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Paul Vanouse 1
Paul Vanouse

Paul Vanouse America Project

Esther Klein Gallery


Flag , Esther Klein Gallery, October 2016

Flag, Esther Klein Gallery, October 2016


A live, biological art installation

Paul Vanouse


Thanks To

Angela McQuillan, Curator.

Special Thanks

Millie Chen, Omar Estrada, Katya Gibel-Mevorach, Jennifer Gradecki, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Angela McQuillan, John Soluri, Andres Tapia- Urzua, Orkan Telhan, Allison Vanouse, Donald Vanouse, Mary Vanouse, for their stimulating questions used throughout the catalog.

Irus Braverman, Matt Caywood, Jens Hauser, Evelyn Hawthorne, Kathy High, Joan Linder, Jamie Sanbonmatsu, Jennifer Surtees, Igor Vamos, Melissa Vanouse, for their feedback and support.

Esther Klein Gallery (EKG) 3600 Market Street Philadelphia PA, 19104

October 20–November 19, 2016 Cover: The America Project , spittoon: Paul Vanouse; photo: Cover: The America Project , spittoon: Paul Vanouse; photo:

Cover: The America Project, spittoon: Paul Vanouse; photo: Natalie DiIenno Design: Angela McQuillan, Solon Morse

Crown , Click Festival, Helsingor, Denmark, May 2016.

Crown, Click Festival, Helsingor, Denmark, May 2016.

Islands of Difference in a Sea of Sameness:


Paul Vanouse


The America Project is a live, biological art installation centered around

a process called “DNA gel electrophoresis,” colloquially described as

“DNA fingerprinting,” a process which I’ve appropriated to produce recognizable images. The project premiered at the Esther Klein Gallery on October 20, 2016.

Visitors to the installation first encountered what might resemble a human-scale fountain or decanter, which was actually a spittoon in which their donated spit was collected. Entering the exhibition, viewers were offered a one ounce cup of saline solution and asked to swish for thirty seconds, then to deposit the solution into the spittoon. During the installation I extracted the DNA from what I hoped to be hundreds of spit samples—containing cheek cells and the cells’ DNA—all mixed together. The DNA was not individuated nor retained: it was processed as a whole to make iconic DNA fingerprint images of power—such as a crown, warplanes and a flag—which were visible as video projections of the electrophoresis gels throughout the exhibition.

I hope that viewers reflected on some key concepts of America—such as the

“melting pot” (in this case composed of spit samples), and the notion that power emerges from the people. I’m also seeking to invert two assumptions

about DNA imaging and essential human difference by showing:

1. A coherent image can be made from mixed up/contaminated samples.

2. While much has been made of our differences, all human DNA is very similar—reinforcing my declaration of Radical Sameness that human DNA contains only “Islands of Difference in a Sea of Sameness.”


America Project , spittoon. Photo: Natalie DiIenno

America Project, spittoon. Photo: Natalie DiIenno

Process of Explanation

I sent the proceeding concept description of The America Project to a dozen colleagues, family and friends and asked of them, in the spirit of democracy and participation, if they would pose a single question about the work that I could incorporate into this essay.


What about the paranoia of dna as something ultra-personal and therefore private, still dominating in the public eye?

—Omar Estrada, Toronto

DNA in the public imagination has for decades been synonymous with identity and identification. DNA fingerprinting, DNA profiling and DNA typing are among the technical terms for procedures that fix a person to a forensic sample or to a genetic community. These techniques evoke bold proclamations such as “DNA is a truth machine” and a “gold standard of criminal identification.” 1 Identity-fixing technologies also provoke a reasonable concern over personal privacy. National databases such as the US CODIS project, a database shared among federal and civic agencies that contains the DNA profiles of over 15 million US citizens, epitomizes the growing threat to privacy and perhaps to liberty. However, the fear of the penetrating gaze of the surveillant state pales in comparison to the more ominous potential use of DNA profiles to infer group proclivities or to institute neo-eugenic imperatives: The Gattaca scenario. 2 It is no wonder that when we give blood or tissue samples many increasingly feel a separation anxiety about their end use.


America Project, Opening, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016. Photo: Jaime Alvarez

When audiences started to spit at the Sex Pistols on stage; when we kiss or make love…When we share our chemistry as an act of closeness…The whole idea of civilization is based on the practice of sharing our dna . However, the social control of this exchange gives the “master” an upper-hand on civilization.

—Andres Tapia-Urzua, Pittsburgh, PA

Savvy personal genome companies, like 23andMe, have managed to convince over two million people to not only donate their individual DNA samples to be utilized as the company sees fit, but to actually pay the company for the service. Conversely, The America Project does not want to normalize nor acclimatize viewers to surrendering their fluids for fun, safety or profit. Hopefully, the enormous spittoon doesn’t elicit blind trust. It is a symmetrical, somewhat anthropomorphic, authoritarian-looking apparatus standing six feet tall. Ironically, the spittoon was designed to serve as a utopian and unambiguous bio-matter anonymizer. Everyone’s spit is mixed together, making separation/ individuation impossible. All collected samples merge to become promiscuously commingled. What is visualized from the commingled samples is our shared identity as mammals, our collectivity.

Image credit: 23andMe
Image credit: 23andMe


Relative Velocity Inscription Device, Schering Foundation, Berlin, 2011.


Axel Heise

Why should I trust you with my dna?

—Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Chicago, IL

The collection isn’t for research purposes and I obtain and retain no data. Your DNA is not the subject, but effectively the raw material—the medium—from which the DNA pictures will be made.


The United States is a “melting pot” of many different races, classes and cultures. We have an illusion of the “American Dream”, where everyone has the opportunity to rise to power through their own initiative. Recent events such as the Black Lives Matter campaign have proven that this is in fact not the case, and in the United States certain people are valued more than others based on their race and economic status…Race is determined by genetics, it cannot be forged and it is passed down through generations. How does this relate to your project? Visitors to the gallery will most likely be from all different races, but is there a genetic “majority” that exerts more influence on the final product?

—Angela McQuillan, Philadelphia, PA

The overall assertion of my DNA work is that race is an elaborate construction. This was also the consensus of genome scientists following the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000, who stated that there is no genetic basis for race, because there were more genetic differences within the so-called races than between them. 3 Or as Katya Gibel-Mevorach has written, “People do not belong to a race but they are raced; in this context, race operates as a social fact with concrete material consequences for the manner in which experiences shape individual lives and their meaning.” 4 Race then should be understood as a verb rather than as a noun—a social process through which one is categorized rather than as an essence.


Relative Velocity Inscription Device , Schering Foundation, Berlin, 2011. Photo: Axel Heise

Relative Velocity Inscription Device, Schering Foundation, Berlin, 2011. Photo: Axel Heise

One of my earliest projects using DNA as a medium, The Relative Velocity Inscription Device (RVID), was intended to colorfully demonstrate the operation of racing. Like The America Project, RVID utilized gel electrophoresis, a laboratory method that forces the migration of dna fragments through a porous gelatin using an electrical field. The rate of migration depends on the size of the fragments. Complex mixtures of

fragments of different sizes result in a barcode-like pattern of bands that can be used to differentiate dna samples, and is often referred to as “DNA fingerprinting.” In RVID I wasn’t producing these barcode-like patterns. By inserting a single amplified dna fragment from a skin color gene from each member of my Jamaican/American family adjacent to each other in

a gel and then applying an electrical current, a single band representing

each family member would move across the gel, each at a slightly different

rate depending upon the exact number of nucleotides in that fragment.

I contextualized this artistic experiment with tropes of a race, contest,

and scientific differentiation. For instance, a computer projection of the

gel image superimposes animated figures from a Eadweard Muybridge motion study photo sequence to highlight the position of each DNA band. 5

Curiously, Alec Jeffries, the population biologist who invented the procedure and coined the term “DNA fingerprinting”, initially assumed that the technique might provide ways to differentiate population groups. The fact that it could not serves to underscore the fact that most of our established racial groupings correspond to a cultural stereotyping process without biological origin.

In The America Project, the idea of using audience DNA as the medium is that there would be no discernible difference in the resulting image no matter who participates. So while methods of contemporary DNA imaging are designed to reveal difference between individuals at a handful of locations in our individual genomes, I do just the opposite. My methods target highly conserved (nearly unvarying) regions of the human genome so little genetic variation would be revealed even if multiple individuals’ spit wasn’t all mixed together. My method is not only blind to cultural categories of race, but has been intentionally devised to also overlook minuscule individual DNA variations.

Perhaps our own bodies are the real melting pots in which the vast history of mankind is distributed…


America Project , Gallery visitors donating DNA , Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016. Photo:

America Project, Gallery visitors donating DNA , Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016. Photo: Jaime Alvarez


How do you call up these islands of anomalies? And are they deviant elements such as the fin becoming a foot on the ancient fish?

—Donald Vanouse, Oswego, NY

Genetic differences that produce visible manifestations in organismal bodies are much cooler but also much rarer than the majority of genetic variation. Much of the variation in the human genome lies in regions that don’t seem to affect our survival and do not leave a trace on the body. Mutations can proliferate in these regions without dramatic consequence, whereas other regions in our genome that are crucial for our survival are more highly conserved and thus vary little between individuals.

As specific subset of these genetically variable regions, called Variable Number Tandem Repeats (VNTRs), are typically targeted in DNA typing. Here is an example of a VNTR sequence: GATAGATAGATAGATAGATAGATA. Note the repeating GATA unit in the sequence? Different people can have different numbers of the repeated unit in a VNTR region. These glitchy-looking differences in VNTR sequences have variously been ascribed to relics of our evolutionary past or as evidence to argue for a gene-centered, rather than an organism-centered, view of evolution, a theoretical framework referred to as “the selfish gene.” 6 Because VNTR regions are so highly variable between individuals, they are good targets for individuation using genetic technologies.


America Project, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.

I also assumed there were thousands of possible dna configurations possible in the human race. Your theme suggests that it’s much more limited than that. How many dna types do you suspect are possible in the general population?

—Mary Vanouse, Oswego, NY

The media often conflates DNA sequencing and DNA typing. In every cell in our bodies, there are roughly three billion base pairs of DNA strung together in a particular sequence to form the genome: differences between the DNA sequences found in different cells inside a single person’s body are negligible. Between individuals, DNA sequences differ by less than one percent: we humans share about 99% of our genetic sequence. Excepting identical twins, no two individuals are exactly the same, but most are virtually identical.

DNA typing generally relies on targeting regions of difference, but a forensic DNA image would typically examine only a handful of regions within the entire genome. Historically, as few as four and as many as fifteen sites of greatest difference between humans, primarily VNTPs, are targeted. So, to answer your question directly, whether we find hundreds, thousands, millions or billions of combinations depends on how many sites we examine. While no two humans will have exactly the same DNA sequence across the entire genome, the probability that two humans are identical within just a small number of sites is a bit more probable.

DNA can also be imaged to highlight other, highly stable and non- varying parts of the genome, which is what I’m doing. Imaging these highly conserved areas of the genome would primarily be useful only for differentiating ourselves from our distant evolutionary relatives. Any of these methods could tell us a different story about ourselves. My method and my story emphasizes our radical sameness at the genetic level.

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes intellectual thought of what he calls the Classical Age—roughly the mid-seventeenth to eighteenth centuries—as characterized by ordering, identity and difference, which gave rise to categorization and taxonomy. Naturalists of the Classical Age were fixated on a model of living organisms as exhibiting essential differences that could be grouped and charted. 7 I believe that this is a world-view which still lingers. I’m suggesting a model of difference as a tentative emergence from a sea of relative sameness.


Crown , live projection, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.

Crown, live projection, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.


I am wondering how you conceive of biopower … and how it is embodied, performed, employed or represented in your project. —Jennifer Gradecki, East Lansing, MI

If power comes from the people, shouldn’t the image be one of rebellion or a

counter vision?

—Millie Chen, Ridgeway, ON

I think these questions really pinpoint the highly-charged ambivalence I’m hoping to create in this work. Jennifer noted that Michel Foucault coined the term biopower as a form of governmentality, administered from above to create, manage, and control populations, in which biological processes such as birth and death all fall under this umbrella of control at every level of the social body. Whereas for Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, biopower comes from below, and “…in the common fabric of the biopolitical diagram rest latent, potential, chrysalis-like the capacities for the multitude to determine autonomously the political diagonal of the transition.” 8

The DNA molecule has been easily integrated into the most oppressive biopolitical regime. It has been described as the “master molecule”, that controls our destiny. This notion has been propagated since Francis Crick first described the “dogma of DNA” as a one-way command flow in the cell from DNA to RNA to protein. Furthermore, DNA imaging has come to epitomize authoritarian surveillant power used to discern and identify individuals in a vast population, from the most minute trace. My artistic process, making DNA images which don’t individuate nor expose, is the counter vision that I’m advancing here.

This concept of latency has been a theme in my own work, and is the basis for the dialectic I’m creating here. The latent images produced by the DNA are (1) a US flag, (2) a crown, and (3) the infinity symbol. The crown


Infinity , live projection, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.

Infinity, live projection, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.

symbolizes pure, top-down rigid power, the infinity sign symbolized endless potential, hope and possibility, while the flag’s meaning would remain elusive, particularly in the shadow of the forthcoming election. The America Project was installed from October 20 to November 19, 2016, a period in which the ultimate meaning of the subject/citizen and the meaning of America were being both contested and subverted.

The title “The America Project” itself was chosen to temporalize and desolidify the concept of America. The term project implies a goal- oriented mission, or experiment, which in this case recollects the early utopian plan for America as a place in which the hardships of the land would result in equality. In recent US elections, this utopian residue has catalyzed both hopes for our capacity for social progress (Obama), but also neo-imperialist doctrines of exceptionalism (Bush) and extreme nationalism and xenophobia (Trump).


Degenerated Crown , live projection, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.

Degenerated Crown, live projection, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.

How might Cesare Lombroso and racialized discussions of degeneration including class and criminality echo in contemporary concerns about democracy—“who is fit to vote?” Is there something genetic about stupidity and would the evidence be absent among the visitors to highbrow institutional spaces?

—Katya Gibel-Mevorach, Grinnell, IA

It’s tempting to invoke and re-spin the concept of degeneration in thinking about this election. In particular, the film Idiocracy, written by Mike Judge and Etan Cohen, seems to have imagined a fitting dystopia built of intellectual degeneration, capitalism, hyper-mediation and automation. In the film, zombie-like future humans struggle to comprehend the barren fields and pending famine caused by a corporate crop management system that no longer uses water to hydrate crops. Water has been associated with toilets by the producers of a Gatorade- like product called Brawndo, which is used for drinking as well as for agriculture. Future humans seem to have lost the ability to solve the crisis through reason as they are only capable of repeating the advertising slogan “Brawndo. It’s got what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes.” 9

Of course, neither determining genes nor anthropomorphic signifiers for intelligence (whatever intelligence means) have ever been identified. And it’s not for lack of effort over the last 150 years. From the physiognomists, eugenicists and social Darwinists to contemporary proponents of determinist trends in genomics, genetics and criminology that have yet to be cohesively labeled, the public appetite for theories of a biological basis for intelligence waxes and wanes but is ever present. Clearly, people can behave stupidly, but I don’t attribute this to heredity.


Ocular Revision , Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 2011. Photo: Tom Loonan

Ocular Revision, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 2011. Photo: Tom Loonan


This transient nature of the dna molecules are often not addressed. We focus on dna , because it is part of us (the living), but they also belong to the non-human world most of the time. So, when we represent ourselves, our ideologies, our symbols of power, are there any unheard voices in the background?

—Orkan Telhan, Philadelphia, PA

I agree that while the site and scale of observation in the life sciences over the centuries has shifted from the organism to DNA molecules, all the dogmas and grand narratives have been written from a human perspective. It is only recently that we have begun to consider the philosophical and ethical implications of expanding the circle of moral concern and extending subjectivities beyond the human species, a project characterized as

Posthumanism. For instance, the recent microbiome craze, based around the fact our bodies contain far more bacterial than human cells, seems to be creating more nuanced understandings of symbiotic and parasitic organisms and complicating our human essence and subjectivity. More ominously, the discovery of proteins like the prions responsible for mad cow disease offers

a whole new window into the dynamic behavior of non-living molecules.

These prions directly influence the form of other proteins in the host, causing an exponential cascade of misfolded proteins leading to brain rot.

With an earlier project Ocular Revision (2010), I was suggesting other scales of observation. I was also trying to underscore that DNA was

a material substance—deoxyribose nucleic acid—not limited to any

particular life form, nor some sort of cybernetic command code. In Ocular Revision, I made images of the Earth’s hemispheres from a mixture of DNA obtained from Escherichia coli bacteria and lambda phage virus. This DNA was processed to generate a range of fragment sizes that were combined and inserted into a circular electrophoresis apparatus to create the images. By asserting DNA as a very physical medium with distinct material properties, I’ve tried to dissociate the notion of DNA as an informatic code belonging to an organism and to reconnect it to the vast

chemical and material realm that is enmeshed in the fabric of life.























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America Project: DNA sizing chart


From my layperson’s point of view, why would a pure sample produce a coherent (cultural) image that resonates outside of a biotechnical context?

—John Soluri, Pittsburgh, PA

As I try to picture your installation in the theater of my head, I notice that the part of me that knows the national anthem would be tempted to apply that naive reading, national-character-through-individual-difference, with a kind of magical thinking… This is partly because it seems like the collection of samples is an unnecessary step or a red herring: couldn’t you produce the image without collecting so many samples?

—Allison Vanouse, Boston, MA

In addition to purified anonymous human genomic DNA purchased online, I collected DNA samples at the gallery opening to use as the raw material for making the image. I suppose an analogy could be made to how many large, iron-rich stones might be required to make a red oxide pigment in a painter’s palette. Of course, this association with base matter dethrones DNA from its lofty perch as the “master molecule.” But it simultaneously dethrones the idea that our DNA is special or unique. I’m asserting a perspective of what I call radical sameness. Our DNA is 99% the same and it can be produced in mass quantities as a plastic medium of representation, to be honed and tooled to make a picture, or an icon, or some sort of evidence, or to tell a story.

I think a detailed description of the three different approaches used to make the image is fitting here. Remember, in gel electrophoresis, small fragments of DNA move faster than large fragments, and this difference in speed of movement creates the patterns in the gel. In the flag image, the long stripes are made by subjecting large quantities of DNA to a digestive enzyme that cuts the DNA at specific base pair sequences. Each individual piece of DNA is cleaved into innumerable fragments


Flag , live projection, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.

Flag, live projection, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016.

containing from just a few to thousands of base-pairs each. When run on the gel, this mixture of fragments appears as a long smear.

The stars in the flag were produced using the PCR amplification process, a method by which one can make billions of copies of small regions of DNA. Each well-defined star-like band contains DNA of a particular number of base-pairs, beginning with about 10,000 and ending at about 1,800.

The short stripes that appear just to the right of the star field were also manufactured using the PCR amplification process. However, the aim was to produce smears rather than well-defined bands, something typically avoided in standard lab work. Solon Morse, my scientific collaborator, devised the method after procuring the book PCR Troubleshooting and Optimization, turning to the troubleshooting section and using it as a “how- to.” 10 For instance, there was a section in the book addressing the following problem: “I am not achieving sharp bands, but rather long smears…” Among other things, the authors suggested increasing the amount of time the DNA molecule is copied and/or decreasing the amount of template DNA used in the reaction. Solon’s approach was to do the opposite.

This connected to my approach of doing molecular biology in reverse; thinking about the scientific methods used to diagnose something as fabrication protocols to produce something. I’ve always believed that artists working in emerging forms need to go beyond standard laboratory techniques and creatively hack in this area, and that these techniques should be deeply intertwined in the intent of the work. Hans-Jorg Rheinberger refers to this type of artistic practice as one of suruse, a blend of the French preposition “sur” (on, above or on top of) with “use”, but he also mentions the association with sur-real to connote an intent radically beyond typical use.


America Project , Opening, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016. Photo: Jaime Alvarez

America Project, Opening, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, 2016. Photo: Jaime Alvarez


1 See Michael Lynch, Simon A. Cole, Ruth McNally and Kathleen Jordan, Truth Machine (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008).

2 See Gattaca: A 1997 American science fiction film written and directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. It portrays a eugenic future in which social roles and employment are dictated by perceived genetic fitness.

3 See Natalie Angier, “Do Races Differ? Not Really, DNA Shows”, New York Times (August 22, 2000).

4 Katya Gibel Mevorach, “Interpreting the Census: The Elasticity of Whiteness and the Depoliticization of Race”, Racial Liberalism and the Politics of Urban America, Ed:

Curtis Stokes, Theresa A. Melendez (Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2007) p. 155.

5 While Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies were conducted prior to the Eugenics movement, the appropriation of his figures in the work was intended to invoke the idea of applying the visual technologies of the time to measurement of man.

6 See The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, (Oxford University Press, 1976). Dawkins argues for a gene-centric, rather than organism-centric model of evolution in which fitness might best be understood in relation to a specific gene’s proliferation. His argument is not without its detractors, in particular surrounding questions of moral behavior

7 See Michel Foucault, Order of Things, (Random House, New York, 1971).

8 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2009) p. 365.

9 See Idiocracy: a 2006 American science fiction comedy film directed by Mike Judge depicting the future US in which selective breeding has happened in reverse. Set in 2050, humans live an Orwellian, social Darwinist nightmare of imbecile citizens and corporate-powered totalitarianism.

10 See PCR Troubleshooting and Optimization, Susanne Kennedy and Nick Oswald (Caister Academic Press, Norfolk, 2011).


Paul Vanouse is an artist, Professor of Art and the founding Director of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art at the University at Buffalo. Interdisciplinarity and impassioned amateurism guide his art practice. His bio-media and interactive cinema projects have been exhibited in over 25 countries. Recent solo exhibitions include: Beall Center at UC Irvine (2013), Muffathalle in Munich (2012), Schering Foundation in Berlin (2011), and Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana (2011). Vanouse’s artworks have been funded by Renew Media/Rockefeller Foundation, Creative Capital Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Sun Microsystems and the National Science Foundation. He has received awards at festivals including Prix ARS Electronica in Linz, Austria (2007, 2010, 2013), and Vida, Art and Artificial Life competition in Madrid, Spain (2002, 2011). Vanouse’s recent projects, “Latent Figure Protocol”, “Ocular Revision” and “Suspect Inversion Center” use molecular biology techniques to challenge “genome-hype” and to engage issues surrounding DNA fingerprinting, particularly the idea the most authoritative image of our time, the DNA fingerprint, is somehow natural. He has a BFA from the University at Buffalo and an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University.

Solon Morse is the laboratory manager at the Coalesce Center for Biological Art at the University at Buffalo. His interests include evolutionary biology, ecology, and conservation. His research includes the conservation genetics of amphibians in New York, the evolution and ecology of the microbial associates of blood-feeding ectoparasites of bats, and the landscape ecology, population dynamics and conservation of neotropical migratory birds. He has published articles in a range of peer-reviewed journals, including Conservation Biology, Studies in Avian Biology, PLoS ONE, and Applied and Environmental Microbiology, and has contributed several book chapters, most recently to Parasite Diversity and Diversification (2015). Solon has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University at Buffalo and a Master’s in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior from the University of Illinois.