Oné Pagán sees it as the ultimate challenge faced by any college professor: Holding the interests of students who in many cases don’t want to be there. It’s nothing personal. His students seem to like him. For most, however, his “Basic Biological Sciences for Non-Majors” course at West Chester University is a way to satisfy the school’s science requirement. “I’ve got to keep them entertained as well as educated,” says Pagán.
To do so, he punctuates his 45-minute lectures with “Are you with me?” “How cool is this?” and “Make sense?” as he paces back and forth and scans the crowd for nods. He spices his explanations of complicated biological processes with memorable examples like a solar-powered sea slug that’s part plant and part animal. Explaining the way plants get energy from the sun, he asked the students to imagine going out onto the campus, raising their arms and saying, “Let’s make lunch.”
A short walk from the lecture hall, in his office/lab, Pagán indulges his other side. A serious scholar who’s been published in the International Journal of Developmental Biology, he also relishes forays into the world of popular science—like his latest book, Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life.
An odyssey through some of the strangest nooks and crannies in the animal kingdom, it introduces creatures like the electric catfish, a scorpion whose two venoms are utilized based on how seriously it’s threatened, flatworms that can generate entire new bodies from a severed fragment and snails that hunt fish. “I like explaining science,” he says, taking a container of flatworms from his lab refrigerator.
Pagán, 54, was a high school teacher and lab technician in Puerto Rico before coming to the United States in 2000 to get his doctorate in pharmacology from Cornell University. He joined the West Chester faculty 14 years ago.
Almost a decade ago, Pagán began to “toy with the idea of writing a popular science book.” Though he also acknowledges that it’s easier to “sell science to a scientist.”
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The result was 2014’s The First Brain: The Neuroscience of Planarians, published by Oxford University Press intended for lay audiences as well as scientists. Planarians are all-stars of the lab world because their reactions to addictive drugs are strikingly similar to the reactions of humans. So they’re quite useful in research on addiction—and perhaps in the long run, for Alzheimer’s and brain damage from accidents.
Pagán came up with the idea for Strange Survivors while brainstorming with an editor at Dallas-based BenBella Books. “They liked the idea of defensive strategies in nature,” he says.
All animals—including humans—have defensive strategies to help them survive at least long enough to reproduce. But those strategies must evolve over time. As an example of why what seems esoteric may be relevant, he notes the increasingly urgent struggle of humans against antibiotic-resistant diseases. “We do not have to choose between wonder and practicality with nature,” Pagán says in the book’s introduction. “We can certainly have both.”
Among the fun facts in Strange Survivors:
• A male platypus becomes venomous only during mating season, when he may need to drive off sexual rivals.
• The mantis shrimp—a somewhat ill-tempered underwater creature that’s neither mantis nor shrimp—can perceive 100 million colors, a capacity about 100 times that of humans.
• The venom of a species of poisonous snail is so complex that when its component parts are separated and injected into mice brains, the effects are as varied as paralysis, sleeplessness, compulsive grooming and scratching.
• The “zombie powder” once used to induce temporary comas during some Caribbean voodoo ceremonies may have used a toxin found in several varieties of marine life.
“He makes connections with the outside world,” says Emily Migueis, a WCU nursing major who took Pagán’s class.
“It’s cool,” says another former student, French major Emily Gaughan. “He makes it interesting.”
Such reactions to Pagán’s class are typical, according to biology department chair Giovanni Casotti. “He gets young people excited about why we’re here, how we fit into the ecosystem, about how we fit into the biosphere,” says Casotti. “That’s hard for a lot of faculty to do.”
Pagán’s forthcoming book, Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication, is due out from BenBella Books in mid-2020. It details how young dolphins will sometimes pass a hapless toxic puffer fish around, perhaps to get high on its venom, like teens passing around a joint. And male fruit flies who’ve been unsuccessful in gaining sexual satisfaction are more likely to prefer fermented fruit so they become intoxicated.
In that respect, Pagán says, “they’re not so different from us.”