A Scientist and Conservation Photographer
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
These stunning images of animals were taken by Susan McConnell, whose photographs have appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Nature’s Best Photography, Africa Geographic, and a number of other publications. But photography is just part of her professional life. McConnell is best known as a developmental neurobiologist at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
How did McConnell find the time while tracing the development of the brain’s biocircuitry to launch a second career as a nature photographer? Her answer: Every research career has its seasons. When McConnell launched her lab in 1989 at the age of 31, she was up to her eyeballs recruiting staff, writing research grants, and pursuing many different leads in her quest to understand how neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex are produced, differentiated, and then wired together into functional circuits.
As her NIH-supported lab matured, McConnell eventually entered a calmer season that offered precious slivers of free time for other activities, including taking trips to remote areas and rekindling her college interest in photography. At first, she found snapping photos interfered with her sheer joy of seeing wildlife in its native habitat. Then, while on a cruise near the North Pole, McConnell stood transfixed as a polar bear hopped from one ice floe to the next. She instinctively reached for her camera and, for the first time, realized she could be present in the moment while gazing through the viewfinder to capture the perfect shot.
That was in 2005. Since then, McConnell been incredibly creative. After years of avoiding the technical aspects of photography, she buckled down and taught herself the basic optics and physics of working with a camera. Even more challenging, McConnell learned about the fine art of visual composition from several noted photographers, including marine biologist Paul Nicklen and Franz Lanting, one of the world’s premier wildlife photographers
McConnell says she’s “addicted” to Africa, having made over 30 trips to the continent, most recently leading a conservation photography course in July 2018 in South Africa. Her favorite photo shoot? Spending three weeks at a single watering hole in Namibia observing bull elephants with Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a Stanford scientist and an internationally known expert on elephants. Her most touching experience? Watching mountain gorillas sit one by one on a stone wall in Rwanda that separates a nature preserve from their former habitat, now a farming village.
A new season will soon begin in McConnell’s career. She just ended work on her final NIH grant and plans to close her lab to become a full-time teaching professor at Stanford. Having already won two prestigious teaching awards at the university, McConnell wants to focus on using her skills to enrich the experiences of seniors working on their final independent study, or capstone, projects.
While there are already several capstone modules at Stanford, McConnell has created a unique, interdisciplinary one involving the arts and sciences. She wants students on a science track to know it’s possible to incorporate some artistic creativity into their lives and vice versa. She’s already created a module in conservation photography. Wouldn’t it be great to have her as a professor?
McConnell Lab (Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA)
Video: Susan McConnell Wildlife Photographer (iBiology.org)
Capstone in the Arts (Stanford)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Eye Institute