to give these talks, you know, it's a huge carbon footprint. And, and I've been able to access audiences, in fact, often in the privacy of their own homes by by zoom and reach out to people in ways that I didn't even know what zoom was before last spring. And I think many of us now exist, to our detriment in some ways on zoom for much of our day. So some of the virtues are just simply accessibility, there's a democratization to it, certainly where, where you can travel into people's homes, you know, there's a carbon footprint to zoom, but it's miniscule in comparison to getting on a jet airplane and flying somewhere. And pedagogically, it's allowed some things to happen. I mean, the sort of share screen format, where where students can present quite easily on this terrain, opens up new ways of organizing the classroom. And, and I think that's been need. And I've tried to play around with that, I'll continue to do that this spring. In terms of negative effects, though, some of them for an Amherst College student are obvious. running into people on campus is one of my favorite things. I run into my students and colleagues all the time. And we have spontaneous conversations on the way to Val at Amherst coffee. I go to lunch with my colleagues all the time. And that's the way a lot of the business of the college gets done. You know, that's one of the virtues of a small college and maybe a drawback, sometimes two is that word of mouth rules the day and the way word of mouth operates over zoom and email is fundamentally different than when you're just walking along with someone you ran into and having that spontaneous conversation. I mean, I run into my students all the time and frost. And those are such important moments because that's when I say, oh, by the way, do you know about the lecture that's happening tomorrow night, or they say to me, oh, hey, I just found this really cool book that you might not know about and check it out. And, and I missed that, you know, I missed that a lot, amorous coffee is certainly a hub, burly cuz you know, I need the caffeine but also because I'm there to meet people and see people and I do feel that that's been a real loss. You know, it is also nice to just be able to speak me have coffee run and make a cup of coffee whenever I want just before I get on to a meeting. And I certainly organized my life differently under this this regime of interacting, but the other thing that's lost is just in person office hours, and in person teaching are going to be way better for in many respects, you know, students coming into my office and just talking about stuff. And having that in person interaction in the classroom is where it's at. I've been a big institutions, I was a grad student at Yale. And I think the virtue of being at a small institution for your undergrad is that you're just interacting with, with, with your professors a whole lot more. And I missed that too. So you know, there, there are positives and negatives. And I think we're going to come out of this pondering pretty conscientiously what we want to retain, and then what things will be relieved to look back on as, as the things we left behind.

 

Nicole Chung  31:20

I'm just thinking like, all of us, most of us, I think, have been forced to engage more with nature as a result of the pandemic. And Outdoors is really the only like, safe thing we can do. Or kind of sometimes the only thing we can do, how, as an environmental historian, do you think that like, this moment will be recorded, like as, like, a testament to our humanity's relationship with nature? Like, do you think you see, like a different? I don't know, collective experience of nature coming out of this year? I guess?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  31:52

Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, I hope that it expands our imagination about the possible because it's in a lot of places, in a lot of ways, it's given nature, a break from the relentless onslaught of modernity, you know, these these polluting technologies, many countries were not on target to meet Paris accords, goals. And, you know, of course, the United States was so off target, because of withdrawing from the Paris accords, that we hope will be reversed shortly. So this break that nature got allows us to, you know, I have friends in LA, who were saying, I'm hearing birds chirping for the first time, I can actually see, you know, the the horizon at a great distance for the first time. And, you know, the the Venice lagoon was finally, clear of oil slick and pollution for the first time in decades. And there, there are a number of places the skyline in Beijing was visible for several days in succession, which, you know, I've been in Beijing twice. And it's, it's, you know, it's it's intense and awful. And, and so these breaks that nature, God are also moments when the human imagination gets to expand, what would it be like, if we actually took concerted action to make these more permanent changes? In some of these situations, I'm pretty pessimistic that we'll just go back to normal. But then in other ways, I'm really excited about the fact that, you know, I've been doing a lot of hiking with my son. And we've also been raising silkworms at home, it's a great pandemic activity to do with your kids, especially if you're interested in insects that won't bite or nibble on fingers. And we probably wouldn't have done that if we weren't hunkered down at home looking for exciting projects that actually do connect us to nature in fascinating ways. And we've watched these little little insects grow from what looked like sort of peppercorns to now they're three inches long, and they're spinning their cocoons in the glass terrarium we put them in. And it's been really exciting to have all this time to be attentive to these things. And in my work in general, I'm trying to approach heightening and attentiveness to nature. And so I think this has been a moment when tons of people have been maybe too many going to national parks and hiking and camping and we've been doing that. And and that's great. You know, that's wonderful. And I hope that gets retained after the pandemic, and this kind of expansion of the imagination, I think, if if political movements can then take that energy and say, Do you remember when you could see the skyline? And you could hear the birds chirping? What would it be like to take concerted political action to make that much more permanent? And what would that take? I'm seeing some of that the sunrise movement and, and and student groups, especially, are taking that bull by the horns. And I think that's exciting.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  34:50

I wanted to back up actually. This is a weird segue, but I want to talk about your book. Do you think you could tell us a little bit about it? How long Have you been working on it? what's the what's the central theme? You know, what do you want people to take away?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  35:04

Sure, sure. So the book I think, as we mentioned before, is called the butterfly effect insects and the making of the modern world. And Penguin Random House published it this past August. And I've been giving, giving a lot of book talks and reaching a lot of audiences that have been both excited and a bit shocked to hear what I have to say about how omnipresent and ubiquitous insects are in our daily lives. The book unfolds in two parts. The first half of the book is about three commodities in world history shellack silk, and something called cochineal, all three of which are the secretions of insect bodies that are in on and around us all the time. Coach Neil is the source of this Carmine red dye that was prized by Europe's rulers to make ecclesiastical vestments and royal robes. But as it turns out, it's in everything you're eating today from Dannon, strawberry, and the bottom yogurt to Campari and fake crab legs at the sushi restaurant, and shellack, you may know from painting your back deck, but it's also in nail polish and hairspray. And it's on a lot of fruits in the grocery store to keep them shiny. And then of course, silk is the third of these insect commodities I talked about, and who hasn't touched silk in the form of a silk dress, a silk necktie, silk underwear. And the second half of the book then looks at things that I call the hives of modernity, genetic science, agro businesses, and the future of food. And I try to show the central importance of insects to the maintenance and success of all of these things. Most of our knowledge of the human genome is actually derived from studies on Drosophila melanogaster, which is the common fruit fly. Much of our food is totally dependent on pollinators, many of which are insects, one in every three bytes of food that the average person on the planet takes on a daily basis was pollinated by an insect In fact, and then in terms of the future of food, a lot of us are probably going to be eating insects and already our whether we know it or not, I'll tell you just a funny amrish related story about this. I was teaching my global environmental history of the 20th century course. One morning, I had some 90 students enrolled in it, it was in a big lecture hall, and three of my students walked in, they were football players who've been doing their morning weightlifting. And they came in munching on protein bars. And I looked down at the wrapper of the bars they were eating and it said xo bar. I said, Hey, guys, do you know you're eating insects? They gave quizzical looks to the food they were munching on. And EXO stands for exoskeleton. It's a company that was started by to Brown University graduates. And it uses cricket meal for the flour. It's high protein flour. And this is kind of the wave of the future, we're gonna have a planet with 9 billion people on it by 2050 or so the UN says, and they're not going to be eating steaks. It's just incredibly environmentally expensive. To make a pound of steak in the US it's 2000 gallons of water and two acres of grazing land. To make cricket meal, it's about two gallons of water and two cubic feet of space for the exact same pound of high protein product. And the cricket meal actually has three times the amount of protein, more iron and nutrients. And so everyone's betting on this from Bill Gates to the Twitter co founders to Mark Cuban of Shark Tank fame. They're putting their money that will be eating a lot more cricket meal in the future. So the book just goes into sort of an exploration of all these things and, and in the end, I talked about listening to insects and the need to be more literally attentive to what they're telling us. But also figuratively what insects are, are having to say about the health of our planet. So it was a fun book to write. I've been working on it for a few years. And it really sprang out of childhood interests, and then grew into something where, hey, I thought I can write a book on this and I had to learn a lot to read the book in the end, but it was all such a joy.

 

Nicole Chung  39:23

This reminds me of the relationship between vanilla and castoreum, which is like from beaver butts.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  39:31

Yeah, absolutely. castor oil.

 

Nicole Chung  39:34

Yeah. Like to know where things come from. It's pretty revolutionary in that sense.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  39:40

The funny thing when I give talks about the book that people don't know is that we're all eating insects all the time. In fact, you know, I'm sitting here sipping a cup of coffee. The FDA allows 10% of the imported green coffee beans to the United States to be insect body parts and insect parts are in chocolate and peanut butter. And, and when you go into a grocery store, just look around you any of the shiny fruits, they're all coated in shellack coccinelle, as I said, is the red dye and everything. And one of the things I discuss in the book is why, you know, after the Second World War, everyone was talking about the the synthetic age and how laboratory produced products would replace natural products. But one of the things that happened in the 1970s is the rise of the field of environmental toxicology. And people learned that many of these laboratory generated synthetic substitutes were harmful to the human body, or in the case of silk. They were simply structurally inadequate. insects have a big, big head start on us. They've been around on earth for 480 million years. And the latest evidence about the earliest homosapiens is about 300,000 years in Morocco, they found the earliest homosapien fossils. So you know, they've got a huge head start. And they've managed to use that to their advantage. And here we are returning to these putatively natural products in the 21st century, for these fundamental dependencies. You know, one of the really interesting things was when I did the chalok Research 78 RPM records the the medium for the global transmission of sound up until the 1940s. And the vinyl age was all done with records made out of shellac, which is the secretion of the carrier lock a bug raised by millions of men and women in India, and Southeast Asia. And so, you know, reading the book was just one string after another of surprises and revelations for me.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  41:40

Actually, I remember, you're talking about that red dye. This was like, I don't know, probably seven years now. like Starbucks had a some red strawberry drink or something like that. And then people found out the dye was coming from bugs, and everybody was freaking out on the internet about it.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  41:56

Yeah, the strawberry frappucino!

 

Charlie Blue Arm  41:58

Yeah, exactly that. And I remember learning about that. And and I guess, now one thing I'm thinking about that you were just talking about a little bit was, this is this is this that wouldn't happen in not the Western world is like different, right? though, the way we perceive where we get our food and what we're eating, like, I guess we perceive eating bugs and getting things from insects to be bad or maybe gross or something like that. So why Why is it such a different occurrence in the Western world?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  42:31

Sure. Yeah. And great question about 2 billion people on the planet. eat insects is a regular part of their daily diets. And insects are frankly centerpiece dishes in many national and regional cuisines throughout the world. And I've sampled and eaten a bunch of them. One of my favorites are chepa leanness in southern Mexico, they're grasshoppers that are fried up on a Komal with with chilies and lime, and that is sort of like a really flavorful crunchy tortilla chip. But in the West, in Europe, and in North America, we've had an antipathy towards this, you know, and it's got historical roots. In part, most of the people who were the colonizers here were from cold, Northern European climates where there weren't a lot of insects available to them. But many native cultures throughout the world, including in the Americas, had insects and have still today, insects and centerpieces of their cuisines. And in Japanese food and Chinese food throughout Latin America, throughout much of Africa, even throughout the Mediterranean, insects are so common in food and they're not remarked upon is sort of a separate category of you know, now I'm eating insects, but it's it's all really very much culturally conditioned. I mean, just to give you an example, often, you know, I've taught many Chinese students because I've traveled a lot in China and started my graduate career in Chinese history and tend to attract a lot of Chinese students to my courses. They always say to me, you know, when I first arrived in the United States, one of the strangest things I ever came across was cereal with milk. What an absolutely bizarre idea, you know, this taste combination and to combine those things in the first place. And it just goes to show that a lot of, you know, our habits are so deeply learned and culturally conditioned. And you know, there are the preliminary signs that that many Europeans and North Americans are overcoming some of these inhibitions. For example, I talk in the book about how at Safeco Field where the Seattle Mariners play. they've served several 100,000 servings of javelina. These these these fried grasshoppers and they seem to be getting a position in the ballpark menu alongside frankfurters and hotdogs and peanuts. It'll take It'll take a while but it's happening and you know, with with cricket meal, it's certainly become normalized. If you go on Amazon. You can find I haven't even counted but hungry products in which means basically freeze dried pulverized crickets that have been added to everything from pasta to brownie mix, to, you know, you can find pancake mix anything with cricket meal in it. And so it's sort of hiding out in those cases, you're not munching on mandibles and forewings. But we're all eating this stuff, whether we like it or not.

 

Nicole Chung  45:23

It's totally a conditioned fear because you think about it. And all kids really start out in the dirt like with worms that I've played with salamanders as a kid. And then some point in time, I stopped doing that and started being scared and asking my dad to deal with the spider in my room. Where did that come from? That's so interesting. That's very true.

 

Professor Ted Melillo  45:42

hollywood, hollywood has certainly played a role in popular culture, the big bug movies of the 1980s, which continue into the 21st century, that kind of evil arthropod is a stock figure. And when Hollywood does deal with bugs, you know, it tends to humanize them to make them into good characters, you know, by by putting them in a think of Jiminy Cricket, and then go onwards way up into, you know, the other creatures you see in Hollywood, that they're standing up on two legs, they've gotten rid of the spiky exoskeleton even dropping the antenna and the compound eyes. And at that point, you know, they're bipeds that have very little resemblance to any of their their true insect cousins. And so in Hollywood does frame insects is good guys are good gals. They tend to be humanized. And when they're evil, they tend to be they tend to look much more like actual insects. And so, you know, there's a lot of cultural conditioning. And once it's been through the spin cycle, then that creates many of these antipathies. Now, I don't want to, I don't want to undersell the awful things that insects have done in human history from, you know, malaria, and Zika, and yellow fever and dengue, to, you know, everything from Lyme disease and lice. But what I was out here out to do in this book was to look at the other side of the story that's gotten far less ink spilled in that direction. Because there's some great books about all the awful things that insects have done to humans in the past, but very little pointing out, you know, how much dependency there is here. I mean, we're living on an insect planet, there are 10 quintillion insects on the planet right now. And we're kind of these guest visitors. The planet depends far more and insects for everything from plant sex to decay than it does on us.

 

Nicole Chung 47:30

Destigmatize insects!

 

Charlie Blue Arm  47:33

Now, now, you mentioned how Hollywood makes evil, evil things look like insects. And I was just thinking about Alien, and how like, the alien actually kind of looks like a like a, like a bug. Yeah, it's actually super interesting, what we may in the West consider exotic versus what some indigenous cultures might consider to not be exotic and, and you even spoke about what those communities might consider to be exotic that we find pretty, not exotic. I think the book will touch upon that right?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  48:03

Quite extensively. Actually, in the example he brought up I even talked about in the book alien, you know, the alien was inspired, and I quote the screenwriters by a parasitic wasp. I mean, that's, that's where they began to create the whole character and, and, you know, the evil Ark arthropod stock figure is really, really a product of a particular moment, in in quite a distinct cultural space. And I want to get that across that, you know, throughout much of the world, insects as pets are normal, and, and even at the end, I talk about listening to insects, quite literally were, during the Edo period in Japanese history, couples would go up to duck con Hill in Tokyo, and they'd sit on picnic blankets, sip, Saki, and listen to the crickets and grasshoppers. insect concerts, in fact, had been normal in many cultures in world history. I'd give examples from ancient Greece and Brazil. And so you know, it's kind of a call to maybe pay attention to these other aspects of our interaction with our non human cousins that have been that have been lost in the dominant portrayals of them in mainstream culture.

 

Charlie Blue Arm  49:16

How can prospective students reach the environmental history department at Amherst and and maybe even, not just specifically students, but how can other people become involved or understand what's going on at Amherst or getting involved in understanding what is going on in the environmental history? In general, like around the around the world? How can you recommend people and students understand more about this interdisciplinary?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  49:39

Yeah, great question. So I mean, I really welcome students into environmental studies, we've made it an extremely flexible major, that that that is open to any and all comers and we want that diversity of backgrounds, both, you know, both of the students themselves and the fields they want to study. And and students can reach out directly to me if they want to know more about environmental history in particular, you know, and there's everything from now there's scholarly journals and societies, but there's also a lot of stuff that's really accessible to the general public. Now environmental history has taken its place on bookshelves in libraries. And in you know, the the brick and mortar bookstores that still exist in the era of Amazon, you can find that stuff there. And it now is existing as its own thing, and seems to be okay, and doing well as environmental history. And, you know, I mentioned Charles Mann already who's an Amherst graduate, and is an extremely prominent environmental historian whose work is, you know, has been translated into dozens of languages and has been internationally recognized. And so, you know, I think if students want to talk more about this, just reach out to me tried an environmental studies course, but, but we're all fairly transparent here. So, so if anyone wants to talk more about this, I am more than happy to do that. And, and then you'll just see this stuff coming up, and a lot of course descriptions, you know, and they're, the things are linked. If you go to environmental studies, we have a list of many of the related courses that aren't necessarily the core courses that you need for the major, but you also have to take related courses, and we've watched that expand over the years as more and more people ranging from Nicola kortright in art history to David Delaney and LG s. t. to Robert Hayashi in American Studies and English are doing stuff that is part of this big environmental conversation and looks a lot like the environmental humanities. So

 

Charlie Blue Arm  51:42

Just a brief follow up to that how can prospective students reach out to you?

 

Professor Ted Melillo  51:47

Just just email me um, you can go on the Amherst website and look me up. I'm the only malolo on campus. And it means little apple and Italian so it's appropriate that I've got a connection to the botanical world and the food studies world which I love to teach about. So just look me up, drop me an email, reach out. And we'll talk.

 

Nicole Chung  52:09

Thank you for tuning into our conversation today. And we hope you seek new ways to bridge stem and humanities in your life perhaps by picking up a copy of the butterfly effect. Stay curious, stay informed, and stay tuned for more.