Richard Conniff, B.A. ‘73

Matthew Chalkley
By Matthew Chalkley April 3, 2011 04:24

A picture of Richard Conniff ’73 of Silliman College, who is currently a freelance journalist specializing in science writing. Photo courtesy of Richard Conniff.

Richard Conniff, a Silliman College alumnus, graduated from Yale University in 1973 with a degree in English. Due to the lax distributional requirements of the time, Conniff managed to graduate without having “ever ventured up Science Hill.” So the fact that his career is all about sharing his passion of wildlife and science is quite a surprise, even to himself.

After graduation, Conniff became a newspaper journalist, a well-worn path for English majors and one that gave little initial indication of the eventual turn towards the sciences that his career would take. Although he admittedly regrets his lack of academic preparation in the sciences, Conniff does not espouse a negative view of his humanities-focused course load. Instead, he believes that it helps him convey material to the general public in a relatable manner, because he “asks the same, ordinary questions that non-scientists would ask.”

His interests in science journalism started at his second job, during which his editor assigned him to write an article on mosquitoes. Conniff ’s only previous experience with the insect was during his childhood in New Jersey, where, he joked, “The salt marsh mosquito is practically the state bird.” But he was surprised to find that he was absolutely fascinated by the intricate workings of the mosquito’s proboscis, the tube-like mouthpart used for feeding. From then on, Conniff was hooked.

This incidental assignment ultimately led him to pursue a career as a freelance science journalist, focusing on the areas of evolutionary and behavioral biology. From there, Conniff has come a long way. He has written for many prominent magazines, penned non-fiction, blogged for The New York Times and his own websites, and even published his own books. In addition, Conniff has received many prestigious awards, including the John Burroughs Award for Outstanding Nature Essay of the Year in 2001 and the Loeb Award in 2009.

His latest book, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, has “caught [Conniff ’s] imagination in a way that no earlier project has.” Although taxonomical history may sound dull, Conniff captures the excitement of the science and explains in his book that “the naturalists became the heroic type of the day like the knights errant of the Middle Ages.” His book details the stories of the lead characters who became involved in the explosion of interest in discovering and categorizing new species after Linnaeus introduced his system of taxonomical classification in the early 18th century.

Another of Conniff ’s recent pieces is Swimming with Piranhas During Feeding Time. The work is a collection of 27 essays describing Conniff ’s expeditions and his interactions with a wide variety of different animals. The experiences range from the seemingly insanely dangerous, such as swimming with piranhas, to the comically futile, such as trying to teach Vervet monkeys the value of tissue paper, but each allows him (and subsequently his readers) to gain further insight into animal behavior. His passion and hunger for knowledge have led him to explore the behavior of many other organisms all around the world.

Removed from his Yale experience by a career of discovery, Conniff advises current undergraduates to be open-minded and explore different disciplines. He wants students to make sure that humanities and science students exist together on both sides of Grove Street, the geographical boundary between Central Campus and Science Hill, because “the idea of two [different] cultures is nonsense.” So while you are exploring other parts of campus, you might want to head over to Bass and check out one of Conniff ’s books. And who knows – you might just find your calling in an unexpected field, just like Conniff has.

Matthew Chalkley
By Matthew Chalkley April 3, 2011 04:24