Home / Fall Table of Contents

Geek life. Not like Greek life. I say this with authority because, as a first-year science student at UMass ­ camouflaged by a helmet of extensively coifed hair and an entourage of fellow party-hungry freshwomen from Sylvan ­ I infiltrated, for a time, the sanctum of the fraternity house. Obscuring my bookish, socially awkward self behind fashions meant to imitate the stylish girls from Southwest, I was allowed ­ even welcomed ­ into the world that gave UMass the infamous nickname of the Zoo.

The anonymity was heavenly. No longer was I that person ­ nay, weirdo ­ best-known among high-school chums as the girl mucking about in the dirt with all manner of disgusting critter: snake, salamander, frog.

Alas, my anonymity was short-lived. My tongue loosed by grain-alcohol elixirs at Theta Chi, I soon reverted to nerdy humor and betrayed my true identity. Having just attended a freshman biology class in which the instructor demonstrated a point in population genetics by giving us cue-cards representing different forms of the same gene and having us run promiscuously about the classroom exchanging them, I was elated to spot among the Greeks a boy from that very same class. "You and I mated!" I exclaimed. He only winced, and my girlfriends only groaned, at the explanation of my geeky joke.

And so I settled happily back into the rhythms of geek life ­ squandering prime party-time muttering maledictions at the long-dead corpse of a dogfish shark whose inner ear I could not successfully dissect; frequenting the comparative anatomy lab in Morrill Science Center perhaps as regularly as the Worcester Dining Commons. Indeed, my fondness for formalin-suffused marine specimens could have been no secret to the nostrils of my fellow diners. Only those of us enamored of the lab could tolerate the fishy chemical odor that lingered on our chafed hands no matter how often we washed them.
We formed, I suppose, a fraternity of our own, the hazing for which consisted mostly of getting our hands smelly and demonstrating a curiosity about nearly anything that moved. Burrowing further into the science underground at UMass, we discovered, interspersed among the classrooms and lecture halls across campus, a network of research laboratories where those captivated by the machinery of evolution could hole up. My own lab, deep within the restricted inner corridors of Tobin Hall, was devoid of windows. There a small group of curious students spent many a sunless day hunched over lab benches and squinting through microscopes. Only occasionally, as a timed chemical reaction was allowed to incubate, did we dart out to grab a bite at the Hatch or a cup of caffeine at the Blue Wall. Like the squirrelly rodents we were studying, we spent only brief periods outside our warrens, nipping back quickly to discover if our experiments had worked.
The data, the elusive answers to my prying questions, became my pastime ­ so much so that when I finished my bachelor's degree in 1993, my advisor asked me to continue in the lab as a doctoral student, and I embarked on the next phase of geek life.

The transition was marked by an invitation to a university-organized retreat meant to foment camaraderie among those of us in the neuroscience and behavior program. During a weekend at the Cape, we neuro-geeks, as we now proudly called ourselves, presented our research projects to each other and chatted about such topics as how rats mate and what rabbits can learn. We even had ­ how many Greeks could say this? ­ an arthropod specialist in our bunch, a guy who knew all about lobsters and helped us determine the sex of our dinners. He also informed us, with appropriate gesticulation, that lobsters, like humans, use waving motions to greet their friends.
What party-animal geek could pass up such opportunity? Bibs flying, two of us sprang to our feet to join Lobster Man. We did the Wave ­ We did the Lobster Wave. I was the short one with the uncoifed antennae.

Neuro-geek and science-writing phenom Connie Villalba successfully defended her dissertation, "Neurochemical Control of Social Behavior in Male and Female Prairie Voles (Microtus Ochrogaster)" this fall.