I owe a big thank you to my friend Joshua Stuart Rose for suggesting that I become friends with Mary Jane Epps via Facebook. Mary Jane (“MJ”) is currently a PhD student here at the University of Arizona. She came to know Josh when they were undergrads in biology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She is a wonderful young lady with many talents and an endless fascination for the natural world.
I got to meet her in person last week when we made a spontaneous half-day journey up the Mount Lemmon Highway in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. She was due to leave in two days for her “field season” in southwest Virginia and wanted to make a quick getaway here before she left. I was honored to join her.
MJ grew up in Virginia with a brother, sister, and parents who both teach at the University of Virginia. She decided to attend Duke in part to avoid student-teacher conflicts with mom and dad, but she also has a great love of the longleaf pine forests of the Carolinas. No matter where she goes, MJ excels in academics. She recharges her batteries by literally “fiddling around.” She is an accomplished musician who jams with friends playing traditional Appalachian music as well as a bit of bluegrass here and there.
There are many qualities I admire in Mary Jane, not the least of which is that she takes initiative in meeting other people. She has a warm smile and friendly personality that is instantly disarming. It is impossible not to feel relaxed and welcome in her presence.
She also uses all of her senses to familiarize herself with the flora and fauna wherever she finds herself. She reawakened my own sense of smell by crushing leaves to help her identify a particular plant and then sharing the scent with me. She literally looks closely at the tiniest of organisms, carrying a magnifying loop and using it liberally, like here in Molino Canyon last Wednesday during our outing together.
Mary Jane is studying the relationship between fungi and beetles (the beetles to be found in mushrooms for example), and is two years into what she expects will be at least a four year doctoral thesis project. She told me she dissected over 1,500 tiny rove beetles (family Staphylinidae) to identify them to species by differences in their genitalia. I told her I would have just handed her the degree already. That is the kind of dedication she applies to her passions. I can only imagine what her musical talents must be like.
I’m already looking forward to spending more time afield with MJ when she returns here in the fall. Meanwhile, I wish her well with her studies.