UBC botany instructor Rachel Wilson cross-pollinates memes and science education

A class with UBC botany instructor Rachel Wilson will not only have the usual labs and coursework, but also an ecology meme contest where only the fittest and funniest memes survive. She features the winners on BIOL 230 and BIOL 306 class Instagram page @lit_ecology.

Wilson spoke with The Ubyssey about how online participatory spaces like @lit_ecology can provide a place for students to both actively engage in class concepts and show how “the understanding of natural systems” can apply to everyday life.

Planting the seeds

Wilson never planned to pursue ecology. While studying biology at Queen’s University, she decided to go into veterinary medicine. An ecology class called “Diversity of Life”, and the professor's effusive love for the subject, changed her mind.

“The first half of the course was about all these things that I thought would be really boring [like] moss and fungus and bacteria,” Wilson said.

However, the professor’s enthusiasm won Wilson over. “[It] got me really excited about [ecology] and curious [about] how these things evolve and how, over time, some organisms remain very simple and others evolve to become more complex. It sparked so much interest that I was just like, ‘I think I’m going to start taking more courses like this.’”

From then on, Wilson was dedicated to ecology. She completed undergraduate research focused on the elevational distribution of different organisms, which looks at how plant species spread and find niches at different heights.

Wilson’s focus was on dispersal — the factors that influence how plant species can spread across space and time. This includes the plants' own reproduction strategies, such as how long long and under what conditions seeds can germinate, as well as how the environments around them help or hinder their spread via wind, water or other organisms.

“[In undergrad] I was investigating specifically how dispersal can … set and define range limits for species, so it involved a lot of collecting seeds, hiking around, and then I took all my seeds back and did dispersal tests on them,” she said.

She continued this research as a botany graduate student at UBC, “looking at how plant elevation distributions are shifting and responding to climate change.”

This involved backpacking to vegetation sites initially studied in the 1980s and resurveying them, then comparing the earlier results to the current plant growth and distribution to see how these findings have changed with rising global temperatures.

A unique approach to teaching

@lit_ecology is the seed of multiple inspirations.

For their work to be featured on the page, students submit memes anonymously in contests that Wilson holds as a type of unorthodox exam review. The funniest entries are crowned by Wilson and her TAs, and then go up in esteemed company on the @lit_ecology grid.

The result is a carousels of memes, satirizing a range of ecological concepts including but not limited to r-selected species, the competitive exclusion principle and elevational range shifts, like in Wilson’s own research.

Wilson credits the idea for the contest to Dr. Rachel Germain, assistant professor of zoology at UBC, whose trivia-style midterm and exam reviews also included a bonus question where students can caption a meme.

Not long after Wilson began incorporating this as bonus work, however, COVID-19 halted in-person classes. While online classes posed a unique set of challenges, the light-hearted nature of the meme contests allowed students to engage with the class content.

The free-form meme contests have been a part of Wilson’s courses since. After encouragement from a grad school friend who had an educational Instagram page of their own, Wilson created @lit_ecology to showcase her students’ handiwork.

For Wilson, meme-making requires a more thorough grasp of the concept than one might think.

“Relating to the content in a totally different way to the classroom environment … does help you to more deeply understand the material,” Wilson said. “In order to make a meme that is actually funny, it has to be reasonably biologically accurate. So the best ones are usually from people who have a solid understanding of that.”

Wilson said that her contests are purely optional, and believes so many people participate because it’s a choice, not a mandate. “What's less fun than a meme that you made because your teacher told you had to make one?”

“What's less fun than a meme that you made because your teacher told you had to make one?”
“What's less fun than a meme that you made because your teacher told you had to make one?” Tova Gaster / The Ubyssey

Memes for educational means

The meme’s ability to neatly package and circulate information has transcended pop culture – throw a stone on Instagram and you will hit any number of niche meme accounts.

The popularity of science meme accounts, including ecological ones, shows that memes “seem to have mass appeal,” Wilson said.

In the classroom, social media and memes can also help boost students’ participation, interest, and their overall enjoyment of topics being studied in class.

Wilson is unsure about the future role of memes in science communication, as they inevitably get stale and give way to the next trend cycle of joke formats. For now, @lit_ecology is a means to an end: like the professor in her undergrad years, her goal is bringing fun and accessibility to the classroom.

“If you're not taking ecology because you are interested, if you're just taking it because you have to, it's my job to make it as exciting and accessible and fun as possible.”